We’ve been having a great discussion in my ABQ Intermediate English class about great books for Intermediates. One of the course tasks is to generate an annotated bibliography of a classic text, graphic novel, cultural, and YAL. The classic texts that come up the most include Lord of the Flies, Huck Finn, and To Kill A Mockingbird. A lot of these teachers are concerned about how to pick texts that are suitable for Intermediates. Some are more forthright in their questions, asking me about things that might be considered objectionable in an Intermediate novel. We are talking here about kids who are in grades 7 to 10, so the top age will be fifteen. So what do I say? Do I play it safe and tell them to err on the side of caution? Not exactly. . .
- I do tell them to be sensitive to the kid, who could be caught in the middle – wanting to read the book like others, but unable to say so. Be careful not to centre them out.
- I do tell them to have other books available for students to choose – no one should be compelled to read a book. Speaks to the necessity of getting rid of the ‘core’ novel.
- I do tell them to consider the age 16 as sort of a good indicator that students are probably ready for adult content, below that age, choose books with minimal adult content and be prepared to defend the book on its literary merits.
- I do tell them to offer some persuasive arguments to parents who are concerned about a book choice – here’s the gist: read the book with your child – here’s an extra copy; my classroom is a safe place for students to explore issues that may be controversial or upsetting; the reason we are reading this book as a choice is because it offers (fill in the blank here – presumably you have picked the book for a sound reason in terms of the curriculum and for its merits as a piece of fiction); intermediates need challenges in their reading and the freedom to choose some things for themselves – here is a choice that will be guided by me the whole way through the study of the novel – not read out of context.
- For me, the bottom line is that I am the professional in the classroom and no parent has the right to censor materials for other students. You might be surprised to learn that when parents object, they expect me to remove the book from my curriculum completely. Not happening. Then I hope that my administrators will support me.
Just for the record – here are some of the books that I have taught to which parents objected:
- Dracula (the play, not the novel) – reason given: vampires are against God – my response – yes and good triumphs over evil in the play – God wins!
- To Kill a Mockingbird – reasons given: deals with rape, incest, had the N-word, portrays blacks as weak and inferior – my response – the book was written in the sixties about the thirties, so that is its context – it teaches tolerance, acceptance of others who are different, how to stand up for what is right. It has endured – a mark of true art and it is beautifully written.
- Waiting for Godot (taught at grade 12) – reasons given – one of the characters talks about how being hanged gives one an erection – my response – yes, it does.
- The Chrysalids – the student came to me and said her mother wouldn’t let her read it – she is Jehovah’s Witness – my response – here’s another great book – you’ll love it or try this one! (I am assuming the objection had to do with the book’s critical take on fundamentalism of any kind.
- Of Mice and Men – taught at grade 12 – the pastor read the curse words aloud at church, according to the student – apparently he (the pastor) hadn’t read the whole book because there was no objection to the adultery, murder or mercy killing in the novel. My response – here’s another great book to read instead.
- Dragonriders of Pern – novel choice in grade 8 fantasy unit – reason given – the main character is physically abused by her father – my response – yes, we talk about this issue and the students are well aware of this issue and what to do if it happens to you. This class is a safe place to talk about the things in the world that are not very nice.
- Eyes of The Dragon – novel choice in grade 8 fantasy unit – reason given – author is Stephen King – again, parent had not read the book which is a very sophisticated fairy tale, with no language, sexual content or other monsters usually associated with King novels. The very appeal of the book to intermediates is that the author is Stephen King.
I often talk about banned books when I use To Kill a Mockingbird in my grade 10 class. I encourage students who want to know more, to go to this web site and check out the banned books. Do I tell them to read them – you bet!