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Censoring Books

censored

Every so often a news article or something will pop up about a “banned” book and there will be a huge controversy surrounding those who want the book boycotted and those who think it should be embraced.

Sometimes it’s a classic, like Huckleberry Finn, and one side wants to ban it because of its cultural stereotypes and language demeaning minorities, while the other side wants to uphold it as an icon of our nation’s history.

Other times it’s a more modern story embracing sexual experimentation in adolescence, and one side hails it as progressive and inclusive while the other decries it for being inappropriate for the age group it targets.

In the Christian community, we have no shortage of these debates. There are those who think children should be protected from the world and their innocence maintained for as long as possible, and there are those who believe children should know what’s out there so they’re not tempted to experiment later on, and there is everyone in between.

One of the most powerfully divisive book series, one that has been discussed frequently and at length on this blog alone, is the Harry Potter series. Most of us on this blog tend to be pro-Harry, to varying degrees and for various reasons, but we can certainly understand the reasons against it, even though we may disagree.

This issue has recently come up for me because of my kids’ school. My children attend a Christian school. The school uses a program called Accelerated Reader to track reading goals and comprehension. Every book in the system is rated for grade level, and there is a comprehension quiz attached to it. Their teachers test them to determine what grade level range they should be reading in and how many points they need to acquire for the quarter. The kids read a book, then log into the AR program and take a quiz on that book, and then receive points for reading and taking the quiz. Bigger, more advanced books are worth more points, and if they might not get all the points if they don’t answer all the questions correctly.

As I understand it, the program itself has various settings that each school can choose in order to make the program conform to their specific needs and preferences. One of those settings includes not allowing credit for certain books. Our librarian has a set of standards that conform to the school’s statement of faith regarding what books are not allowed, based on content, the author’s other works and whether they’re blatantly against our faith, and so on.

Harry Potter is one such series that has been added to our school’s blacklist.

There are various reasons behind it, beyond just the inclusion of magic, most of which I personally disagree with. I understand that as a Christian school, they need to draw a line somewhere. The fact that Harry Potter is such a successful franchise actually means that it draws more scrutiny than other similar stories, so the controversy itself is much, much louder and the opinions much more vocal, and so institutions like my kids’ schools have to be extra careful to appease the more vocally conservative parents and board members who are opposed to this book.

The issue I have with this type of censorship, however, is that it is so very legalistic. One person’s standards become the standard for everyone else. Instead of telling the parents it’s up to them individually to approve what books their children can read, it dictates one specific point of view to everyone.

I would certainly support the school not buying the questionable material, thus supporting things that go against their code of ethics and making it accessible to students perhaps without their parents’ knowledge, but if a parent personally approves of a book and allows their child to read it, that should be their decision.

And of course, parents can do so.

But the children don’t get school credit for it.

Which, in the case of my second son at least, means that he won’t read it at all.

This is highly frustrating for me as a parent, because I want my kids to be readers. My first and third kids are no problem. My oldest reads everything, especially if one of his friends recommends it. I have actually been guilty of encouraging a girl to suggest a book to him, knowing that if the recommendation came from her rather than me, he’d be much more likely to read it (and he was and he did read it and he enjoyed it). My third child, too, will read everything in sight. She’s read about four entire chapter books since yesterday.

But my second born, he’s a little more difficult. It’s much harder to catch his attention, and harder still to keep it. There are very few books he actually wants to read, and even if I know he would enjoy it, convincing him to try it is hard. We read the first Harry Potter out loud as a family, and of course they were hooked, so this son read the second book before he became aware that he wouldn’t get school credit for it.

And then he stopped.

Even though he likes it and wants to read it, he won’t, because he doesn’t see the point in reading something he’s not going to get credit for. It’s a waste of time for him. (And it’s not just Harry Potter–there have been a few different series that he’s enjoyed, but then couldn’t get credit for so he gave up.) So instead we go through the approved reading lists and I tell him all the other books I think he’d enjoy and why they’re so good and try to convince him that he’ll like them, and enforcing reading time because he has to read whether he likes it or not.

But I don’t like doing that. I want him to enjoy reading. I don’t want it to be a chore for him. I don’t want to have to force him. I want him to get lost in a book and develop a love for discovering new worlds and new characters. And that starts by finding some things you like and branching out from there. The more a person reads, the more they enjoy reading, and the more they’re willing to try reading. If my son got the chance to enjoy reading, by being allowed (and by “allowed” in this context of course I mean getting credit for it), then in the future he’d be more likely to enjoy reading something else and his love of reading would grow.

So, while a part of me understands the school’s stance and their need for standards, several other parts of me are frustrated by the legalism and dictatorship. I feel like it’s hampering my ability to do what’s best for my son, and that it’s harming my son’s learning. I would much prefer a policy that allowed for a little more freedom and personal accountability rather than adhering to the loudest voices of dissent.

What do you think? Do you think certain books should be censored? What topics and content levels should be censored? Are there standards that should be upheld for different age groups? Where would you draw the line?

