National Banned Books Week

September 30-October 6 is National Banned Books Week.  And although it may seem like a ruse by English teachers to force students into reading “old” or “classic” books that appear to have surpassed their societal relevance, it most definitely is more than that.  This week is about celebrating the freedom to read and drawing attention to the problem of censorship.

Banned (or challenged) books are books that have come under controversy for their content.  Someone somewhere did not approve of the story line, the symbolism, or the underlying message written on the pages.  That person found some friends that agreed with them and essentially, made a stink about it.  People have complained to the media, to online forums, to school boards, and curriculum directors that not only should this book not be taught in school, but it should be eliminated from existence.

Any district can remove a book from their curriculum, however, only the official complaints to the American Library Association or articles from newspapers determine if a book should be put on the “banned book” list.  Books are only put on the list after they’ve received so many complaints (more info on how the list is tabulated).  But its listing doesn’t make the book, reading book, possession of the book, or the teaching of the book illegal.  The banned book list is artificial.  It doesn’t mean much.  In fact, there isn’t even one list.

The American Library Association has several types of lists available depending on years, race of the author, book title, and more.  One list is a PDF of Books Banned or Challenged in 2010-2011 that includes such books as The Hunger Games, Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank), and The Koran with explanations of who challenged them and for what reason.  I wasn’t surprised by some of the classics, but definitely by The Hunger Games.  Another one of their lists, the Banned and Challenged Classics has many books that most people know to be as the banned book list.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has a PDF list on their website entitled Challenged Books from 2004-2011.  It seems they’ve listed nearly every books that has some literary content and worthy of study in an English class.  Books such as Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, and Hamlet(yes, Shakespeare!) are listed amongst Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Lovely Bones, and A Christmas Carol.

People will continue to object to books as long as authors continually exercise their right to free speech and freedom of the press.  Books that make readers think, reflect, and change their mind on how they view the world will always have to fight against those who want to control the message. How influential are they?  The Library of Congress has assembled a list of Banned Books That Shaped America (published on

Students are always asking, “why do I have to learn this?” or “why do I need to read this?”  Sometimes, the questions need to be, “why can’t I read this?” or “how will I change by reading this?”.  I’m all for trash novels that keep people reading or motivating them to walk into a bookstore (or whatever method of obtaining books they prefer), but there are books people need to read because that author had something to say.  And 50, 100, 400 years later, that message still is important.

So this week, go read some Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Kurt Vonnegut, or Mark Twain.  You could also read The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger), 1984 (George Orwell), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller), The Jungle (Upton Sinclair), A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee), or even The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien).

And if you really like one, there is a website, where you can buy shirts inspired by classic book covers.

Lastly, dare others to read banned books with website badges and Facebook cover art.

But don’t let me tell you what to read or not to read, go find out what these rebels with a cause wrote about.  I triple-dog dare you.



The Freedom Writers Diary

Awhile back I saw the movie Freedom Writers.  In fact, I saw the movie before I decided on becoming a teacher.  It piqued my interest because it was about how people “used writing to change themselves and the world around them”.  It had a very uplifting and inspirational message with it as well.  Although I knew the movie was based on true events, I didn’t know it was based upon a book as well.  Once I did, I put the book on my “to read” shelf.  I finally was able to read in these past few weeks.  I highly recommend it.

Most people, like me, have read The Diary of Anne Frank.  Erin Gruwell taught and brought it to life to teens in Long Beach, CA, who thought it was their destiny to end up in a gang and either pregnant, dead, or in jail by 16.  Gruwell showed these 150 students the power of an education, the strength of dedication, and the rewards for perseverance.  They dubbed themselves the Freedom Writers in tribute to the strength and change shown by the Freedom Riders who rode through the deep south on integrated buses.  The name suits them and their mission.  Another diary-style book Gruwell taught was Zlata’s Diary.  I too have read that book.  Both of these diaries show life through the eyes of teen girls whose childhoods have been cut short by war.  The Freedom Writers Diary shows 150 teenage lives that have been affected by street wars in Los Angeles in the mid 1990s.

I admit, while reading this book, I got choked up often.  The book is gritty, it does not hold back, and it is an emotional roller coaster. But it pays off in the end.  Through all of their voices, a story of discovery, dreams, strength, and empowerment emerges.  There is a distinct beginning, middle, and end.  It is not a hodge-podge of voices.  It is many voices as once voice – the freedom writers’ voice.  One teacher believed in a handful of students who society had already written off…and because she did, these students are successful, and doing everything they can to encourage more of society’s cast-offs to aspire to more than their circumstances.

I may buy the accompanying teacher’s guide and possibly implement a handful of things.  If I had more money, I would donate to the Freedom Writers Foundation so they could in turn use that money for scholarships of deserving students like themselves.

I highly recommend reading this book.  Make sure you have a few hours to read and a box of tissues within an arms reach.  You’ll want them both.