A Modern Look at Banned Books

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It’s Banned Books Week, which means it’s time to draw students’ attention to books frequently challenged in schools and libraries. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate reading freedom by reading a few banned or challenged books—either with students or just for ourselves—allowing these books to open our hearts and change the way we view the world.

Almost every book I teach in my high school English classes has been banned or challenged at some point in history. Many of them grace the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics. One of my classes just started reading George Orwell’s infamous 1984, having just discussed book banning—and book burning—after completing Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

These challenged classics are important because of their literary merit, but what about more recently published books that have been banned? After all, the classics no longer top the list of the most challenged books. These more recent publications are just as important to explore with students, not only because they are fantastic books, but because the reasons they are challenged in schools and libraries says a lot about the society we live in today. By looking at the reasons books are banned in particular communities, we have a window into the values of those who live there. If a book is banned due to depictions of homosexuality, for example, it is safe to assume a vocal faction of the community does not support gay rights. This is important for students to understand about their own communities and about our nation as a whole.

In the spirit of Banned Book Week, here are three modern books that have been challenged in the past year. All three provide glimpses into the lives of individuals living in circumstances most students are unlikely to experience themselves.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner was published in 2004 and sits at No. 6 on the top 10 banned books list for 2012. The Kite Runner tells the story of a wealthy boy, Amir, and his best friend, Hassan, who is the son of his father’s servant. It is a tale not only of friendship and heartbreak, heroism and cowardice, but also of an Afghanistan that not many of our students can even imagine: a beautiful place of peace and love. The Kite Runner is a great book to use in discussions of Afghan culture, class divisions and the importance of friendship. It is a modern hero’s tale. In fact, I plan on using it to walk my students through the hero’s quest, even though Hosseini’s characters make unlikely heroes.

The Kite Runner was banned for depictions of homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoints and sexually explicit scenes. While it does contain some controversial subject matter, I believe the banning of this book speaks to the intolerance toward Afghan culture and history that has flourished in the United States since 9/11.

Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina García

Dreaming in Cuban is the story of three generations of del Pino women searching for a spiritual home during the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Tackling themes ranging from politics to religion to family, this book is a fantastic choice for classrooms.

Just last week, a high school in Sierra Vista, Ariz., pulled Dreaming in Cuban from curricula and library shelves after a parent allegedly complained about sexually explicit scenes in the book. Because Arizona has a long history of challenging books written by Latino/a authors, some are questioning the true motives behind the school’s decision. This controversy is unsurprising considering the anti-immigration legislation that Arizona has passed recently.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Native American author Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has topped the most frequently banned books list for the past three years. This book is a hilarious and heartbreaking depiction of what it is like to be a Native American teenager today. Junior, the story’s protagonist, is a budding cartoonist who leaves the reservation to attend an all-white high school in a farm town with a Native American team mascot.

Alexie paints an unforgettably vivid picture of Junior’s experiences. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian rings true to the types of identity conflicts many of our students face. While some might believe this book is not appropriate for students under a certain age—it has been banned for offensive language, racism and sexually explicit scenes—challenging it is only a denial of the issues that young people, especially Native American boys, face every day.

As educators, we must make our students aware of books that have been challenged or banned and discuss why people object to them. I do not want to force students to read material they find offensive—after all, reading should be an enjoyable choice. But I do think teaching students about these books and giving them the tools to analyze the content is a critical first step toward establishing reading freedom in our communities.

Samsa is a freelance writer and teaches high school English in the south suburbs of Chicago.