“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
Censorship & Book Banning
My books are taught from elementary schools up into graduate classes at universities. In addition to being taught at hundreds of schools in the United States, teachers use them in England, South Korea, Germany, Singapore and lots of spots in between. Since the publication of SPEAK in 1999, hundreds of thousands of students have read, enjoyed, and learned from my novels.
But every once in a while, there is a challenge: a request (or demand) that one of my books be removed from the curriculum, reading list, or library. Usually this comes from a well-meaning person who has not read the book, but has heard rumors about the content and is uncomfortable with it.
If you are facing a challenge, one of your first steps should be to visit the American Library Association’s Challenge Support Page . Then explore all of the resources offered by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.
Next up, head over to the incredibly detailed and useful Anti-Censorship Center of the National Council of Teachers of English.
The Anti-Censorship Center has:
- Model procedures for responding to challenges
- Criteria and procedures for selecting materials for English class
- Rationales for teaching challenged books
- Rationales for methods of teaching English language arts
Need more help? The National Coalition Against Censorship has boatloads of resources for you!
So does the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.
The Center for Children’s Books at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offers great guidelines for developing your selection policy.
“[I]t’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.”
Challenges to TWISTED
The challenges to TWISTED come from the Three Monkeys School of Thought; “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” Some people believe that if teenagers can be sheltered from all thoughts and examples of dangerous behavior, then they will not do anything dumb.
In the fall of 2009, TWISTED and several other books were removed from a classroom in Montgomery County High School, in Mount Sterling, KY. Here is the letter I sent to the committee reviewing the challenged novels:
“I am the author of TWISTED. It is my understanding that my book is about to be removed from a classroom in your school, because a parent or parents do not like it.
I am not a taxpayer in your district, but there are a few things about my background that may allow me to contribute to your community’s discussion of the book.
First and foremost, I am the mother of four children. Our girls have all graduated from college. Two of them are teachers, one manages a bookstore. Our son is a senior in high school and is busy with his college applications. All of our children are products of public education.
Our family has faced the challenges, fears, and hard decisions that families all over America face when trying to raise their children in a culture that seems bent on destroying traditional values.
I live in a conservative, rural community in Northern New York State, a few miles away from the village where my father, a minister, had his first church in the late 1950s.
I suspect I would feel right at home in your town.
I wrote TWISTED after speaking to roughly half a million high school students about my first novel, SPEAK. Countless teenage boys came up to me after my presentations, or emailed me at home, to talk about the kinds of issues in their lives that caused them pain.
Three common topics emerged from these conversations:
- Boys are confused by girls.
- Boys have to deal with issues of bullying that far exceed the scope of what most adults assume they are dealing with.
- Many boys are sorrowful because they don’t have a healthy relationship with their father, or with any man who could be a father figure. And they need that relationship in order to grow up to be good men.
I set out to write a book that would explore these issues.
Here is the root – I suspect – of the parental concern about my book. TWISTED has scenes in which teenagers make stupid, dangerous, and occasionally horrifying decisions.
Why on earth would someone like me put things like that in a book?
Because readers who can experience those decisions – by reading about them – and appreciate the consequences of those actions – by seeing those consequences affect the lives of a book’s characters – are less likely to do the stupid, dangerous and occasionally horrifying things themselves.
Jesus knew this. He did not simply reiterate the Ten Commandments, or tell us to love one another and walk back into the desert. He told stories that made His listeners think. They make us think two thousand years later.
Storytelling is the traditional vehicle mankind uses to pass wisdom from one generation to the next. TWISTED contains a lot of bad decisions, hard consequences, and wisdom.
At the bottom of this email, you will find a listing of the state and national awards TWISTED has received. They were all very flattering, but none of them mean nearly as much to me as the email I get from readers. Here are a few quotes from three of those emails.
“I just wanted to say thank you for writing this book. I have been considering killing myself for many years and now I am entering my junior year of high school and about 10 minutes ago finished this book. It has given me a new perspective on life and that death isn’t the easy way out. I can relate to Tyler in many ways… I greatly appreciate this book because now I know that there is hope in my life and that death is not the answer. And one more thing this is the only book I have been able to pick up and not put down from start to finish. I finished it in one day.”
