Paula Kiger

A Book Challenge: Why Banned Books Week Matters

By: Paula Kiger | September 28, 2015 | 
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A Book Challenge: Why Banned Books Week MattersBy Paula Kiger

I went to my son’s high school open house Monday night. I haven’t been to open house in a few years, but having been the most vocal parent voice in opposition to the school’s handling of a recent book challenge, I felt I had to show up this year.

The vibe of a large high school and the caring, articulate faculty members I met almost lulled me into a “maybe I overreacted” state-of-mind about the book challenge.

However, it’s precisely the fact that the school has returned to business as usual which reminds me that vigilance is key in keeping the pipeline of free access to literature open and solidifies my intent to use this book for my Banned Books Week Virtual Readout Video this year.

When a Book Challenge Hits Home

At the end of last school year, all students were advised that the school was requiring one book (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) for summer reading. The school introduced this idea as a way for the entire student body to experience one book together.

Like many high school students, my son is no advanced planner when it comes to getting his summer reading and the related assignments done. Consequently, he was just fine with the school’s announcement on August 4 that the assignment was being transitioned from “required” to “optional.”

I was not just fine with this change in the summer reading assignment.

Why it Matters

While I would have supported a change to allow students to read alternative assignments, I simply continue to bristle at the fact that the decision, and the way it was made, constituted a “never mind.”

When I spoke to our principal, he said approximately 20 parents of incoming freshmen had objected to the language in the book (there are “F bombs”) and he did not feel that set the right tone.

In the first newspaper article about this controversy, a parent was quoted as being offended by the book’s “taking the name of Christ in vain” in addition to the language. (To be clear, this parent requested an alternate assignment; although I disagree with her, I support that request. It was the administration’s decision to revert the entire assignment to optional that I object to.)

Although I have been diplomatic and factually accurate in every public statement I have made (and in MULTIPLE responses to commenters on blogs worldwide who called this a “ban”), the ultimate fact of the matter is:

The way in which A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was challenged by my child’s school ignites an anger that is almost impossible to contain.

It is an anger fueled by:

  • A seven-year-old who devoured Nancy Drew books, a full book at a time.
  • A pre-teen who learned about the atrocities of the Holocaust (and the infinite resilience of hope) from The Diary of a Young Girl.
  • A teenager who was amazed her parents would let her read a book with a title such as, The Bastard, but who got the message that “you can handle information that may be considered “adult” and we are here for you if you have questions.
  • A college student who had a whole lot to figure out and an unlimited array of books available to help her do that.
  • A communications professional who draws upon a lifetime of reading all kinds of books when looking for the perfect turn of phrase AND when understanding a coworker, client, or customer who has a different world view

Would I automatically have chosen book with multiple F bombs? No.

Would I, a Christian with deep spiritual beliefs, have chosen a book that contains religious skepticism?

ABSOLUTELY.

Reading a book where the character doubts the existence of God no more turns my child away from what I have tried to teach than reading Romeo and Juliet is going to make him suicidal.

Christopher, the protagonist in “Curious,” has an Asperger’s-like condition. The book did a masterful job of portraying the inability of someone who sees the world in extremely concrete terms to grasp a deity they cannot see, touch, or hear.

I just don’t understand why the administrator did not tell the objecting parents, “but my well-educated, professionally competent faculty chose this book based on its literary merits. Your child has to read it (or choose an alternative).”

Why “Never Mind” Constitutes a Challenge

The best way I can characterize the decision that was made is: “never mind.” It’s kind of a “wink wink” if you parents REALLY want to let your children read this book with its obscenity and religious skepticism, go ahead.

But in turning it into a “never mind,” the ability of teachers to hold robust discussions, to guide students through the intricacies of obscenity and religious skepticism, was erased, leaving kids adrift to figure it out on their own and without the school’s endorsement.

Is this Censorship?

Visit this link for the American Library Association definitions.

I still can’t definitely say that the actions taken constitute censorship. The “access status” of the material was not changed; parents are still able to buy this book for their children (of course) and the school district has assured me copies are available in all high school libraries.

On balance, I would have to classify the school principal’s statement by email as a public attack.

