Confessions of a Recovering (Closet) Book Banner

I thought I was a strong proponent of free expression, but when forced to look deeper, I realized that I was a strong proponent of free expression of ideas that I understood. And that’s not the same thing, not by a long shot.

Let me be perfectly clear. I am not in favor of banning books or censoring authors. As a teacher and a writer, I value freedom of speech and freedom of expression, recognizing that my freedoms hinge on protecting the rights of others, even those with whom I might not agree or whose topics might make me uncomfortable.

I believe the person who stands by and passively watches as books are burned (or banned) is no better than the one tossing volumes into the flames. If you don’t stand up against injustice, then by default, you’re acquiescing to it.

I acknowledge and celebrate Banned Books Week in my class. Students discuss how and why classic texts like Lord of the Flies and Their Eyes Were Watching God are challenged. We shake our heads over well-meaning people who want to “protect” young people from ideas and situations they perceive as threatening.

I give the appearance of being open minded and respecting freedom of expression, but my actions belie that façade.

I am a book banner. Worse, I am a “closet” book banner. Ironically, I didn’t even recognize what I was doing until recently.

This uncomfortable truth was brought home in a 2011 article by Sherman Alexie (“Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood”) posted on the NCTE Facebook page this past week in honor of Banned Books Week. In it, Alexie shares his personal take on the importance of YA literature that grapples with the hard topics. He says that for many teens reading about incest, rape, abuse, neglect or drug addiction is nothing new; they’ve experienced the horrors first-hand. Banning books with mature subject matter won’t protect young people who have lived with monsters. It’s too late to protect them. But reading stories about others who have faced nightmares and triumphed can help. These kinds of stories equip young people with powerful words and knowledge, allowing them to face and overcome their own obstacles and reassuring them they’re not alone.

I have a large classroom library containing a myriad of books that deal with mature themes including Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, which deals with rape and its aftermath for a high school freshman, and Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun, a brutal and explicit depiction of a young girl’s voyage from her tribal home in Africa to the plantations of the Deep South. I’m comfortable buying and recommending these books to students, despite their uncomfortable subject matter. I feel confident defending (if necessary) these books because I understand them. Girls (and guys) need be aware of date rape and the importance of speaking up. Students in the South should be aware of the darkness of past behaviors without a sugarcoating to make it palatable or acceptable.

Recognition and ownership of our shortcomings are important first steps in bringing about real change in our world.

But I also have books, like Chris Beam’s I am J and Aaron Hartzler’s Rapture Practice: A True Story About Growing Up Gay in an Evangelical Family in my classroom library. I am J relates the story of a young man who believes he’s mistakenly been born in a girl’s body. Rapture Practice follows the life of a young man who strives to find himself without losing his family. These books, sent to me as preview copies by Hachett Book Group, are on the bottom shelf, quietly nestled away. I’ve never recommended them to a student or included them in a display of new books for students to read.

Why? Because if I’m honest, those books deal with topics that I’m not comfortable talking about and am not sure how I’d defend if challenged by a parent or administrator. I don’t believe in excluding books from my classroom library, but I’m also not sure how I feel about openly including some books.

There’s a big difference in refraining from banning books and actively opposing the practice. But there’s little difference in hiding books on your bottom shelf where they won’t be seen and actively keep certain books out of your classroom.

Before reading Sherman Alexie’s article, I didn’t give much thought to being culpable of indirect book banning. Now I realize I’ve been symbolically banning and censoring books, hiding them away on lower shelves.

I thought I was a strong proponent of free expression, but when forced to look deeper, I realized that I was a strong proponent of free expression of ideas that I understood. And that’s not the same thing, not by a long shot.

So here’s my confession. I am a recovering closet book banner. Is it easy to acknowledge my own complicity in book banning? Are you kidding? I’m nauseous as I write, thinking about how vulnerable I’ve made myself with this blog post. Do I have all the answers about how and where to make changes that are authentic and meaningful? No. But I believe I’ve made a start in the right direction.

What about you? Is it possible that you’ve been banning certain types of books in your classroom without recognizing that’s what you were doing? Does your practice reflect true diversity? These are hard questions with no easy answers. But they’re the kinds of questions worth asking.

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  • BriannaCrowley

    Just wow!


    As you acknowledge in your final paragraphs, this post is extremely vunerable, and I think because of that, I am so impacted by it!

    That you were willing to see yourself objectively and acknowledge your own fears or areas of growth is powerful! I too teach in a fairly conservative school district, and have occassionally wondered about the impact of my choices for resources or fiction. You have pushed me to think more deeply next time I have recommendations for my students. 

    • DeidraGammill

      I appreciate that you understood

      I’m glad the post gave you food for thought. It wasn’t easy to write (and is much better than it began thanks to Julie H!). I’m not sure exactly how the planets aligned last week, but Sherman Alexie’s article brought about a paradigm shift; it wasn’t just the commentary on how really tough fiction can benefit kids who’ve experienced the monsters under the bed. It was the thought that this kind of gritty, hard-hitting fiction could inspire hope and diminish feelings of isolation and hopelessness that hit me squarely between the eyes. I can think of several of my students who would probably benefit from those books I have on the bottom shelf. I think it boils down to whether I really want my students to think for themselves independently or whether I want them to think like me. Thanks for commenting. I really worried about offending or being misunderstood. 😉

  • ValBrownEdu

    Brave Post!