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About Avily Jerome

Avily Jerome is a writer and the editor of Havok Magazine. Her short stories have been published in various magazines, both print and digital. She has judged several writing contests and is a writing conference teacher and presenter. She writes speculative fiction, her ideas ranging from almost-real-world action/adventures to epic fantasies to supernatural thrillers.

20 comments on “Censoring Books

  1. You would be surprised how much kids sensor for themselves, but the best rule for kids is “age appropriate” The best judge of age appropriate are parents and their children. I read to and with my son up until he was a Freshman in high school. I couldn’t keep up anymore. We discussed books a lot, together. A really good book on this topic is a memoir call WELCOME TO THE LIZARD MOTEL. I recommend it.

    • I do a lot of that, too. We read aloud as a family often, and we discuss the stories, what we think about certain situations, the difference between real and fantasy, the difference between the way we live now versus someone in a historical setting, how bad choices lead to consequences, etc. With my oldest, since he’s the one reading a little more advanced things, we’ve talked about deeper concepts.
      I agree, parents are the best judge of what their kids can and should read. But since I don’t homeschool (or plan to any time in the near future), I also have to conform to the rules and standards set forth by the school we’ve chosen to put them in.

  2. The whole point system for reading books at all seems to be the problem here. He’s playing the game to get points. He doesn’t care what books he reads. As a mother of kids who gamify everything, I know the signs. Remove the game and he’ll be able to explore on his own.

    • I don’t disagree in principle, but there has to be some way of measuring progress. The program in and of itself is one that I think is pretty good. They read books within their grade level abilities (which may or may not line up with their actual grade levels), so they’re not competing with anyone else and they’re not trying to understand things that are too difficult for them. Their points goals are individualized, so a slower reader can still meet their own goals, even if they’re not reading at the same level or speed as their classmates, and more advanced readers aren’t being held back and are being encouraged to read more and more difficult things. The quizzes are designed to test comprehension, which also helps determine if they’re reading at the correct level. It’s a system that works really well a majority of the time, for a majority of the students.
      I just happen to have one of those kids who is not the norm and requires more specialized attention and is the opposite of the majority that these programs are designed for.

  3. Kessie’s right: the issue here is not that they won’t award points for reading Harry Potter, but that they’re awarding points at all. However, having had kids that were at one time reluctant readers, and liked to be rewarded for putting in the time and effort, especially when they were younger…

    Something to explore as an alternative carrot: does your local public library have a summer reading program? We always enjoyed that in Colorado Springs, because they would award prizes for reading so many books, and–there was no blacklist.

    If you could get him signed up for something like that (or create your own?), if the prizes are interesting enough, you may still get him to read more widely in spite of this other.

  4. My daughter is severely dyslexic and finding books that interest her enough to make her put forth the effort to read has been a struggle. Until we discovered manga a few months ago. She inhaled the entire Sailor Moon series in a month and is working on a few others now (Manga Messiah for one). I read them so I’d know what she was reading and they were odd, confusing, nonsensical – but she loves them. And we can talk about the bits I don’t love. And she – is – reading!! I’d go to the mat before I let anyone stifle the joy she’s found in these books. Have you talked to the school or his teacher about the stance? It seems beyond stupid to me for the school to dictate what counts as acceptable reading. It’s one thing to not provide it in their library and even to maybe not want to hear about it in oral book reports or such. But to discount the effort just because they don’t like the books or are afraid of offending those who dislike them?

    Our old school used to have these “read-O” bingo activities for students to earn points. Each class competed against the others for completed Read-o sheets. They would bring the sheets home and were supposed to complete an activity in each square until they got 5 in a row and then turn the sheet in to school. But the activities were way beyond my daughter’s ability. So we disregarded the activities and made up our own and I would sign off on the sheet anyway. Maybe your son could be motivated some other way at home, if rewards are what motivate the reading?

  5. Hoo, boy. What a hot-button issue. My heart goes out to you, Avily, and to your son and this whole mess. While I understand the need to draw the line somewhere, i.e., the school, if a parent approves a book for their child, you raise a great point about that too. Most of you know if you’ve followed my comments here and there that I am not a big fan of the HP franchise, though I love certain aspects of it (Voldemort’s spiritual disintegration for example). Personally I do feel this series clearly does violate Deut. 18, which some want to erase, but having said that, as you’ll see from my comment today on Brother Burnett’s excellent post on speculative faith, it’s wrong of me to howl “It doesn’t appeal to me, therefore it should appeal to no one.” I’m howling at myself in a mirror here, for Alan Garner’s gem The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is stuffed with as much magic as HP, and that’s one of my favorite fantasy stories of all time. We can, as Christians, agree to disagree here as long as we don’t adopt unbiblical notions that magic is good and let’s imitate Rowling because that’s where the money is. But I have to agree with you, this is the parents’ call and not the school, and it saddens me that your son’s interest in reading was affected by this. Whether you or anyone else agrees with me re HP is not the point. Point is, I’m praying for you, your family, and the school. God will take care of this. Trust Him.