“… I read "Twisted" today. I started around 4, and I couldn’t stop, I finished at 9:40. This book, was so eerily similar to my life, not completely, because I haven’t done any "Foul Deeds" (haha), and I don’t have the same "Bethany" situation, but my father is so much like Tyler’s, it sounded like he was based off him. He yells about grades constantly, to the point of making my house unhappy. I’ve considered suicide before and told no one, just buried it. I know this sounds strange, but I connected to this book in a very strange way. I can’t explain it, I just did. I’ve never sat down and read a book cover to cover, but for some reason, I couldn’t stop… But, I mean, this sounds silly, but I just want to thank you for writing that book. I feel different now, I know it may not make perfect sense, but this book changed part of me. So, thank you.”
“Your work is very true to heart. I don’t know if you intend to or not, but you really help young people out there. Twisted really got to me. I’ve had 3 suicide attempts and the way you wrote the way he was feeling, and the hopelessness and complete unhappiness he had to deal with really hit home with me. You really nailed it… After finishing twisted I realized how much of a miracle life is, and how problems are only temporary. I could honestly bore you with a 3 page email explaining to you all I’ve learned and connected with from your writing. Basically I really appreciate and look up to you and your work.”
Those emails, ma’am, are the reason I write hard, true, literary books for teenagers.
It’s easier to keep teaching the traditional canon of high school literature. The Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, and Hamlet don’t bring many parents to school board meetings, because parents remember reading those books and being bored to death by them. (Remember, please, that these canonical books deal with adultery, murder, and suicide.)
The challenge with bringing new literature into the classroom is that the students actually read the books. They are engaged by characters whose life experiences reflect their own. They want to participate in discussions about the decisions made by the characters and explore how the themes might resonate in their own hearts.
The scenes in TWISTED that some parents might find offensive are reflections of the reality of our nation. Many of our children are living it. They are all surrounded by peers who are living it. They watch Law & Order reruns after school, they read newspapers, they are aware of the latest scandals involving sex and violence.
I wish that it were not so. I wish all our children could be raised in innocence and live out their lives without ever knowing about the darker side of the human experience. But aspects of sexuality, and violence, and death, are a part of all of our lives.
Banning books does not protect teenagers. It condemns them to ignorance and puts them in danger.
I fully sympathize with the parents who do not want their children to read my books. They are doing their job as parents.
But I strongly disagree with their attempt to impose their personal standards on the entire school district by banning TWISTED. That flies in the face of our Constitution and damages the values of free speech and free thought that make our country unique in the history of the world.
I hope you will continue to support your teachers and honor your students by giving them books that will help them grow strong in mind and spirit.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read this.
Laurie Halse Anderson”
Support from Educators
TWISTED received a flood of support from educators. Here is one of the most detailed explanations for why the book deserves a place in the high school curriculum.
Excerpts from a statement defending the use of TWISTED in the classroom by James Blasingame, Associate Professor of English, Arizona State University, a former high school English teacher and principal:
“My personal interest in Twisted, however, goes far beyond just appreciating it as one more great book from Laurie Halse Anderson. Twisted was my pick for the best book of the year, and so it appeared on the English Journal Honor List in September of 2008, which I and Drs. Alleen Nilsen and Ken Donelson create each year. I selected Twisted for two reasons: (1) It helps to teach right from wrong, and (2) It is ideal for improving students’ English language arts skills and for helping them to exceed state educational standards. Please let me explain why, and remember that, as the Federal Courts decided way back in 1933 when James Joyce’s book, Ulysses, now considered a classic, was banned from U.S. shores, “a work must be judged as a whole and not on the basis of its parts.” For this reason, please be sure to read all of Twisted before you pass judgment. I believe most parents would want their children to read it and learn from it if they would only read the whole book themselves.
Twisted has a highly moral message at its heart. As the novel begins, Tyler, the protagonist (aka “Nerd Boy”), has never been popular or invited to any of the “cool” kids’ illegal and highly dangerous drinking parties. Over the summer, however, Tyler has packed on pounds of muscle from doing hard manual labor, and he catches the eye of the social queen of his high school, Bethany Milbury, a young woman of less than perfect character. The moral climax of the novel comes toward the end when Bethany invites Tyler to one of those “the parents are gone for the weekend and their house becomes a drunken orgy” parties. In a state of total inebriation, Bethany leads Tyler into a bedroom and attempts to coerce him into having sex with her. He is tempted, but he decides that this would be wrong, something he would not want to live with for the rest of his life, and he refuses. He leaves the party with his conscience and character intact.
