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?