In 1885, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was not only banned in Concord, MA, but deemed “trash and suitable only for the slums.” Yikes! While the book still receives its fair share of backlash — critics still call it out for its use of the N-word and racist undertones — Mark Twain has earned a spot as one of America's literary greats. In many ways, a book being banned is almost a rite of passage for an author — a sign they’re pushing the boundaries, doing something original, and perhaps questioning the values of their generation, all great fuel for critical thinking.
From Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, history is full of examples where educators and the community didn't see eye-to-eye on classroom reading choices. Let’s take a look at a few of today’s most controversial reads.
1. Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
Today, parents at Gilford High School in Connecticut are required to approve every piece of fiction used in the classroom. Seems a bit extreme, no? After a group of parents protested the use of Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes due to a sexually explicit passage, the school board caved and mandated this new, parent-centric approval system. Picoult, who is probably best known for her bestselling novel My Sister’s Keeper, has written a plethora of books that push readers to question their concept of morality, which is probably a pretty important theme for teenagers to grapple with. What Picoult isn't known for? Risque sex scenes, making the parental protests feel a bit severe. While parents may not have felt comfortable with aspects of the novel, they should be able to trust that their schools' educators and administrators will pick appropriate curriculum. This new "opt-in" rule eliminates trust and creates an odd tension between school and parent.
2. Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
When 10th grade English teachers at Idaho’s Meridian School District assigned Alexie’s creative and thoughtful Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, parents were none too pleased. Arguing that the critically acclaimed book — which documents a teenage boy’s experiences as he moves from a reservation to a predominantly white high school — contained inappropriate language and sexual activity, the parents succeeded in convincing the board to remove it from the curriculum. Where this story gets weird is with what happened next. Over 300 students signed a petition to keep the book, and some even took the initiative to hand out free copies. That didn’t sit very well with the parents, who proceeded to call the cops and say the book was being given to teens without parent consent. Obviously, the police were unable to find anything wrong with the book distribution. After hearing about the debacle, Alexie's publisher, Hachette, agreed to send 350 copies to a local bookstore to ensure that any student wanting to read the book has access.
3. Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved has caused stirs off and on since its 1987 release. With topics such as bestiality, gang rape, and the murder of an infant, the book definitely treks into uncomfortable terrain. This subject matter, however, is exactly why the book was assigned to AP English students at Fairfax County Schools in Virginia. Students were asked to acknowledge difficult realities about American life. This didn’t sit well with one parent, Laura Murphy, who said her son had nightmares after reading the book. While Murphy’s objections to the book did not lead to a ban, it did lead to Washington Post coverage and more than one school board vote. In response to Murphy’s pushback, the English teacher who taught the AP course wrote, “Reading and studying books that expose us, imaginatively and safely, to that trouble steels our souls to pull us through our own hard times and leads us to a greater empathy for the plight of our fellow human beings.”
Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's look at 12 education thought leaders you should follow on Twitter.