It was incredibly frustrating for me to see the way the information spiral went CRAZY in response to this public attack. The misinformation, the assumption that the book had been banned, the silence of the faculty (who may have felt they could not safely speak up—I don’t know), the assumption that every single Floridian is a backwater narrow-minded moron.

Because raising a backwater narrow-minded moron is precisely what I don’t want to do, which is why I support exposing him to books which may differ from his point-of-view, but make him think, books which keep him…

CURIOUS.

About Paula Kiger


Paula Kiger believes her Twitter bio says it best: Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. She is a communications professional who provides writing, editing and social media services through Big Green Pen. She was the community manager for the Lead Change Group for two years. Paula has a Master’s Degree in Counseling and Human Systems from Florida State University. She is an active advocate for many causes, including access to immunizations for children worldwide.

  • susancellura

    biggreenpen I love you! Bravo! I’d like more information on this week – is it national or just in FL?  Every time I hear of a book being banned, I ensure it’s on my daughter’s reading list.
    And – YAY for Nancy Drew!!!

  • Thanks! There’s a website: http://www.bannedbooksweek.org (and I am happy to answer questions too …).

  • You know I love this! You also know I get fired up about these kinds of things…and I fully support you in your quest to get the school’s administration to stop being so passive. I also love that you read The Bastard (which, BTW, is the first time I have ever allowed a swear word in a blog post) in high school. My grandmother used to send my mom books and black out the parts she didn’t think she should read—sex scenes, swear words, drugs, alcohol. That’s always made me laugh, but also why I think my mom always let us read what we wanted.

  • susancellura biggreenpen And you can download an avatar ribbon!

  • ginidietrich Thank you (and, ah, i guess that swear word thing is one Spin Sucks FIRST in the books for me!). I was sitting next to a woman when I went to see The Curious Incident (play) on Broadway Friday night and when I explained why I felt so invested, and gave the condensed version of this issue, she said “they still do that in America?”. SIGH.

  • ginidietrich susancellura biggreenpen Oh my gosh I had forgotten! Ribbon time!

  • Ridiculous. And the natural result, I suppose, when decisions are made by committee or consensus.

  • RobBiesenbach In this situation, the complication arose when one individual (the principal) was disturbed by the good decision which HAD been made (I assume) by the English dept faculty. He made an adhoc decision to revise this assignment from mandatory to optional (as opposed to simply allowing parents who requested alternate assignments to go that route). There were several procedural issues along the way. I don’t want to misrepresent our school board’s policy but I think there WAS supposed to be a notice to parents when a book contains adult language, and there are also procedures when a parent wants to object to a book’s content (these procedures involve a written request, etc.).

  • biggreenpen Oh, I see. What a mess!

  • biggreenpen

    mhpetre thx much for sharing! SpinSucks

  • mhpetre

    biggreenpen SpinSucks My pleasure, Paula! I loved it! U0001f609

  • Doesn’t the administration think these kids have already heard the f bomb numerous times? I would have been outraged just as you were, Paula.

  • I really suspect the issue was the religious skepticism more than the profanity, but I can’t be sure. Either way, the whole thing was unsettling. I really appreciate you commenting.

  • I love love your post Paula! We like to believe we are an advanced society with all the technology and information we have at hand. However, if you look at the very system that prepares future generations, we are so so behind. We teach the future of our society with tools and methods more than a century old! Isn’t that ironic?
    We prefer to hide our head in the sand, not talking to our kids/students, etc about important stuff and are outraged when bad things happen. Yes, I get there is this absurd fear of talking about religion, sex, etc. For centuries we’ve been like this. The question is: Don’t we want our kids prepared for the future and in the know?
    As a side note, I just wanted to tell you how much I admire you for everything you do. You are relentless fighting for the causes you believe in, always the first to comment on all Spin Sucks posts. You ROCK!

  • biggreenpen

    AlinaKelly thank you, Alina.

  • AlinaKelly

    biggreenpen Thank you Paula – points well made. Happy to share it. Great message.

