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What We Lose When We Ban Books

I hope by now you've read about the dilemma in Cape Henlopen regarding Emily M. Danforth's debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post. If not, learn about it here.

First, I want to draw attention to the district's required summer reading. I think we all can agree that students need to read more, but you don't create motivated and lifelong readers when you demand anything. Students need to feel empowered. They also need to feel like it is their idea.

In a move to appease parents on both sides, the district has reverted to its previous summer reading assignment: college-bound students should read two books, and non-college bound students should read one. Further, I still can't understand why the expectations for non-college bound students are lower. I firmly believe that it is every educator's role to prepare students for possibilities and options. Every kid should be able to identify as a reader, and having higher expectations for kids that, in all honesty, will most likely read already is a copout for not working harder to help those students that do struggle.

Here are some things that t I know to be true about teachers, book recommendations, and student readers that I wish the board would have considered:

  • In most cases, the teacher is the most qualified person to recommend books to students. They know their students' interests, and they also know the topics, ideas, themes, and content that students sometimes need to be encouraged to read. Don Graves once shared his wisdom about student choice in writing by saying, "Unlimited choice is no choice at all."Teachers are there to guide students and to make recommendations about books they might like. The original list was just a list of possibilities. None of the books were required; students only had to read two of them!
  • Books allow us to live vicariously through characters and develop an understanding of the world. I know that every teen might not want to pick up a book with a lesbian protagonist, but it might just make someone a bit more understanding person if they read about someone who is completely different from them. 
  • Books are excellent catalysts for engaging students in conversations about the world around them. Citing "foul language" as a reason not to allow students to read a book is discounting students' abilities in engaging in complex conversations about craft, author's judgment, voice, etc. And, quite frankly, students hear that language around them all the time. We can't hide them from the world forever, and we are also sending them a message that they can't handle difficult conversations. How will they ever have practice in dealing with controversy if we shelter them?
  • If you tell a kid that he/she can't read something, you have inadvertently motivated that child to read something he might never considered before. 
  • Books save lives. I'm not saying this book will save every student, but there have been books that have been game-changers for me, like Matthew Quick's Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. That book was dark, but it also had an underlying message of hope. Was there swearing in it? Yes. Were there controversial ideas in that book? Absolutely. But does every student deserve to see themselves reflected in a book? Without a doubt. 
I write this all as I'm in the process of reading Danforth's novel. I bought it after I first read about the Cape Henlopen School Board's decision. I'm only 200 or so pages in, but there are many things within the pages of this book that would entice readers. The protagonist seems real. You gain insight into her struggle to find someone that shares the feelings she does. You see how she navigates a town, a school, and a family that has different ideas of normal, and I think this is an experience that many teens can identify with. 

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