Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why do they do it?: Middle school/junior high parent angst

Phil Bildner's piece, "Texas: If You Can't Ban Books, Ban Authors" in Time, discusses the denouement of the Humble Independent School District Book Festival. He included some comments from me in his article.  Bildner raised an interesting question during our discussion: Why are there more of these types of challenges in middle school and can anything be done to help the situation?

The Houston Chronicle article,  "Are these books not for our kids?" by Maggie Galehouse, discusses the incidence of  book challenges and banning in Texas public schools. Using numbers from ACLU of Texas, Galehouse points out,    "Middle schools across Texas saw the most controversy, with 50 percent of banned books removed from their shelves or class reading lists."

Hopes and fears

As a parent who ran the junior high gauntlet with my own children, I have great empathy and sympathy for everyone trying to survive those years.

I believe parents initiate censorship attempts for a variety of reasons,  the least of which is the book itself.  Unfortunately, junior high school is where a perfect storm of worry, control, anger, frustration, guilt, difficult kids, sympathetic kids, academic struggles, a need for attention and more can come together to form book hysteria.

Middle school is the first time real academic and sports/fine arts competition kicks in. A child may not make the volleyball team, the honor choir, the football team or the pep squad.  Social and romantic situations intensify. Academic difficulty ramps up (7th grade math, remember?) while academic placement in junior high often foreshadows a child's peer group and courses in high school.

All of this puts real pressure on kids AND parents. I think some parental units channel their guilt, fears, frustrations, disappointments, and lack of control into book challenges. Their child may not have made Junior National Honor Society but they can be sheltered from more of life’s cruelties by challenging a book that may feature them.

I have observed that by the time the child enters high school, parents are dealing with new issues including college entrance exams, no pass-no play, extra-curricular activities, dances, driver's license terror and AP course work which take precedence, to some degree, over library book selection policies. A parent's brain can only handle so much at one time, I know.

The books on the library shelves

There is a world of difference between a sixth grader who still has one foot in elementary school and eighth graders who are straining for a glimpse of high school.  Kate Messner describes the challenges of providing books to that wide range of reading interests and emotional development that is middle school in her guest post at The Hate-Mongering Tart.  Read it.

Parents who appreciate the need for The Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle AND  Louis Sachar's Holes in an elementary school library, often adopt a one-size-fits-all outlook when it comes to junior high school libraries.  A book that is comfortable for a sixth grader does not necessarily meet the reading interests or needs of an eighth grader and vice a versa.

There are more choices for YA readers today than in their parents' tween and teen years. These parents are a nervous lot.   YA books that deal with sex, drug abuse, and teenage "attitude" can panic them into a belief that the presence of these behaviors in a novel will encourage their child to emulate the plot line in real life.  Personally, I always felt it would be beneficial to have my own children experience dangerous and complex life situations through literature in preparation for the the real thing.  In my experience, kids are VERY good at self editing.  They will close a book they are not ready for. 

Still, not every book fits every reader so if a parent feels their child should NOT read a certain title, that is their prerogative.  They cannot make that decision for another family

What can be done?

Everyone suffers in a book banning maelstrom. Book banners decry the motivations of librarians, teachers, schools and threaten authors with diminished book sales.  Name calling does not help anyone. Once that starts, the conversation ends. I would rather channel my energy into talking and educating. I may not be able to persuade the person with the problem but others are listening to the discussion.  When a challenge occurs, policies must be followed exactly and all parties, the administration and library staff must behave with scrupulous professionalism. The book deserves due process, so to speak.

The very best outcome would be for parents to read the books and then discuss them with their kids. Reading the whole book (not just out of context snippets)  helps develop everyone's critical thinking skills and provides context for the  story.  Books are great conversation starters for tough subjects in families. Literature is a safe way to experience what life might throw at them. Both parents and their children might be surprised to by the things they learn about themselves and each other.

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