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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