  • Corina Manea Thank you, Corina, both for your astute comments about how we handle exposing future generations to challenging/adult topics, and for your other comments! As for future generations, in my opinion the best thing that was written about this whole incident came from Jackie Weinell, who is a senior at our high school: http://www.tallahassee.com/story/opinion/2015/08/24/curious-incident-censorship/32283983/

  • biggreenpen

    WashingTina thx for the RT, friend!

  • hbludman Have they never seen A Christmas Story?!?

  • biggreenpen HOW WAS IT?!?

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen I have never seen anything like it! (That’s a praise ….) The way the actor who portrayed Christopher handled the physicality was so well done, and the way they constructed a set to reflect the way his mind works was extremely original. There’s a reason it won a Tony for best play. AND I had been advised to buy a seat with a prime number, which comes with a tiny but cool benefit!

  • The irony is I don’t think kids should be taught religion until they are old enough to decide if it is real or hokey yet we have 4 mil homeschooled kids in the US mostly because parents want to teach the bible…yet most of the parents are unqualified to teach. It is one reason the US is getting our ass kicked in education.
    I don’t feel the school thing is censorship as much as being too politically correct and failing to challenge kids to learn in different ways. There are no laws in the US preventing parents from having their kids read any material. And we all have our own views on this. As I said if it were me I would ban the bible and koran to anyone under 18.

  • Howie Goldfarb Wow Howie your first paragraph is packed! I agree this is not “censorship” by the strict definition. One of my friends argues “banned” books week is ridiculous because that’s a total misnomer (here’s the link: http://tallahasseeo.com/2012/05/18/bill-cotterell-careful-what-you-call-censorship/ ). There were many arguments (back to my situation) of “well they didn’t BAN the book” …. I actually reinforced that statement by explaining multiple times to people that it had not been banned. And I still, after writing three times on my personal blog, three times on LinkedIn, this post (thanks Spin Sucks!), doing my Banned Book Readout on this, speaking to the School Board, and tweeting more tweets than I can count, can’t put my finger on EXACTLY why this particular bee has gotten stuck in my bonnet. As I have said all along, I disagree with the parent who is publicly quoted as complaining about the religious skepticism, but she did not request a ban, she requested an alternate assignment. Here in the safety of the SS comments section, I can be more candid about how I really feel, which is: What on earth went through the principal’s head when this profanity/religious skepticism complaint (or these complaints) reached him in mid July that resulted in him skuttling an ENTIRE assignment for an ENTIRE student body, an assignment that an English faculty which he ostensibly supports, as their supervisor, had carefully chosen and worked hard to create grade-level assignments around, to cause him to make this ad-hoc decision rather than say “sure – do an alternate book” to those few families? By today, the last day of Banned Books Week, I have come to the conclusion (which may be wrong) that the only way to draw attention to the fact that this situation was the equivalent of a mild fever indicating we’re fighting off an infection …. it isn’t the equivalent of an illness or injury which is imminently life threatening. But mild fevers left unchecked can result in much worse conditions, and that’s why two months into this I have gotten much more willing to use the word “censorship” to fuel the discussion. Thanks so much for your comment and your thoughts; you know I respect them.

  • biggreenpen

    howiegoldfarb thank you, Howie! SpinSucks ginidietrich

  • lucyajones

    I’m a single
    mother and working at home while my kid is at school is a big challenge to me,
    despite the busy schedule,
    I never left my child alone when reading books. I let him read
    books and newspaper, anything he wants and guided him as much as possible.
    Books make kids understand what means to be a kid in a little adventure.
    Lucya
    https://www.customwritingservice.com/

  • I read this book after finding it at a garage sale and think the title was amusing. What a great book it was!!! I quickly recommended it to my then-college aged son, who devoured it and would be estatic if my daughter high school read and taught the book. The best way to become a good writer is to read good writing. And, as a higher-education professional, I see that way too many high-school graduates DO NOT have adequate writing skills to succeed in college.

  • Rebecca Maxon I agree, Rebecca. I have to admit, though, that re-reading the book in the light of this situation gave me a different appreciation for it. The first time was more of a “this is hot to read now so I should read it” vibe. // I also have been grateful that the author has been a part of the dialogue. I really love it when authors do that!

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