“The Call of the Wild,” “The Giver,” the “Harry Potter” series, “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “The Kite Runner.” These books have more in common than meets the eye. They are all prominent, many of them have made their way into classroom discussions.
They have also all been challenged or banned.
The topic has revived public interest after a school board in Tennessee banned “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the classroom. While the “Maus” banning made headlines, it is not an isolated phenomenon. There were 330 book challenges in fall 2021, according to an American Library Association (ALA) report.
Wahpeton English Teacher Heather Woods is among a group of educators across the state of North Dakota who have implemented a banned books unit. For the past seven or eight years, Woods has instructed her junior class to choose a banned or challenged book from the school’s library, read it, then write a rationale in favor of keeping the book.
“I needed to think of a research project for juniors to do, and I really wanted it to be something relevant, and I also wanted it to be something I could pull from the news,” Woods said. “... We talk about ‘Do controversial topics belong in the classroom, and does that affect your ability to be a critical thinker and see different perspectives?’”
While the students don’t actually have any sway over which books stay on the shelves of the library, the unit is intended to reflect the book challenging process. At the end of the unit, the majority of students agreed books should not be banned, but many of them already believed that.
“I don’t think books should be banned for anything except maybe hate speech,” Woods’ student Gavin Schroeder said. “People have a lot to learn from banned books. If it’s a horrible book, you can still learn something from it.”
The unit didn’t introduce the students to their first banned book — all of the books the class read earlier in the school year have been challenged or banned. However, it is the first time a lot of her students have considered why a book may be challenged or banned, Woods said.
The topic of banning books forces students to think about the role of government, from a local level, like a school board, to the federal level.
“They learn that it is very real, and it could happen locally. It’s something they could run into in their lives, and they should form an opinion about it,” Woods said.
Alezay Luna said before they had chosen their read, the class noticed books were banned or challenged based on a lot of the same content like racism, LGBTQ+ characters, drug and alcohol use and sexual assault.
Many books are banned or challenged because of their “themes,” Woods said. For instance, “To Kill a Mockingbird” explores racism. Woods reads it as a glimpse into history.
“When a book is banned because of the theme, that’s so revealing,” Woods said. “I think controversial topics and critical thinking belong in the classroom.”
Luna read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie. The novel was banned and challenged due to “profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author,” according to the ALA. Elise Picken, who also read the book, said it was relatable, especially to high schoolers.
“It was very raw and real,” Picken said. “It doesn’t shy away from anything. I think it also exposes people to different perspectives that they aren’t used to.”
Tobi Cooper read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a coming of age novel about a troubled and socially anxious teenager. The book includes drug and alcohol use, incest and molestation, abortion and LGBTQ+ characters.
“It shouldn’t be banned because it gives a perspective of what it’s like to have trauma and what it’s like to get over that,” Cooper said. “It can really affect teenages, especially men who have been molested and raped, which isn’t talked about enough in our society. It shows how trauma can really affect every aspect of your life and relationships.”
Last year, Woods expanded the unit to include guest speakers. This year, she welcomed Wahpeton Daily News Sports Editor Robert Wanek Jr. to speak to the class from the lens of a journalist. Wahpeton High School teachers Wade Gilbertson and Noel Eckroth offered their thoughts from the perspective of government teachers and parents. Wahpeton High School Principal Ned Clooten gave insight to the class based on his administrative role and his role as a parent. Richland County Commissioner Perry Miller spoke to the students from the perspective of an elected official and parent. Valley City State University Communications Professor Dr. Shannon VanHorn gave her testimony as an educator and parent.
Woods also introduced a special guest to the class: American novelist Chris Crutcher. The author has three of his books on the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books of 2000-2009.
“He would write about instances in the past where white people were being racist, and he was sharing some authentic stories,” Picken said. “He worked in social services, so everything he wrote was really real, and there were different perspectives from other people’s lives.”
Crutcher told the class he was strangely happy when his first book got banned because that meant it was in the paper with other popular authors.
“He pointed out that often when your book gets challenged or banned somewhere, it makes people want to read it,” Woods said.
Since she began teaching the unit, Woods has heard a variety of opinions about banning and challenging books. The political polarization of the country over the last several years has made the topic more controversial.
Woods believes trust should be placed in the school librarian to determine which books make it on the shelves.
“No, I don’t think books should be challenged. I think some books shouldn’t be in a school library, but we trust our librarian to make those decisions,” Woods said.
The unit is more important than ever, she said.
“Learning critical thinking skills and understanding perspectives other than your own and taking in multiple perspectives, those things are more important to me than they used to be as I grow as a teacher,” Woods said.