Why are parents banning school books?

Girls in a library

In the US more and more parents are pressing schools to withdraw books with bad language or sexual content. But should children's books be restricted in this way?

There is a battle being fought in America over books.

The skirmishes see concerned parents "challenge" books which are being used in schools.

Other parents are fighting for the right of their children to go into their school library and pick up those very same books.

The issue is being highlighted by the American Library Association during its Banned Books Week.

The ALA recorded 460 attempts in 2009 to have a book withdrawn from a library or classroom.

Part of the problem lies in the rise of young adult fiction. Nearly 60 years after the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, teenager readers are now a lucrative market around the world.

The Twilight series has brought author Stephanie Meyer millions, but she has also found her work in the top 10 most challenged, with parents objecting to sexual explicitness and unsuitability for younger readers.

10 most challenged of 2009

  • ttyl, ttfn, l8r, g8r (series) by Lauren Myracle: Drugs, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson: Homosexuality
  • The Perks of Being A Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: Anti-family, drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group
  • To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group
  • Twilight (series)by Stephenie Meyer: Religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult: Drugs, homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexism, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited to age group, violence
  • The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things by Carolyn Mackler: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier: Nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • Source: ALA

More surprising to many people would be the three established literary classics on the list. The 10 most challenged include The Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple and even To Kill A Mockingbird.

"I was shocked that anybody would find this book offensive," says Barbara Jones, director of the office for intellectual freedom at the ALA.

Harper Lee's book has been challenged by black parents who object to the use of the word "nigger". It appears 58 times in the book, notes Ms Jones.

But for most challenged books, the issue is usually sex or sexuality.

Lauren Myracle has endured a stream of angry e-mails from parents who are outraged by her bestselling series about a group of teenage girls. They are all written in the style of instant messaging, and the three books are called ttyl, ttfn and l8r, g8r.

"It is so revealing to me the vituperativeness they address me with. They are angry," she says.

A typical e-mail reads: "What gives you the right to take away my child's innocence?"

"I've got one teenager who has got a potty mouth," says Myracle. "These are high school girls, one is trying to decide whether to have sex with her boyfriend."

Many of the challenges recorded by the ALA are aimed at high-schools, restricting the reading material of children aged 14-18.

But even books for younger readers, like Myracle's work Twelve, can generate floods of complaints. The book describes a girl figuring out how to put in a tampon, which prompted angry e-mails.

Padlocked book

Myracle argues that to engage with teenagers you need to write honestly about them.

"Kids need to see their world reflected back to them. I've had many girls say thank you for writing this."

There's a disparity between the US and UK. While in the US, formal challenges to books in school libraries are routine, they are very unusual in the UK.

Part of the difference is in the level of local control over schools. Typically in the US, locally-elected school boards can have books withdrawn when parents petition them.

In the UK, control lies almost exclusively in the hands of headteachers, says Sally Duncan, of the School Library Association. She can recall one primary school that refused to have any Harry Potter books because of the supernatural content, but such moves are rare.

A question of values

It's an exaggeration to refer to this as book banning. There is nothing preventing books from being written or sold, nothing to prevent parents from buying it or children from reading it.

The question is not book banning, the question is a school district or a school board exercising discretion in terms of their curriculum.

I don't think it's unreasonable for them to consider the community's values in making those decisions, in deciding not to include a book in some way offensive to the community's values.

"Parents are perhaps less likely to complain about the content of books in the UK as, by and large, we are a less 'religious' society," says Ms Duncan.

Across the Atlantic, one struggle has been played out in the small town of Stockton, Missouri, over Sherman Alexie's book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

The work has won a National Book Award, but the story of a 14-year-old Native American on a poverty-stricken reservation, touched by tragedy, upset many parents in Stockton after they learned it was being used in lessons in the school.

The opposition to the book was led by lawyer and parent Mike Holzknecht.

"The book is just chock full of vulgarity, profanity, obscenity and sexual explicitness involving minors," he says. "People around here, where it's pretty rural and conservative, they will go a long way, but this book was so far over the edge. It doesn't belong in a school."

After a number of meetings spread over several months, the book's opponents succeeded. The school board voted to withdraw the book from the school curriculum and the school library.

Cheryl Marcum was among those who were defending the book.

Reactions to Lauren Myracle

Lauren Myracle
  • "I don't know what in your life influenced you to write such trash with no redeeming qualities, but what you are feeding kids today is so awful" - Carolyn, Round Rock, Texas
  • "I find it absolutely amazing that you as a mother find it appropriate to inform young innocent minds of such things as thongs, French kissing, tampons and erections." - Denise, New Jersey
  • "Just because you were apparently a girl with loose morals early in life, doesn't give you the right to influence young girls to follow in your horrible footsteps." - Chuck
  • "Are you a pedophile? Do you enjoy making money off of misguiding the youth?" - Concerned dad
  • "Satan is on the rampage and his name is Lauren Myracle." - Anonymous

"It was one of the best books I've ever read in my life. The themes are pervasive poverty, alcoholism, bullying, racism and absolutely no hope. All of that applies to Cedar County [where Stockton is].

"We believe parents have every right and responsibility to monitor what their children read. But they don't have the right to prevent other children from reading books, particularly national award-winning books."

Mr Holzknecht accepts the book is a "nice story" but can't accept the language or the sexual explicitness. He moved his family to Stockton because he felt it was a place with good, shared values.

"This is a community with the type of values that are consistent with the way we like to raise our children."

The fundamental split is between those who think teachers should be able to challenge and engage children with edgy books, and those who think only the parents should be allowed to do that.

"We are overprotecting our children," suggests Ms Jones. "They have heard this language. They have probably said it themselves. It isn't dangerous for children to be able to confront unpleasant ideas. What better place to engage with ideas than in a school or in a library?"

And of course the net result of a battle over a book, like Stockton's, is that more children end up reading the suddenly controversial work and the author sells more books. Even Mr Holzknecht has to admit he's purchased three copies.

"These boards are fooling themselves that if they ban the book the kids aren't going to get hold of them," says Ms Jones.

To kids, contraband is cool.

Send us your comments using the form below

I, for one, am pleased that in a world where the internet can provide every kind of inappropriate profanity, graphic image or introduction to strangers, that novels can still get parents' knickers in a twist. Can I say knickers?

Ian Hart, Tunbridge Well, Kent

As a parent myself, I find the excuses above for banning literary works in schools quite unfathomable. I am sure though that the authors will benefit from increased sales, in part due to the publicity as well as the lack of availability in schools. As for To Kill a Mocking Bird, those objecting to the terms in it should recognise the book for the period in which it is set. There are considerable numbers of swear words and sexual innuendo in the plays of Shakespeare that no one appears to object to, probably because those likely to object either do not understand or think that their children won't!

Simon Paul, London

I am aware of this story, I appreciate that it makes the news in the UK. Although not an "expert", I have raised three daughters and agree fully that teens need their world reflected, explained and contextualized. Does this (or any reading material) mean they fully understand? No. But I contend that is what parenting is for. When I was a kid, I could not read anything above the red line unless I had a note from my parents. I got the note because my own parents realized that although young, I did have to think through things.

Kevin Pearce, Newport News, VA, USA

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