More to the Story: Banned Books
Reporting by Ashti Tiwari, Maxine Lu, and Dorothy Piech
“To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Of Mice and Men.”
“The Hate U Give.”
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
These books were on the Top 10 Most Challenged Books list of the American Libraries Association from 2020-2021 (ALA) and are also present in the Corning-Painted Post Area School District curriculum and high school library.
From July 2021 to June 2022, 1,648 unique book titles were removed from circulation in libraries and schools across the nation. According to Pen America, a free expression advocacy organization, these bans occurred in 138 school districts in 32 states, at a total of 5,049 schools.
On the local level, CPPASD implemented processes to address challenges to books. If a parent had a concern with the curriculum, they could fill out form 1420E with information about the book in question, as well as the basis for the complaint.
“What has to happen in order for books to be officially challenged is that everyone has to have read it, challengers included. There’s paperwork they have to fill out that talks about what specific issues within the book the challenger is deeming inappropriate for students,” International Baccalaureate (IB) Coordinator Kristie Gates-Radford said.
Then, there’s a committee that the district puts together that has to include a librarian, a teacher of the subject, and administration. Once the committee reviews the text and the challenger’s paperwork, they offer a recommendation of what to do.”
District parent Shena Rossettie had particular concerns with the literature curriculum and followed the implemented processes to address them with other parents.
“Of particular concern were ELA materials with pornographic/highly sexually explicit content, a positive portrayal of a sexual relationship between an adult and a minor, and a minor’s fantasy of using gun violence against other minors to resolve mental health issues. I reviewed these materials in whole, agreed with the parents’ concerns, and offered to help address them with the district,” Rossettie said.
While reasons for books being challenged were personal to each challenger, a common theme amongst these books was that they covered controversial topics.
“When people think about diversity, oftentimes they think about race and sexual orientation, and I think that people are just uncomfortable with things that they don’t understand and that they’re unfamiliar with and that they’re not experiencing in their own lives,” Library Media Specialist Stacie Martinec said. “So I think in some communities they’re trying to keep out ideas that don’t exist within your community or that you perceive don’t exist within your community.”
Books in all Language and Literature classes were also subject to being challenged, which led to “The Kite Runner” being removed from the Language and Literature curriculum.
“School curricula have been a difficult area. We’ve had some IB books that have been challenged and some 10H books that were challenged,” Language and Literature teacher Robert Orr said. “‘The Kite Runner’ was one of them. It’s been challenged every single year by parents and students and it’s no longer in the curriculum. I had gotten so many parents and students that were dissatisfied. It includes depiction of sexual assault, and it’s triggering for so many students, so I really pushed my colleagues to pick a different title.”
For Language and Literature teachers in the district, it was important to support an open dialogue so students could express their perspectives on difficult topics.
“I welcome those conversations individually if a student questions a book. I had a conversation this fall with a student about themes in a text, and that student was unsure of why it was there, asking, ‘What is the purpose of this?’,” Gates-Radford said. “It’s important to have an open conversation, where I’m not trying to convince the student to be on my side, but I’m trying to get them to see the value, and why we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone in the name of academia.”
Rossettie supported students asking questions about these topics, but believed their exposure should be based on age suitability.
“As a parent and district voter, my opinion around public school curriculum in a pluralistic society is something like this: subjects should be taught in an age appropriate manner. Students should be encouraged to ask the ‘big questions’ about life using primarily the books and stories that have endured the test of time around the world, with respect and engagement of students’ own cultural, religious, philosophical or other beliefs.”
However, when books were challenged on the basis of topics perceived as unsuitable for students, some teachers believed it was more of a hindrance than protection.
“I think when you read about the reasons why they’re banned, it seems ridiculous because these are topics or situations that students are going to run into in their adult life. Especially in a place so diverse as America. To shield them away from those things is sort of doing them a disservice,” Orr said.
From junior Cori Recktenwald’s perspective, as a student involved in the Teen Book Club at Card Carrying Shop, censoring books containing complex themes limited access to knowledge.
“It’s important to fight to stop books from being banned because it’s also about freedom of knowledge and access to information. If you’re limiting what people are allowed to learn, I think you’re stunting their growth. I don’t think knowledge should be restricted,” Recktenwald said. “These are topics that deserve to be read about and those authors have things that deserve to be heard. It raises awareness of issues in how they affect things outside of just the book world.”
Gates-Radford acknowledged a need for school curricula and content to adapt to changing perspectives in society.
“I think being willing to shift, change, and adjust is a strength that allows us to make sure students have the most fresh, relevant, rich pieces that they need and that we can offer,” Gates-Radford said.
Although books can expose their readers to relevant, often hard-hitting issues, Recktenwald believed it’s always up to the reader’s discretion to choose to keep reading it.
“Art is subjective and literature is art. That’s the thing with books, you always have the choice to put it down,” Recktenwald said.