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Why I Needed My Students to Read Banned Books

Why I Needed My Students to Read Banned Books

It’s Banned Books Week, which means some wonderful books get recognized because they drive close-minded morons insane. I’m not suggesting that disliking a popular book makes you a moron, I mean, I’m the guy that once threw The Heart of Darkness across my room after enduring 40 pages of patriarchal, racist crap. However, trying to ban a book does make you a moron, because banning a book is nothing more than banning an idea. Which is why the theme for this year, Young Adult books, takes on a specific kind of importance, because trying to shield a young person from a book because of language or uncomfortable content is like trying to shield them from growing up. Also, it just so happens that the number one book on that list happens to be one I know intimately; a great, challenging book that addresses the kind of topics kids need to (and will) face, all while being incredibly entertaining and funny: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

For five years I taught 9th grade English in a diverse, blue-collar community. Too much of my class time required doing the actual reading, because if left to their own devices many students wouldn’t have done it. Picking the right books, with broad appeal and engaging prose, was the number one thing that mattered. I might have loved The Red Badge of Courage, but my students certainly didn’t. So when I set out to find something that would work, I had never even heard of Sherman Alexie’s semi-biographical novel, based on his childhood growing up on an Indian reservation yet attending an all-white school, until another teacher recommended it.

He warned me the language was pretty rough at times, and that alcoholism, racism, and violence were themes in the book, but I had no idea exactly how controversial this novel was, when, after reading it and loving it, I decided to add it to my curriculum. I mean, I knew it posed some issues, and in six years as a high school teacher I had never once swore in front of my class (only because I feared getting in trouble, not because I thought I’d damage some kid with foul language). But here I was, about to read a book where the most popular white kid at school says to the poor, new, minority student, “Did you know that Indians are living proof that niggers love buffalo?”

Shocked? So was the main character. Now, you might think you don’t want your kid to read something like that. I had enough worry myself, enough that I made every student sign a contract that they’d be mature and understand the difference between a character’s words and what is appropriate for them to use in real life. This was the single most “offensive” line in the book, and it was a doozy; obviously I was nervous about what would happen the first time we came across it in class.

Picture a room of 20-25 students, some poor, some lower middle-class, some white, some black, some Hispanic; basically as wide a range as you can imagine. How would you expect them to react to that moment? Maybe some would laugh, maybe some would cringe, maybe some wouldn’t care, and, based on the number of banned books lists this novel has been on since its release, some would most certainly be offended.

Never once was a student offended by that moment; never once did anyone laugh. Not even my worst, most immature students, even the ones that were basically assholes. Every single time in every single class my students reacted the way you probably did, with shock that someone could say something like that to another person. Where you might have envisioned a small riot, it was instead a great moment of empathy for all of them, and right then, that first time with that first class, I knew I had made the right decision. The whole point of reading is to broaden our lives with the experiences and insights of others, and here was a book that spoke to so many of them in different ways, all while making them laugh and think, and they were handling it like mature young adults, not immature kids.

My students, some who wouldn’t read on their own if they needed the instructions for a fire extinguisher while their house burned down, would yell at me when we stopped reading for the day, or they came to class only to learn today wasn’t a reading day. Some read ahead on their own, which might not sound like much, but was on par with an alien showing up to my class and giving me a rock from Pluto.

That’s why I laugh when I see this book on these banned lists. People want to shield kids from bad words, but all they are doing is shielding them from an experience. Yeah, offensive words offend, but literature allows them to confront why they do, and what impact they can have. It’s a safer way to learn something important, which is why an attempt to “protect” them only hurts them. The world isn’t going to shield them from the tough truths — literature that recognizes that reality and lets them face it will do more good than any bad language could possibly do harm.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has been one of the 10 most banned books since 2001, and it’s listed as the number one banned young adult book, all because some adults don’t like the language or the themes that many of my students dealt with every day when they went home. For the rest it taught them about a world they’re going to come to know.

If you have a young person in your life, whether they are one that loves to read or one that hates it, you’d be doing them a great service by giving them a book that challenges the way they see the world, one that does it by treating them with the respect they deserve, as thinking, feeling people in it. My students, every single one of them I ever read this book with, handled it with maturity and took its lessons seriously.

Obviously, too many adults lack that same maturity, which is why we need a Banned Books Week in the first place. All I can say to those people is this: grow the fuck up.

What’s your favorite “banned book?” Write about them in the comments below.

Image: Library books by faungg’s photos

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