Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Musings on Banned Books Week

This week is Banned Books Week, as I was reminded by this great post by M. Molly Backes, and Banned Books Week reminded me of something I wanted to write about way back in June, but never got around to it.

Last spring, M's fifth-grade class was studying the Revolutionary War, for which his reading group read My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier. When he finished the book, he left it on the kitchen table, as he is wont to do--whenever he is done with anything, he just sort of drops it in situ, like a snake shedding its skin. After it had been sitting there a few days, I picked it up and just happened to flip though it and noticed that there were magic marker lines throughout the book, blacking out words or in some cases whole sentences.

I asked M what that was about, and he said Mr. C. had crossed out all the "swears." I was immediately appalled, but kept my cool and decided to use this as an inroad to discussion about censorship. Now, I should probably say I've never read My Brother Sam is Dead, but I noted from the cover that it is a Newberry Honor Book and an American Library Association Pick, so that some smart people somewhere have read it and think it is a pretty darn good book.

Anyway, I asked M what he thought about that, and he said that he thought writers shouldn't put swears in their books. Fair enough. He's not a kid who swears, and he gets mad at me when I swear (although he laughs hysterically when he hears kids swear in movies like Goonies, which is likely the most sweary movie he's ever seen, on my watch anyway). We talked about why the characters might be swearing--it is a book about a war after all, which is probably a pretty stressful time, and stress might make you want to swear a bit. I brought up Fahrenheit 451, which he had just read (in graphic novel version) and talked about how this was another, if less extreme, form of censorship, like book-burning. I asked him if he wanted another, un-redacted, copy of the book and he said no.

And we left it at that. School ended. Summer came. And I forgot all about it, until this week. Still I have a lot of unanswered questions and would love to hear your thoughts on it all.

I, personally am opposed to censorship. I don't know if the teacher acted on his own, if it's the policy of the school or the school unit, if he had to deal with irate parents in the past and just wanted to skip over the headache. I don't know what type of "swears"the book contains--is it just hell and damn, or f-bombs? Would I feel differently depending on which it is? Honestly, most kids in his class I'm sure are exposed to as much if not more from the movies and video games they watch (I know M is way more sheltered than most of his friends as far as that kind of thing goes).  I would have happily bought M the real book, because first of all it must be confusing to read a book with half a dozen words crossed off every page, and secondly I believe in the integrity of art. I'm not against holding back on books that have content too mature for my kid to handle, but it's tricky when he has a very high reading level (and when I don't really want to pre-read every book...he reads way too many too fast for me to keep up!). Then again, maybe it's no big deal at all, or maybe the opportunity for us to discuss the idea of censorship made it worth it. I do think it's ironic that the book is about the Revolutionary War and that one of the central principles of our country is freedom of speech.

Sooo.....what do you all think? Do you read all the books your kids might read before they do? If not, how do you decide your kid is ready for a book? How do you feel about the school crossing out the swear words or other content in a required book? How do you discuss this kind of stuff with your kids? Would you have spoken up and said something to the teacher or just copped out an let it slide like I did?


  1. Interesting. Our school policy says that the teacher should contact all parents prior to using books or movies that could be deemed offensive or controversial. Beyond that, it's up to the teacher to make an informed decision based on parental feedback about what to do next.

    Crossing out the swear words seems a little foolish to me. It's like a bleep on TV. You may not hear the swear word, but 9 times out of 10 you know what it is. I'm sure the 5th graders were able to fill in the blanks.

    I would find another book to read if I was forced to black out words in a book.

    P.S. I am a 4th grade public school teacher.

  2. Yeah...I think that would bother me. My mom was very much of the, "I you're able to read it, you can read it" policy. I'm sure this led to me reading age inappropriate books, but....well, for example, I read "Wuthering Heights" at a young age. I got through it, but was kind of "meh" about it. Then I read it again in college, and realized that at least half of it had just soared over my head.

    And crossing out the swear, just seems childish. Nothing they haven't all heard before, I'm sure.

  3. Meryl--That reminds me of the thing I forgot to include in my post...if I was presented a book with blacked out lines when I was a kid, that would have just made me want to find out what was under those black marks all the more, like when I just read the sexy parts of Forever and Clan of the Cave Bear in seventh grade because my mom said I couldn't read them. If I'd read the whole book, then the sex would have been diluted by all the other parts about Ayla and Jondolar taming the first dogs and horses and inventing toothbrushes and having misunderstandings and I might have gotten bored before I ever got to the sex. I guess I just have a dirtier mind than my kid...he didn't even want to know what those words that were blacked out said!!

  4. I had wanted to post about Banned Book Week, but the month got away from me (and yes, it's only begun). Anyway, I agree with you. I did read My Brother Sam is Dead, and don't remember any swear words, which just goes to show that it didn't scar me for life. (However, I think I WOULD have remembered crossed out words far more.) Art needs to be authentic to be powerful, so I believe in keeping it in tact. If that means my kids have to wait a few more years to read something that has questionable content, so be it.

  5. I don't like it and think if the teacher found the words offensive enough to do that, she/he should have picked a different book. I have an extremely firm no-media-violence -before-seven rule that I enforce across the board, even when pertaining to high quality books like Narnia. After sevn, I loosen up quite a bit, although I do try to guide my kids to books that I feel are developmentally appropriate for them. I had Meryl's same experience with Wuthering Heights - at 17 it is a much different book than at 10.

  6. My kids don't read on their own yet, so I haven't dealt with this issue as a parent. I have dealt with it as a teacher, though, and I would never have taught a book that I felt like I needed to redact before sharing it with my students. The idea puts a knot in my stomach, actually.

    Your post made me think of when I was little and first saw a swear word in a book. I was shocked - not because I didn't know the word, but because, for some reason, I thought curses were relatively new inventions. So seeing a swear word in a book became a sort of cultural history lesson for me.


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