As the book ends, Tyler has weathered the storm of social fallout from his “uncool” decision and returned to his real friends who love him for who he is, a smart kid who has a conscience. I wish more books would warn kids about these unsupervised parties. As a high school principal, I sometimes saw lives irreparably damaged by the foolishness of a moment at parties like this. We need this book, and we need to get it into the hands of our young people. I do not mean to be preachy (although I am a former Sunday School teacher and Boy Scout leader), but there’s nothing wrong with having some of the books we have kids read in school center on a little good old-fashioned morality. To the folks who leafed through the book and saw a dirty word or thought the beer party was inappropriate, I have to say, “Oh, my gosh! You are really missing the whole point of this novel! Please read the whole thing.”
The academic potential for teaching Twisted is extremely high; in fact, it is a sure thing for getting kids to raise their literacy levels. Please, let me explain; I am on the committee that wrote the Arizona Department of Education State Standards for the English Language Arts, as well as the committee that is rewriting them to align with the modern expectations of universities and the workplace as outlined by the National Assessment on Educational Progress (NAEP), and the Common Core Standards for College and Career Readiness Initiative from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) in partnership with Achieve, ACT and the College Board. Let me share a passage from those national core standards, which may very soon be adopted by your state and all states. This passage refers to what students need to have read by the time they graduate from high school in order to be “college and career ready.”
B. Quality: The literary and informational texts chosen for study should be rich in content and in a variety of disciplines. All students should have access to and grapple with works of exceptional craft and thought both for the insights those works offer and as models for students’ own thinking and writing. These texts should include classic works that have broad resonance and are alluded to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts. Texts should also be selected from among the best contemporary fiction and nonfiction and from a diverse range of authors and perspectives.
Please note that these standards call for students to have read both the classics and “the best contemporary fiction . . . from a diverse range of authors and perspectives” by the time they graduate from high school. Getting those students to engage successfully with an award winning author like Laurie Halse Anderson and an award winning book like Twisted will be easy. Getting students to engage with a novel written hundreds of years ago, however, and about characters and situations that students cannot relate to can be very difficult. As scholars of adolescent literature point out over and over, young adult novels like Twisted can actually help students understand the classics. This instructional approach, which is mentioned in my book but is more deeply explained in From Hinton to Hamlet: Building Bridges Between Young Adult Literature and the Classics (Herz and Gallo, Greenwood Press, 2005), pairs classics with modern young adult novels so that students can use the modern story and characters as a bridge to their interpretation of the older story. Some examples of these pairings include John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) with Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising (2000), Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895) with Gary Paulsen’s Soldier’s Heart (2000), or another pairing which has been used successfully around the country after two professors created a great unit called “Deceit, Despair, and Dejection centering on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak (1999) (take a look at Brigid Patrizi and Judith Hayn’s unit Deceit, Despair, and Dejection, which was composed when they were professors in teacher preparation at Loyola University in Chicago).
Please let me return to the Common Core Standards for College and Career Readiness and refer to two specific standards. Students should be able to:
- Draw upon relevant prior knowledge to enhance comprehension, and note when the text expands on or challenges that knowledge.
- Apply knowledge and concepts gained through reading to build a more coherent understanding of a subject, inform reading of additional texts, and to solve problems.
If a more appropriate book than Twisted exists to help students learn to draw upon their “prior knowledge,” recognize when that knowledge is expanded on or challenged in a book, or to “[a]pply knowledge and concepts gained through reading . . . to solve problems,” I don’t know what it is.
In his landmark study of 974 students in 64 middle and high school classrooms in 19 schools in five states, Arthur Applebee and his research cohort from the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement found that what genre of literature students read was not the determinant of how much their ability to perform complex literacy tasks improved. They could read young adult literature, modern popular fiction, or the classics, but the genre was not linked to the growth of their literacy skills. What mattered most was what they did with their reading in and outside of class: “discussion-based activities in which the students were invited to make predictions, summarize, link texts with one another and with background knowledge, generate text-related questions, and interrelate reading, writing and discussion” (p. 693). Of course, this requires books that they can read for themselves, relate to and engage with.
No young reader can read Twisted and not have thoughts and opinions about it. It feels too real, too much like the world he or she lives in, with all of the associated hopes and fears, to brush aside. As any good English teacher knows, if you can find something students are interested in and harness that interest, you can get them reading and writing, and discussing, and striving to be as articulate and mechanically correct as they can. I once gave a learning disabled middle school student the assignment to write a monthly fishing column for the school paper, and it turned him from barely literate to highly literate in one year. He loved fishing, and he wanted the rest of the school to understand his passion, so he rose above what he thought he could do and grew to meet his need to communicate. This educational approach works.
