It is easy to demonize people who hold opinions opposite ours; it is hard to look at things from those people’s perspectives and truly understand their thinking. We could simply say that people challenge books because they hate them or fear them, but it really isn’t that simple. Especially in the case of young adult and juvenile literature, where, for the most part, parents are making decisions regarding the books their children are reading. Parents do not challenge books out of hatred. The same drive that leads parents to challenge books leads us to speak out against book banning. In both cases we want what is best for the child. Though we can discuss and debate what that is, it is not productive to assume another’s opinion is derived from ignorance or hatred without first working to understand their opinion, what they are trying to accomplish, and why they think this is the best route to accomplish that goal.
That being said, hate and ignorance can still play apart in the challenging of books. If I were a parent, I would hate the idea of my child being molested. Because of this, I would want to protect them from the experience and the feelings associated with it and I might seek to shield them from books that would expose them to these ideas and feelings. The key, however, is that my motivations would be protective in nature. Hating a book is not enough to go through the hassle of having it removed from the classroom, one must also care about what the book is doing or could do to their child or other children.
Another complication of this issue is the fact that it is used in a classroom setting. As Lisa Baldwin pointed out, the academic rigor of a book and its intended use in the classroom must also be considered. In her opinion, the classics are better suited for in-class teaching because they “lift up our young people and … [have] opportunities to read between the lines and teach important life and moral lessons.” She also argues that pop culture” novels are often “spoon-feed” to students, however, I think these are two separate issues. For example, I was taught the classics throughout primary and secondary school, and I have had classes where they were taught well, and classes where they were spoon-fed to to me. I think that, while academic rigor is a key factor in book selection, it is limiting to say that new books are of no literary merit and lack a place in the classroom setting. Literary merit is not defined by the age of the book, and any book can be taught poorly or well depending on the teacher and the learning goals they pull from it.
I think that the issue of academic rigor can often be used as a means to validate a book challenge that is really about something else. Books are rarely challenged for their literary merit alone, however it is often thrown into the discussion when the classroom use of books are challenged for other reasons. For many books, being exactly on grade level, is of less importance than the way it is taught. This is a point Dr. James made during her interview saying, “I don’t believe that the book [Beloved] should be censored, but I do believe that if folks are not well prepared . . . if it’s just a book that they give the kids, then we do a fact quiz about it, I don’t think that’s a good way to handle it.” The problem does not necessarily lie in the book being used, but the way it is used. Many modern texts address issues that are difficult, and therefore difficult to teach. It is easy to point out figurative language in a text and say what it does. The hard part is figuring out what the book shows and what the book’s insight is and finding how that is developed and shown to readers. This is an exercise that can be done with any literary work, the difference is the insight that that particular book teaches.
The insight and they way that it is developed that is often the difficult part for some parents. The Bluest Eye teaches us that there is no such thing as a “throw-away person” (Dr. James). Morrison accomplishes this by writing about characters in terrible situations and giving them dynamic, robust and individualizing traits. This includes the the rape scene, where Morrison discusses the psyches of both Pecola and Cholly. This is why the classics are often preferred over modern novels, they often don’t teach the type of lesson that requires seeing this side humanity. They are less graphic in nature because they are not trying to convey an idea that is best conveyed in a graphic manor. This is why it is prudent to consider the book as a whole instead of just looking at single passages. Yes, books such as The Bluest Eye is graphic and shocking, but that graphic nature and shock value are necessary tools to convey the insights of the author and the meaning of the book.
Lisa Baldwin also stated that novels such as The Bluest Eye “normalized” abnormal behavior. I think that is missing the point. Acknowledging that something happens does not normalize the topic. Morrison does, however, humanize characters such as Cholly so that readers understand, or at least see what he is thinking and how he is thinking. This is important to establishing her overall idea of humanizing those we generally consider throw-away people. I think that this is the difficulty for many people as well. If I were a parent I wouldn’t want my daughter to be exposed to molestation and I definitely would be leery of something trying to make her see that in any other light other than seeing it as a deplorable behavior. Enemies are easier to face when they are evil and nothing else, by humanizing Cholly and his actions Morrison complicates the discussion.
Conjecture on the Outcome of the Buncombe County Challenge
Because so few primary documents could be found regarding the complaint, the MTAC committee, or the final decision, the following is a theory on the case and why it played out the way it did.
In 2015, The Kite Runner was challenged in Buncombe County. There was a great deal of negative press for the school system as a result of this challenge, and though it was decided that the book should be retained, the school board was criticized for the way this challenge was handled and changed their policies regarding books challenged for their use in the classroom. It is possible that, with this past challenge in the back of their minds, the MTAC committee worked to resolve this situation as quickly and as peaceably as possible. The final decision to retain the book on the AP English IV reading list, but to remove it from the Honors English III classroom may have been the best way to appease both sides of the issue. Though the book had already been read by the complaining parent’s child, the parent would be satisfied that the book would no longer be read by that class. On the other hand, against removing the book from the classroom were appeased by the fact that the book was retained in another class, meaning, if students desired, they could still read the book in a class setting. Despite leaving the book on the approved list from AP English IV, it is likely, at least for a few years, that teachers will shy away from picking it to read in their classrooms to avoid further disruptions to their students education.
This page was written by Rosanna Garris