by Alexandra Levy, staff writer
October 2021 – Banned Book Week helps students and readers to defy the censorship of literature; during the designated week, organizations promote books that have been prohibited by numerous institutions.
Banned Book Week was Sept. 26 through Oct. 2 2021. The week was created by Library Activist Judith Krug to encourage people to read books that have been banned or challenged for a variety of reasons. Krug argued that many of the banned books were unfairly challenged and still deserved adequate exposure.
Throughout Banned Book Week, a list of that year’s challenged and banned books is publicly released through the American Library Association’s (ALA) website. Participants in Banned Book Week pick one or more books from the list and read it within the week. According to the ALA, the majority of books are challenged by public schools and school libraries.
Tenth-Grade English teacher, Ms. Tracie McFerren, defended students’ right to read banned books. “I have never agreed with the banned book list. I have taught many great works in my 13 years of teaching that have either been challenged or banned, such as ‘The Great Gatsby,’ ‘1984,’ ‘Of Mice and Men,’ ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ ‘A Separate Peace,’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Where would we be without these great pieces of literature?”
“Sensitive topics in historical literature should be addressed. They should not be ignored but instead discussed and analyzed so we as a society can understand why things happen and how to change for the better,” expressed McFerren.
McFerren is currently teaching “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. The book tells the story of a white lawyer defending a Black man that has been falsely accused of rape. Hanover County, VA School district banned the book shortly after its release in 1966, claiming that the issues the book addressed were “immoral.”
The criteria for a book to be banned is allegedly undefined. The looseness of criteria has allowed books to be banned for representing members of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. Feminism, the practice of advocating for equal rights, was another reason that books were challenged or banned this year.
Later this school year, Ms. Jenna Bates, 11th grade English teacher, will teach another banned book, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood. The novel depicts a future-dystopian society that treats women as property of the state. The setting of the novel was used to demonstrate the importance of women’s rights. The Canadian Broadcast Company (CBC) has reported that numerous public schools have challenged “The Handmaid’s Tale” on the account of “vulgar and sexual overtones.”
“I think ‘banned’ is a very strong word,” explained Bates. “Generally speaking, I’m against banning any subject. But I do think that teachers should exercise their professional judgment about the topics that they teach, [and] make them age appropriate, present them in a way that is academic, and in a way that students can understand.”
“Vulgar language” was the reason for banning hundreds of books. Both of the aforementioned books, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” have been banned for profane phrases. The purpose was to “shield” students from mature language.
Teachers felt that the language could help students understand the context and historical time period. However, they understood students’ discomfort towards certain words.
“When quoting literature, I do ask that students censor offensive language as I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable in my classroom. I discuss the offensive language in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ in advance with my classes and explain how it demonstrates the time period and the racism,” McFerren noted. Her classroom policy discourages repeating harmful language in quotes.
However, classroom policies are varied, causing students to often question how they should write quotes from texts with obscene language.
Sophomore Irene Scherer commented, “I feel like if [profanity is] not hurting anyone it should be quoted directly. If it is used to purposefully hurt or attack someone, then it should not be written word-for-word.”
Bates concluded, “I would never teach a book just because it was banned. If it is a book that has significant value, either because it has historical value, it’s beautiful, [or] its themes are universal, and it also happens to be banned, I’m not going to back off from a book simply because it was banned.”
Further information about Banned Book Week can be found here.