The Power of Words: Sendak, Bradbury & Churchill

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!)

Memories of this unpleasant incident in my teaching career returned when I heard of the deaths of two literary giants: Maurice Sendak  and Ray Bradbury. 

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.”

(1941, estate of Yousuf Karsh from Morgan site)

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.

Photo-Classickicks)

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About cyclingrandma

I was a journalist (Danbury News-Times, Ct), before becoming a teacher, and continue to write for professional journals. I have written several study guides for Penguin Books and write for Education Update, a newspaper based in New York City. (www.educationupdate.com). I’ve interviewed many authors, college presidents, and scientists. I wrote “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys” for Smithsonian Magazine's website, www.smithsonian.com. (April, 2009). Two essays have been published in book anthologies; one for Wisdom of Our Mothers, (Familia Books) and the other in “College Search and Parent Rescue: Essay for Parents by Parents of College-Going Students.” (St. Martin’s Press). I was a middle school Language Arts teacher for more than 10 years and have just completed a five year grant position under No Child Left Behind in Newark, NJ public schools. I have three children, two daughters-in law, and six grandchildren. I'm an avid cyclist, knitter, cook, and reader. I love theater, museums, and yoga.
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13 Responses to The Power of Words: Sendak, Bradbury & Churchill

  1. Sounds like a very informative exhibit. i was always intrigued by Churchill. I remember reading about him. His words were so moving. Will have to go.

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  2. Jacob Winkler says:

    Nice post.

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  3. This is really a powerful, well written piece, and one that we must read over and over again, lest we forget!

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  4. Censorship really irks me! Look at what’s happening in Michigan. And I love Churchill, will have to tell my NYC sister about it. The great man also said “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”

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  5. Patti Winker says:

    Thank you, Lisa, for another insightful post and for sharing your personal story of censorship in action, or almost in action. That is exactly why no ONE person should be in charge of what our kids read, or don’t read… even a parent.

    I remember reading Fahrenheit 451 and being amazed, astounded, and appalled at the idea of burning books. Not only for the censorship but for the sheer destruction of a book. Hell, I wouldn’t even write in a book, even if I owned it, or dog-ear the pages! My daughter was the same. We worshiped books… the physical aspect of them as well as the written word.

    I grew up in a small town with one high school, meaning we had no option of which school to go to. Looking back, I’m surprised how many books were on our reading list during junior high and high school that probably didn’t make the reading list in other, larger schools. Maybe because we were so small we just weren’t on the censorship grid??? Maybe because our parents just took for granted that the school teachers knew what books to choose for us??? I don’t know.

    And, Sendak. I’m a big fan and was so happy to see his interview with Steven Colbert (big fan), then his endorsement of Colbert’s new book, only then saddened to see Mr. Sendak died the same day Colbert’s book was released. I just loved that interview because Mr. Sendak just seemed so genuine and honest about his own works as well as others.

    Again, thanks for sharing your story as well as your thoughts on Churchill. So interesting. I always love stopping here to scroll around. I never know what I’ll find! 😉

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  6. Lisa…thank you so much for sharing your story of censorship and the book that was almost banned. 🙂 This is a great post…a topic we need to keep fresh in our minds lest we knowingly allow anyone or any group to legislate what we can or cannot read…because the next step after that is to tell us what we can or cannot think. 🙂

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  7. Jo Bryant says:

    I really loved this post. It reminded me of a time when my children were at primary school and parents were trying to have books with witches taken out of the classroom…I was incensed at what they were doing. Luckily it did not happen but it made me realise how vigilent we need to be in things like this

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    • Thanks for commenting. It’s always when you least expect a challenge that it occurs. And I thought education was more liberal in Oz!

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      • Jo Bryant says:

        This was in New Zealand…rural New Zealand about 15 years ago. Things have changed but you will always get the ones who believe they have to protect young minds. Pish tosh I say to that !!!!!

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