My supervisor entered my room and stood by the classroom door. I was teaching a class; her interruption of my lesson took precedence over anything else. I asked my 8th graders to read their books or complete some exercise while I met her at the door to discuss whatever was so important that couldn’t wait.
A parent had complained about a book, my supervisor informed me, and I was to stop using it. Startled and shocked, and wanting to return to my students, I asked her if we could talk about this later.
I’m going to shorten this story from many years ago. Students could choose to read No Easy Answers: Short Stories about Teenagers Making tough Choices, an anthology complied by Don Gallo, as part of a unit on short stories. I had about 12 copies available in addition to several other anthologies, all geared for young adult readers. Students could select one story or more from many different collections, write responses in their reading journals, and discuss the literature in small groups. As the unit began, this book became popular. It dealt with subjects teens wanted to read about.
The parent, whose daughter had brought the book home, found the material inappropriate. I had written my master’s thesis on book censorship in public schools and celebrated Banned Books Week every year, teaching about censorship and the First Amendment. The National Council of Teachers of English and the American Library Association have clear procedures for schools to follow when a book is challenged.
The district’s Board of Education policy required that a committee be formed to examine a book being challenged. By asking me to abruptly remove the book from from students, the Board was violating its own policy. I contacted the NCTE, who notified the board that it had acted without consulting its own policy and requested the creation of such a committee, composed of community members, staff, and board members. (I wasn’t allowed to be on the committee.) My students and other parents wrote letters supporting the book and the committee voted to retain the book. (and of course, subsequent readership of it escalated!)
Where the Wild Things Are was one of our son Jacob’s first favorite books. We pretended we were wild things, creating mischief, roaring terrible roars, gnashing terrible teeth and dancing up wild rumpuses. I used Sendak’s books when I taught middle schoolers about censorship. My teaching unit, “Celebrate Democracy! Teach about Censorship” was published in NCTE’s The English Journal (May, 2005) and included a mock trial of picture books that had been banned. Many Sendak titles are annual top hits on the ALA list.
Every literature anthology I’ve ever encountered during teaching included a selection by Ray Bradbury. For many students, science fiction lures them into reading. My students read Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury’s famous 1953 novel about book burning in a dystopian society. Bradbury, too, is among the authors subject to censorship attacks.
Thoughts about censorship and the bravery of those that fight the fear of ideas came to me as I strolled through the Morgan Library this week, visiting the exhibit “Churchill: The Power of Words.”
Solider, statesman, Prime Minister, War leader, Orator and Writer. Churchill’s life and words are well documented in countless biographies, movies, and exhibits. His writing- ranging from letters to his parents to his speeches and books – are collected in vast archives, more than 3,000 boxes holding about one million pieces of his work. About 70 of these documents and ephemera are included in the Morgan exhibit. Quotations from famous speeches line the walls and film clips highlighting important events are played in a small viewing pod.
Hearing his voice, seeing his handwritten speeches, reading telegrams from world leaders, instills an appreciation for a leader who used his words to stand against tyranny.
“A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic,” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in his “Defence of Freedom and Peace” speech, a radio broadcast October, 16, 1938 to the American public, calling for support in the early days of World War II.
The exhibit runs through September 23. Worth a visit.