Again, when it comes to dealing with literature, successful, veteran teachers know that young readers can’t engage with texts they don’t understand. They can read the Cliff’s Notes (online Sparknotes, now), and they can regurgitate what a teacher said in a lecture on symbolism, but they can’t really make meaning of a text they don’t understand. As adolescent literature scholar, Nick Karolides puts it: “The language of a text, the situation, the characters, or the expressed issues can dissuade a reader from comprehension of a text and thus inhibit involvement with it. In effect, if the reader has insufficient linguistic or experiential background to allow participation, the reader cannot relate to the text and the reading act will be short-circuited” (p. 23).
Let’s not stop there, however. What sort of writing will students need to be able to do when they go to college? As Director of the Central Arizona Writing Project, I ask our top professor of freshmen composition to come to our summer institute every year and give a presentation to our K-12 teacher participants about what college writing really is. College writing is not a five paragraph essay that repeats the literary analysis found in a textbook or a lecture. College writing, as per Dr. Sarah Duerden, and as found in the ASU Writing Programs Mission Statement, entails the following:
- to engage the ideas encountered in academic and serious public discourse,
- to develop complex ideas and arguments through serious consideration of different perspectives,
- and to connect their life experiences with ideas and information they encounter in classes.
- exploring what others have written about issues,
- using their readings to expand their notion of what counts as an appropriate position,
- exploring the multiplicity of any topic,
- and realizing that multiple stories or interpretations exist.
You can’t accomplish these goals by teaching Moby Dick at the high school level, no matter what a great piece of literature it is, but you can do it by teaching Twisted. This returns to our discussion of Twisted as a moral tale, one in which a character takes a stand, a stand which the reader is left to support or question. Discussion, essays, and journaling about this book begins with very fertile ground, ground that teenagers need to plow and plant and determine what they know is right.”
Support from Kid’s Right to Read Project
The Kids’ Right to Read Project, a division of the National Coalition Against Censorship, sent this letter to a school district where TWISTED was challenged.
Daniel Freeman, Superintendent
Montgomery County Schools
724 Woodford Drive
Mt. Sterling, KY 40353-9799
September 24, 2009
Dear Mr. Freeman,
We write to protest efforts to remove several books, including Unwind by Neal Shusterman, Lessons of a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles and Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson from Montgomery County High School. We understand that one parent objected to “inappropriate” content in the books and requested that they be removed. We also understand that the district’s Book Review Committee has been disbanded at your direction. In our view, both situations raise serious First Amendment concerns.
The view of the parent who objects to the books is not shared by all, and she has no right to demand removal of the book. Public schools have the obligation to “administer school curricula responsive to the overall educational needs of the community and its children.” Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003). No parent has the right “to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught” (Id.), or “a fundamental right generally to direct how a public school teaches their child.” Blau v. Fort Thomas Public School District, et al, 401 F.3d 381, 395 (6th Cir. 2005). Any other rule would put schools in the untenable position of having "to cater a curriculum for each student whose parents had genuine moral disagreements with the school’s choice of subject matter." Brown v. Hot, Sexy and Safer Productions, Inc., 68 F.3d 525, 534 (1st Cir. 1995), cert. denied, 516 U.S. 1159 (1996). See also Littlefield v. Forney Independent School District, 268 F.3d 275, 291 (5th Cir. 2001); Fields v. Palmdale School District, 427 F.3d 1197, 1207 (9th Cir. 2005), amended by 447 F.3d 1187 (9th Cir. 2006).
If students were precluded from reading literature considered inappropriate by some, they would be deprived of exposure to vast amounts of important material, including Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Tolstoy, Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, and Nabokov, and contemporary books such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The school district would potentially put its students at an educational disadvantage in college if it did not introduce them to literature of this sort in high school. Your district can serve the needs and respect the rights and preferences of the whole student body, not by banning a book because one parent dislikes it, but by offering alternative assignments to objecting parents, where appropriate.
The concerns raised by the removal of the books are compounded by the decision to disband the Book Review Committee and replace it with a new one. Coming in response to the removal of the books, the action appears to be motivated by a desire to suppress discussion of the book challenge and possible criticism of the school’s decision.