    Thank you so much for being vulnerable in this blog. I have felt the same way when considering what to discuss or not discuss in class. It can be extremely difficult to tackle some of our most difficult issues because we are not sure how parents or administrators are going to act. If I am honest, as a parent, there are probably some things I would just rather talk about at home. Thank you for giving me something to think about…  

    • DeidraGammill

      Thank you, Val

      Thanks for reading and commenting Val. I’m glad the blog gave you something to think about; I’m still ruminating on all of it myself. The funny thing is where this realization has led me in examining other decisions I make, usually unconsciously, about the best way to handle the uncomfortable or awkward in my classroom. Today we watched a documentary called Bullied. Afterwards, during a really great class discussion about treating others with respsect and valuing diversity rather than fearing it, one of my students decided to “come out” to the class. I honestly didn’t know how to respond – to her or to my class. I told her that she was very brave to share that with us, and a few students said supportive things, but you could have heard a pin drop for many minutes after she shared. One thing that encouraged me though – she felt safe enough in my classroom to share.

      • ValBrownEdu

        That’s HUGE!

        Deidra – 

        I think you hit on a very important point. Your students feel safe enough to be themselves and that’s all any of us want – a place where we can be who we are without fear of judgment or isolation from our peers. You are making me feel brave enough to have these conversations with my children when the time comes. (They are 6 & 4, so talking about anything except Sesame Street kinda freaks me out.) Keep up the good work! 🙂 

  • ReneeMoore

    Hiding Behind Our Syllabus

    I agree with Brianna and Valeria; this was a very brave post, Deidre. 

    A couple of weeks ago, I was in a meeting of Mississippi community college English teachers during which we discussed another form of book banning—assigned readings. The topic was sophomore level World Literature courses that many of us teach, but in which many only assigned works from the traditional Western European canon. Even though our anthologies now include a range of works from other parts of the world, ancient and modern, many instructors still feel most comfortable with the works they were taught, and resist venturing into other cultures. There were a host of excuses including, “I don’t want to teach all that weird stuff!” Some were intimidated by the epic from Africa or the poetry from Japan (which I found ironic considering we demand our students tackle texts they find intimidating as a matter of course).

    Some of it was just plain old racism—those works from the non-white cultures just aren’t as significant (good, influential, worthy of study…..) as those by the great European writers.

    The same problem exists in courses on American Literature in which many teachers never seem to make it to the end of the anthology where most of the non-traditional authors are tacked. 

    It was an eye-opening discussion for many in the room that their insistence on only requiring the works with which they were already familiar limited both them and their students from one of the greatest joys of reading literature, and one of the fundamental purposes of a liberal arts education.

    • DeidraGammill

      Renee, I am actually

      Renee, I am actually surprised to learn that even on the college level so much literature-xenophobia still exists. I woulsd have thought that, even in Mississippi, literature classes would reflect more diversity. That’s pretty discouraging. I’ll admit that when our department decided to add Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr to our freshman course, I was dismayed. Not because of racism but because it wasn’t a subject that I was well-versed on. I’m not sure about your public school experience, but in the 1970s and early 80s, we never got anywhere close to learning about the Civil Rights Movement. I’m grateful I was pushed out of my comfort zone because Why We Can’t Wait is one of the most inspiring, powerful texts I’ve read to date. I think I may have learned more than my students on some days. I guess that’s a big part of being a lifelong learner, willingness to take risks, step out of our comfort zones, and try new things. We can be as bad as little kids, stubbornly refusing to try a new dish and we have no idea just how much we’re missing out on.

  • JessicaKeigan

    Thought Provoking!

    Thank you, Diedra! This post not only made me think about my own practice, it inspired a great water cooler conversation this afternoon with one of my peers! It’s so important for us to be thoughtful about the choices we make and how those choices might impact those we teach. 

    • DeidraGammill

      Thanks for sharing, Jessica.

      Thanks for sharing, Jessica. It’s encouraging to know that others are having these kinds of conversations with peers (and with themselves), and we can only get better at teaching and practicing diversity when we take a hard look at why we do what we do.

  • jozettemartinez

    “I thought I was a strong

    “I thought I was a strong proponent of free expression, but when forced to look deeper, I realized that I was a strong proponent of free expression of ideas that I understood. And that’s not the same thing, not by a long shot.”

    This is the best sentence of your piece.  I feel we all can a learn a great deal from others when we are working outside of our comfort zone. Some people cross our paths so that we can grow, and in growing, we learn, and in learning, we self evaluate. Free expression, even of the things we don’t yet understand, or things that may scare us, is still important to exercise. Great piece.