Censorship and young adult literature are almost synonymous. When I taught high school English, I remember hearing many stories about how parents challenged novels and short stories that they felt were inappropriate. One year, a colleague argued in front of the district board of education against a parent who wanted I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings taken off the English curriculum because of a rape scene. Of course, Maya Angelou’s novel is not considered YA, but it stands to reason that if a rape scene in a novel that has been taught in schools for years, think of the censorship that goes on with today’s young adult literature as these books make their way into public classrooms.
Before you have a knee-jerk reaction and immediately throw around the argument presented in Fahrenheit 451, let me say that there are valid points in favor of questioning the works we teach. I am reminded of a story by Professor Adam Laats about teaching a certain book to kids at a private Catholic high school. (He tells the story much better than I could, so I recommend you read it.) In his story, he suggests that a teacher who requires the reading of a book is just as guilty of imposing beliefs on others as those who try to censor said book. This certainly had me thinking differently about censorship and my liberal perspective of the books we teach.
If I believe that a certain book has something important to offer a child, then out of respect for the upbringing of the child I must also place equal importance on whether or not the parent shares these same values–or at least whether or not the parent shares the values of simply challenging their child’s beliefs. As a teacher, I believe that a life that goes unchallenged is not a life worth living, but who am I to impose these challenges within the readings I assign? Couldn’t I possibly be challenging ideals and principles that parents work so hard to instill in their children? And if we don’t question these impositions, aren’t we telling parents that we know what’s best for their children?
Personally, I think all of this can be solved through the element of choice. We know too much about how kids develop as readers, so the use of whole class novels shouldn’t be commonplace (sadly, this is not reality). So even if you don’t agree with the research on choice and reading instruction, you should at least consider what it is you’re imposing on your students by requiring them to all read the same book. We have no problem accepting that students have different reading abilities, so we should just as easily accept that they come to us with different sets of values, and these values require the same amount of respect from their English teacher.