We strongly urge you to retain Montgomery County High School’s copies of Unwind, Twisted and Lessons of a Dead Girl and to reconvene the original Book Review Committee. Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education all depend on protecting free speech and the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Challenges to SPEAK
I am shocked whenever anyone challenges SPEAK. This is a story about the emotional trauma suffered by a teen after a sexual assault. Throughout the entire book, she struggles with her pain, and tries to find the courage to speak up about what happened so she can get some help.
Isn’t that what we want our kids to do – reach out to us?
Some people in America get all weird whenever anything that is remotely sexual in nature comes up for discussion.
1 in 6 American women will be the victims of a completed or attempted rape in her lifetime.
National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey. 1998.)
44% of those rape victims are under age 18.
(U.S. Department of Justice. 2004 National Crime Victimization Survey. 2004.)
17.7 million American women have been victims of attempted or completed rape.
(National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Prevalence, Incidence and Consequences of Violence Against Women Survey. 1998.)
Victims of sexual assault are:
3 times more likely to suffer from depression.
- 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
- 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol.
- 26 times more likely to abuse drugs.
- 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.
(World Health Organization. 2002.)
These statistics and more can be found on RAINN’s website. RAINN is the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, America’s largest anti-sexual assault organization. Visit their site for more information – they have everything and anything you need to know about how much sexual assault and abuse is suffered by Americans, who commits these crimes, and what we can do to stop it.
Some people are uncomfortable talking about rape. It makes them feel awkward or powerless, or ashamed. They often can’t put their feelings about it into words. They find it easier to avoid the discussion. These are the kinds of people who try to remove SPEAK from the classroom.
When they do that, I become angry.
Education is supposed to prepare children for the world. While it would be nice to pretend that sexual assault does not exist, a quick glance at the statistics proves otherwise. Teenagers know that sexuality exists, they know what rape is, and way too many of them have suffered it. Rape is discussed on the front page of newspapers. It is the topic of movies. Rape survivors speak out publicly about their attacks. Avoiding it by removing a book that deals with the subject in a thoughtful, literary way is ridiculous and harmful.
Weighing In – by Pat Scales
—reprinted with permission from Booklist Online
If you had asked me a year ago what bombs, lips, and martini glasses have in common, I would have answered, “A fraternity party.” Now I have a different answer. It’s called Common Sense Media. This not-for-profit Web-based organization is in the business of using a “rating” system to review all types of media that target children, but their “ratings” of books are especially disingenuous. They claim that they want to keep parents informed. Informed about what? What their children should read or what they shouldn’t read?
This isn’t the first time that an organization has used the Worldwide Web to influence parental opinions about children’s literature. Parents against Bad Books in Schools and a number of right-wing groups have been at work for years trading “forbidden” lists of children’s books. It’s never been clear who decides what titles make the lists. Now, Common Sense Media joins the long list of organizations that think they know what is best for children. The frightening part about this group is that they have a marketing strategy to convince parents and even teachers and librarians that “rating” materials is a “good” thing. But good turns to bad when reviewers aren’t really reviewers, and the focus is on what to watch out for.
Common Sense Media claims that it is about “media sanity, not censorship,” but after a long meeting with their editor in chief, I remain puzzled about how they define “media sanity.” As a company, it is free to do what it pleases, but the belief that “media has truly become the ‘other parent’” and its approach to media guidance display great disrespect for children and their families, not to mention the disdain it demonstrates to librarians who are trained to provide reading guidance to families.
Children deserve to be challenged intellectually, and they deserve to be the judge of the books that suit them. Most children will reject books they aren’t ready for, and they don’t need adults to help them with that decision. Common Sense Media assumes that all parents want to police what their kids are reading, and they use the following emoticons as warnings: bombs for violence, lips for sex, #! for language, $ for consumerism, and martini glasses for drinking, drugs, and smoking
In addition to rating books in these five categories, the site also decides whether books have any educational value and redeeming role models. Finally, they give titles an overall “on,” “off,” or “iffy” rating. For example, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly, a 2010 Newbery Honor Book, is rated “on” for ages 12 and up. My bet is that there are plenty of 9-year-olds waiting in line for the book. It gets one bomb for violence because of a description of a Civil War battle and reportage of a servant who is pitchforked to death; a lip because Calpurnia’s older brother is courting and animals on the farm mate; one #! because Calpurnia’s grandfather curses; and two martini glasses because her grandfather drinks whiskey and port daily. There are further warnings under “What Parents Need to Know.” What Common Sense Media doesn’t tell you is that 11-year-old Calpurnia is a spunky kid who would rather be collecting scientific specimens with her grandfather than learning to become a housewife.
