Recently, I was sitting at dinner next to one of my favorite authors and surrounded by colleagues. The conversation turned to what makes a book controversial. One teacher mentioned a book about a character with a family member who is dealing with drug addiction. He quickly said that he read and appreciated the book, but would never put it on the shelf in his classroom because he anticipated (and feared) parent complaints. Maybe it was prompted by a desire to protect the author’s ears from any form of censorship, but I immediately spoke up. Although this teacher’s concern is valid, I believe we have responsibilities that supersede our own need to feel safe and comfortable as educators.
I believe that as teachers, our responsibility extends beyond students to their parents. I most certainly do not want a student of mine reading something against his parents’ wishes, whether I agree with those wishes or not. So, I send a parent permission slip for my classroom library at the beginning of the year, inviting parents to contact me with specific concerns about their children’s reading choices. Sometimes this results in awkward conversations when parents want to challenge books I make available to students other than their own children. However, it is my responsibility to work through these conversations, which (in my experience) always end in a new level of understanding.
For example, Elizabeth’s mother wrote a note on her classroom library permission slip that simply read, “No sex.” When I noticed Elizabeth had chosen to check out Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, I immediately thought of how much she was going to love this story about a girl who has a disease that compromises her immune system and prevents her from interacting with the outside world. My next thought was what a shame it was going to be to have to redirect her to another book because the protagonist in the book has sex. Although there are no graphic scenes and the subject matter is handled in a manner that is much more responsible than many television programs these days, I remembered the note from Elizabeth’s mother and wanted to respect her wishes. I approached Elizabeth and said I wasn’t sure this was a book her mother would approve of her reading. Elizabeth responded by requesting that we ask her mother for special permission, because she really wanted to read the book. It wasn’t a conversation I was looking forward to, but I forced myself to be as open to the challenge as Elizabeth herself seemed to be. The result of that conversation was that her mother decided to read the book herself before making a decision, and eventually chose to allow Elizabeth to read the book. In fact, she repeated the process with a couple of other books that had previously been “taboo” for Elizabeth.
I suspect Elizabeth’s willingness to talk to her mother about what she wanted stemmed from one of the ways I ward off confrontations with parents: by speaking directly and openly with students about which books contain content that may be controversial—such as strong language, mature romantic situations, and graphic violence. Students learn how to self-censor by choosing the books that fit who they are as readers and humans. I find that if a student has an immature response to content (most often giggling and sharing a passage with a friend), a quick conversation where I address the student by getting as real as possible to find out if he or she is appropriately matched with the book usually corrects the behavior.
Thinking About Students
Parents aren’t my primary concern when I stock the classroom library. My number one consideration in choosing books to purchase, read, and share is my students. Most often, I am thinking of the students in front of me, or my most recent class.
I am thinking about the book Sarah needs next to feed her hunger for romantic stories while pushing her to grow—a book like Legend by Marie Lu. Legend is told in chapters that alternate between two points of view. It is the story of a girl who is a prodigal fighter for the government and a boy who is a criminal mastermind. Amidst the taut romance is a story filled with depth that raises questions about whom we trust and why.
I am thinking about Elias and wondering if reading the graphic novel Cardboard by Doug TenNapel might allow him to see himself as a reader for the first time. Cardboard is a very accessible story that contains multiple layers and complex characters. A down-on-his-luck father ends up giving his son cardboard as a gift. When shaped into a robotlike being, the cardboard comes to life. The cardboard man changes the son’s relationship with a neighborhood bully and with his father.
I am thinking about a book like Drive-By by Lynne Ewing that will give William a sense of confidence because it is skinny and simple to read, but will also allow him to sink his teeth into a complex story. In this case, it’s the story of a young boy named Tito whose older brother is shot in a drive-by while they are walking home together. At first, Tito believes his brother is an innocent victim, but then gang members begin approaching him. He realizes that there are a lot of things he did not know about his brother.
By thinking about the individual students in whose hands I might place a book, I ensure that my collection will be diverse in terms of culture, level, genre, and format. However, I must not limit myself to thinking about the students I see in my classroom. I also have to consider the topics and experiences my students are not yet seeking to experience through reading.
I have to consider books like October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard by Leslea Newman. None of my eighth-grade students are openly homosexual. Yet I want to live in a world filled with allies of all populations. I share this beautiful, moving book of poetry that tells the story of the night Matthew Shepard, an openly homosexual college student, was left for dead, tied to a fence post after having been brutally beaten.
I have to consider books about a range of disabilities with which none of my students have to cope—books such as Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper and Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman, which are both told from the point of view of a character with cerebral palsy, and books such as The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen and Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham, which are each about a character who loses a limb in a terrible accident.
I have to consider both selecting a wide range of stories for my classroom library and sharing the books that tell these stories with a wide range of students. I have to be careful not to hand every tough reader a story about violence and every sensitive reader a story about loss. Students need a large menu of choices from which to make their own selections of stories that have the potential to shape who they are. My job is to craft that menu responsibly.
Years ago a parent called me to complain that I had allowed her seventh grader to read “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” from Chris Crutcher’s Athletic Shorts: Six Short Stories. The story contains curse words. The parent was appalled that I had, in fact, suggested the text to students.
I was mortified. It seemed as if the parent was implying that I had somehow set out to harm her child. However, I had to remember that this parent had only her son in mind when she was speaking to me. I apologized for the mismatch between the book and her son. I went on to explain that I had shared the text with her son’s class—a class in which I had several students who had recently been involved in fights with one another. I revealed my intention in sharing this anthology, and the story over which she was so upset in particular: the characters in the story work through issues students in her son’s class had been facing—specifically bullying and dealing with gay parents. It was not an easy conversation. The parent still did not want her own son to read texts with strong language, but after our talk, she was no longer on the warpath. She understood that although Athletic Shorts was not the right text for her son, it was just the right text for someone else’s child.
Ultimately, I am willing to defend each of the selections I have chosen for my classroom library. Although I take steps like the parent letter and warning students about potentially controversial content, sometimes I end up having to discuss a choice I have made with a parent or administrator. Knowing I have made every selection in my classroom library thoughtfully and intentionally, I am able to face these uncomfortable conversations. If my choices as an educator building a classroom library can potentially shape the future, I see no option other than embracing these tough conversations.
Having a classroom library filled with books that allow my students to see themselves and see others inside the pages is the best way I know to shape them as readers and as people.