    • Thank you 🙂

      • And just so your readers understand (I know YOU do), I am NOT one of “THEM” — you are so right, this is not just about HP. Let’s have a little perspective. Before Harry it was Pokemon, and before that it was He-Man. I have witnessed firsthand what pain this can bring when “Christian censorship” is in vogue. I’d also like to say I personally stood up to “THEM” — including ridiculous material distributed at our church — on both these subjects in my typically disturbing and uncompromising manner some people don’t like hearing. I feel your pain, sister. And if I understand, think of how much more the Lord understands. Continuing to pray. Our God is an Awesome God and He will attend to this matter. Christus victor!

  6. Well, I am not a HP fan and have never read any of them, but a friend I know has read them and one of my daughters has as well. Both say there are things in it that are in contradiction to the Bible. I have not read them so I cannot comment either way, but based on what they’ve told me I understand (but do not necessarily condone) the school’s position.
    As to your son who is not a big reader,I have been a teacher in both middle school and high school for more than 30 years and I have come to the conclusion that some people are avid readers and others are not. My wife and i read like crazy and one of our daughters does likewise, but the other only reads non-fiction and mostly just what helps her in her job. I might suggest non-fiction in a subject area that appeals to him.

    • We have done that (non-fiction).
      And we have also discussed the difference between real and pretend, and we’ve discussed at length what the Bible says about witchcraft and the real types of spiritual entanglements that the Bible makes it clear we should avoid, and we’ve discussed how Harry Potter is made up and it’s just pretend and so on.

  7. Frown emoticon. Mad emoticon. I’m not even sure where to start with this, but I’m leaning toward Christianity making a full circle back to the Dark Ages. Sometimes I think the church prefers legalistic sheep over free thinkers.
    Obviously by restricting what your reads for his AR goal proves they care more about making sure he’s a sheep than whether or not he’s literate. I would be LIVID!!
    I’m fine with the school not buying the book or maybe even not letting him take it to school but not letting him read Harry Potter at home and testing on it makes me furious!

  8. Lest anyone think this is just about Harry Potter, it isn’t. There are other books on the blacklist that he has started and been interested in only to find out he can’t get points for them and given up.
    The types of stories he likes are the darker, weirder, spec-fic stories, and those are often the ones that are frowned upon by the Christian community.
    He is enjoying Narnia and he devoured Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which I actually object to far more than HP, on the basis of the fact that he has never tried to put a spell on one of his siblings, but after reading Wimpy Kid he started calling people “idiot” and saying other things that I have never allowed him to say), so it’s not as though Harry Potter is the only thing he will read and this is just about the HP controversy.
    It’s just the most recent and most visible.

  9. Personally, I would set up a “game” separate from school to encourage him to read according to what I approve rather than what the school dictates. He can still read whatever the school deems “safe” for the points there, but if more incentive is needed to develop greater interest in reading, then I would just see it as another part of parenting.

    Keith had a good point, too, about some being readers and some not. I’m an avid reader but my parents thought reading was a complete waste of time. No interest in my books (other than complaining when I wanted 50-75 cents for another book), and certainly no interest in censoring what I read.

    My husband is a voracious reader, but his reading passion is nonfiction and history. With a very few exceptions, he doesn’t really care for fiction.

    So personal taste also has to figure in there when guiding & encouraging a youngster along the reading path.

    But I find much of the “age appropriate” paradigm baffling. Many of my classmates were reading (and comprehending) at college level and beyond by the time we hit 7th grade. I was going through some of my very old school papers and found several of my 7th & 8th grade book reports and a 7-page mimeographed list of suggested authors/books. Authors I’d checked off as completed readings (and written reports done) included Louis L’Amour, Frank Herbert, Jack London, Richard Matheson, Isaac Asimov, H.P. Lovecraft, Richard Collins, Alistair MacLean, Zane Grey, Kobo Abe, Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Loren Eiseley, Gordon Dickson, Taylor Caldwell, Shakespeare, Ursula K. Le Guin, Keith Laumer…
    (I can only imagine what a Christian school would do with most of what was on my list!)

    Nowadays, that level of reading has fallen waaaaaaay down in both liberal public schools as well as legalistic Christian ones.
    It started with censorship.
    And the scholastic price is paid over every lifetime.

    • Classics they’re usually okay with, because they’re classics. I imagine Lovecraft, Asimov, and some others might be touchy, but once something reaches “classic” status somehow content becomes less important.
      Yeah, I remember reading way above grade level when I was younger. My oldest is to the point where he can read pretty much whatever and do fine with it, but some things obviously interest him more than others.

      • LOL Well, it’s hinting my age to say that a number of today’s “classics” (especially genre ones) were new or nearly new publications when I read them. Still, they were acceptable books for school purposes.

        But reading well above grade level was pretty common when I went to school except for maybe the slowest children who were often read *to* in special classes so they could participate in regular class discussions.
        Sadly, at a couple of the schools I attended, the paradigm changed by the time my younger sister attended — within 10 years. School-wide, reading & comprehension dropped to or below grade levels, which, of course, affected learning in most other subjects. It wasn’t long afterward that educational standards were lowered to make it all appear more acceptable. 😦

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