Common Sense Media clearly doesn’t know how to deal with young-adult readers. Filter the site by “iffy” books and ages 15–up, and you are left holding frowning faces, bombs, lips, “#!,” and martini glasses. Looking for Alaska, by John Green, winner of the 2006 Michael L. Printz Award, is rated “iffy” for ages 15–18. Booklist graded this book at grades 9–12, and even the “Average Rating” by kids, parents, and educators on the Common Sense site recommends Green’s book for ages 12–up. Regardless of what these readers say, the Common Sense Media reviewer warns, “Parents need to know that this book hits all the controversial pulse points: drinking, (not graphic) sex, bad language, and smoking, including marijuana smoking.”
In May 2010, the National Coalition against Censorship, American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, National Council of Teachers of English, Association of American Publishers, Pen American Center, International Reading Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Authors Guild, and Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators sent a joint letter to the editor in chief and the CEO of Common Sense Media that outlined the following concerns with the company’s rating system: (1) the implication that certain kinds of content are inherently problematic; (2) the negative attitude toward books; and (3) the potential that the ratings will be used to remove valuable literature from schools and libraries. A meeting was held with the editor in chief, and questions were raised about why books such as Markus Zusak’s Book Thief and Annika Thor’s Faraway Island, both set during the Holocaust, and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Chains, set during the American Revolution, weren’t given any “educational value.” The editor in chief had no clear answers, but those books have now been awarded “educational value” on Common Sense Media’s site. It is clear to the nine organizations that are working hard to protect children and young adult’s freedom to read that Common Sense Media is a moving target, and their piecemeal response to such questions won’t fix what is at heart a misguided and dangerous concept.
While Common Sense Media isn’t censoring anything, it is providing a tool for censors. There is already a documented case in the Midwest where a book was removed from a school library based solely on a Common Sense review. Common Sense Media allows users to filter books by “on,” “off,” and “iffy” ratings. And reviewers are instructed to point out anything “controversial.” Such warnings encourage site browsers to take things out of context instead of looking at books as a whole.
Bombs, lips, and martini glasses! Indeed, let them be a warning. We must be proactive in helping parents understand that rating books is dangerous. Otherwise, more censorship bombs are sure to explode.
A former school librarian, Pat Scales is a member of the National Coalition against Censorship Council of Advisors.
Support from the Kid’s Right to Read Project
The Kids’ Right to Read Project, a division of the National Coalition Against Censorship, sent this letter to a school district where SPEAK was challenged. They sum up my thoughts on the subject perfectly.
Board of Trustees
Temecula Valley Unified School District
31350 Rancho Vista Road
Temecula, CA 92592
September 21, 2009
Dear Ms. Rutz-Robbins, Mr. Pulsipher and Members of the Board,
We write to oppose efforts to remove Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson from English classes at Temecula Valley High School. We understand that the Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment has received one parent’s objections to “smutty” and “pornographic” content.
School officials are bound by constitutional considerations, including a duty not to give in to pressure to suppress unpopular ideas or controversial language. The Supreme Court has cautioned that, "[l]ocal school boards may not remove books from library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.’" Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 872 (1982)(plurality opinion).
Speak is a stunning story about teenage outcasts of our society who often fall through the cracks. A New York Times bestseller, it has received wide acclaim, including as a National Book Award Finalist. It is precisely this kind of literature that enlarges students’ knowledge of the world and prepares them for college and adult life. Books should always be evaluated as a whole, and not reduced to isolated passages that some may find objectionable. Viewed as a whole work, this book is eminently appropriate for high school students.
The task of selecting school materials properly belongs to professional librarians and educators. Parents may be equipped to make choices for their own children, but, no matter how well-intentioned, they simply are not equipped to make decisions for others. Without questioning the sincerity of the parent who objects to the book, her views are not shared by all, and she has no right to impose those views on others or to demand that the curriculum reflect her personal preferences. Furthermore, the practical effect of acceding to any request to restrict access to materials will be to invite others to demand changes to reflect their beliefs and to leave school officials vulnerable to multiple, possibly conflicting, demands.
We strongly urge you to keep Speak in the classroom at Temecula Valley High School. Individual freedom, democracy, and a good education all depend on protecting free speech and the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves.
National Coalition Against Censorship
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression
“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime . . . ”
—Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, dissenting Ginzberg v. United States, 383 U.S. 463 (1966)