According to the American Library Association, the 100 most frequently challenged children's books in the last decade include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Wrinkle in Time, James and the Giant Peach, A Light in the Attic, and Where's Waldo? Should your students be reading them?
Last week, the editors at Education World received an e-mail about our recent article Capturing the Magic of Harry Potter. The e-mail read, in part, "I regret that you chose to encourage Harry Potter web links on your site ... demonic and satanic tales have no place in the education of our children." The writer went on to say that she would no longer visit our site because it provides resources that "lead our children to satanism in its purest form" and that she would encourage others to boycott our site as well.
The two educators apparently hold two very different views about the effect on children of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. The question is, which view should determine the content of our Web site?
Many schools today are facing the same Potter-based dilemma. With more than 120 million copies sold, the Potter series is clearly a hit with kids. Anecdotal accounts abound of kids who have suddenly developed a love of reading through their exposure to Potter. Teachers around the world have found that Potter-related lessons and activities are a sure way to grab students' interest and facilitate learning.
The series also has many critics, however, who believe that the books' violent passages, examples of poor family relationships, and depictions of magic and wizardry are psychologically and morally dangerous for children. In fact, the American Library Association (ALA) reports that Harry Potter books were the books most often challenged by parents in 2000. (A challenge, according to the ALA, is "a formal, written complaint filed with a library or school about a book's content or appropriateness.") About 60 percent of challenges, which usually demand that the books be removed from school shelves, are brought by parents -- parents who believe that their views should determine what resources schools offer all children.
Faced with such challenges, it's often tempting for schools to comply with a parent's demand. Few principals, teachers, or school librarians have the time or desire to engage in debates about a single book when so many other good books are available. Few school districts have the resources to risk legal action over the inclusion of a single book in their school libraries.
But is it a single book? Between 1990 and 1999, the ALA recorded more than 6,000 book challenges. During that time, books for younger children were challenged for such characteristics as child nudity (In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak), violence and ethnic stereotyping (The Five Chinese Brothers, by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese), racism (The Story of Babar, by Jean de Brunhoff), and violence and occult themes (the Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz). (See Through the Eyes of a Child for additional titles.)
Books for older students were challenged for violence and offensive language (The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier); negative portrayals of the Islamic religion (The Terrorist, by Caroline Cooney); offensive language, racism, and violence (Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers), and sexual content (several books by Judy Blume).
The ALA further reports that the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Children's Books in the last decade included The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak; A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle; James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl; A Light in the Attic, by Shel Silverstein; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain; and Where's Waldo? by Martin Hanford.
You see the problem! Which perceptions about a particular book are valid and which are skewed by bias or ignorance? Whose beliefs should determine a book's moral or ethical value? Who should have the power to decide which children's books are appropriate -- and for which grade levels?
Given the number and character of book challenges, can that decision be entrusted to anyone other than those who are charged with educating our students in all other areas? I don't think so! Who can better evaluate the literary, social, and educational value of a children's book than the teachers and librarians who have experience in choosing educational resources and the knowledge to weigh the book's educational value against the comments of its critics?
Parents, of course, should have a voice in determining what books their own children read. Many schools make provisions to accommodate individual parents' beliefs, including alternate reading lists and electronic monitoring of library cards. If your school doesn't offer parents those options, it should. What your school should not do, however, is allow any individual or group with a particular bias -- liberal, conservative, or personal -- to determine what books are available in a school library or what books all the other children in a school read.
Education World is a Web site written for educators, by educators. As such, we make informed decisions about the value of the educational resources we provide. We believe that we have a responsibility to provide resources for all educators. No teacher is forced to use a resource that he or she believes is inappropriate or dangerous for a particular group of students. Conversely, (I hope!) no teacher is denied a resource just because it is not deemed valuable by every educator.
School-based educators have the same responsibility to their students. No student should be forced to use a resource if that student's parents believe that the resource is inappropriate or dangerous. Conversely, no student should be denied an educational resource just because it is not deemed valuable or appropriate by every parent. If educators abdicate that responsibility -- for even one book -- out of fear or inertia, the education of all students will inevitably suffer.