While often seen as a critical tool to teach the future generation, books can sometimes be seen as trouble to parents and teachers. Even classic stories such as Tom Sawyer and Ulysses have once been illegal to teach. One personal experience I have had with banned books in schools was the removal of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou and Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison from the Mat-Su Borough School District. The two books were under observation due to the sensitive topics discussed in both, and the ban was officialized on April 23, 2020.
This scenario is nothing new. The controversy of banned books is a debate that spans centuries. The first book that was banned in the U.S. was New English Canaan, by Thomas Morton. The author slings insults towards the Puritans, calling them “cruell Schismaticks” and even mocking John Endecott, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, calling him “Captain Shrimp.” Morton also denounced the killing of the Native Americans and the policy of land enclosures by the Puritans. He recommended “demartialising” of the colonies and creating a multicultural settlement called New Canaan. Appalled by these radical ideas, the Puritans banned the book in New England. Today, there are national organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship that speak out against banning literature, as well as protests for and against book bans.
One of the main reasons that The Caged Bird Sings and Invisible Manwere were removed was because they contained references to sexual abuse, rape, and incest. Jim Hart, the school board vice president, and one of the five members who voted in favor, states “…We’re not talking about something that’s mind-expanding or something that’s going to help anybody learn any better. We’re talking about things that frankly would not be acceptable in a professional environment…”
However, there has been pushback against the ban. Sarah Welton, one of the two board members who voted to keep the two books in the English curriculum, expresses that these books provide a way for students to develop critical thinking skills regarding serious topics and issues about society. Furthermore, these issues are relevant and prevalent among teens, and thus need to be discussed in an educational setting.
The general public similarly seems to disapprove of the ban, agreeing that these controversial topics should be taught in schools since they are issues in the teenage world. Learning about these things in a classroom setting prepares students to be more knowledgeable in the future. Chris Gherson, a Mat-Su Borough parent, adds, ”Avoiding controversial issues does not make them go away or help students learn and develop skills to address them. These are skills required for critical thinking, problem solving and most of all becoming caring, empathetic adults.”
Still, people on both sides of the argument agree that there needs to be careful thought into deciding what type of literature is appropriate for students. Keeping book selections appropriate but relevant enough to generate good discussions is a difficult task, since the needs of the students, parents, and teachers should all be met.