Teaching Controversial Books

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Sadly, our culture is steadily moving away from any sort of ethical criticism when it comes to movies, music, and books. Young children are exposed to swear words and sexual content much earlier than even ten years ago, and the trend is only worsening. Even elementary school curricula now include alternative lifestyles and other topics that are provocative at best.  However, in the midst of such liberal values, some books are still considered too controversial for junior high students. Since homeschooling gives parents the freedom to choose what their students read, should we introduce such books to young readers?

Let’s look at the stories penned by Mark Twain, for example. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are chief among this group of “banned books.” Critics contend that the racist words and outlook of most of the characters is highly offensive and thus inappropriate before high school, if at all. To Kill a Mockingbird is also regarded as too contentious for middle school because of themes of strong racism, domestic abuse, and other “adult” elements. Proponents of censoring these books seem to fear that such controversial topics will negatively affect students, teaching them offensive words and bigoted values.

Aside from the fact that junior high students are probably already acquainted with offensive words (and worse), these stories offer the homeschooling parent unparalleled  teaching opportunities. First of all, both Twain and Lee choose to narrate through the eyes of children, who readily recognize the prejudices that surround them. Huck Finn develops an unlikely friendship with a runaway slave, childishly but effectively condemning the racism of his day when he refuses to turn him in: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” Similarly, Harper Lee’s Scout learns that her father stands alone against prejudice, while unapologetically exposing the blatant faults of white racism in the South. Both authors surround childhood games and pranks with the harsh realities of elements of American culture, bringing readers to a deeper understanding of important social issues that affect us to this day.

There is perhaps no better time than middle school to expose mature students to these books, provided parents offer an explanation of the times, the culture, the history, and the issues surrounding the story. A list of questions will guide readers to a thoughtful analysis of the characters, setting, and themes, which will teach much more than just reading. While these novels may seem rough around the edges, their impact is undeniable.  

Finally, reading books that offend us is crucial for critical thinking. How little we would understand if we only read material with which we agree! In high school, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is required reading. Oedipus Rex, El Cid, Arabian Nights, The Stranger, Crime and Punishment, and Brave New World are all on my list, too. Why do I insist on materials that discuss crime, sexuality, nihilism, and even drug use? Let me tell you. It may sound trite, but these books have been instrumental to my children, allowing them to see up close and personal the realities of a world without God–and the redemption that is available when we choose to accept Grace. Each of those works listed has impacted my kids, their critical thinking, their worldviews, and their ability to empathize with people who do not share their opinion. By the end of high school, they could trace the intersection of history, philosophy, and literature as an organic process whose roots can still be imminently felt in the 21st century. This was my responsibility as a mother and as a teacher: to help them situate themselves in the scope of eternity.

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Remember: Banned Book Week starts September 25th!

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