Challenged books show the controversy in American society

Graphic by Jessica Wade

Jessica Wade

Let children read; it will make them better people. According to research conducted by The New School in New York, exposing children to literature can teach them to be more empathetic and better equipped to process their own emotions. The extensive research pulled from five studies used varied reading materials and 86 to 356 children. The participants who read non-fiction had little or no change in their ability to perceive other’s emotions. The greatest change came after a group read excerpts from works of literary fiction, such as “The Round House” by Louise Erdrich.

Kerry Kansier, a middle schoolteacher who has taught in Nebraska and Arkansas, agrees that reading is important to development.

“Students who read varied material, especially that which generates critical thinking and questioning, will become well-rounded adults with a stronger ability to reason,” Kansier said.

Sometimes, the best way to teach children about challenging topics and ideas is to let them learn from complex and intellectually-demanding literature. Yet, schools across the U.S. have a history of filtering books deemed inappropriate for a classroom.

The most recent and highly criticized example is the removal of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the eighth grade curriculum in Biloxi, Mississippi. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse tweeted about the decision, “Engaged parents should call the school district with the clear message: Our kids are tough enough to read a real book.”

Kenny Holloway, the vice president of the Biloxi School Board, cited the language “makes people uncomfortable.” “To Kill a Mockingbird” has a history of being censored. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel brings to light the issue of racism in the U.S. through a story that unfolds in the Depression-era American South. Lee’s novel rolled into fame just as the civil rights movement reached its peak.

UNO English Professor Dr. Charles Johanningsmeier argues that the book critiques racism, but he can understand why other books such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” could stir controversy.

“I think it’s [“To Kill a Mockingbird”] a wonderful book that brings up a lot of important issues; I would argue that the book is a real critique of racism,” Johanningsmeier said. “I don’t see anything wrong with “To Kill a Mockingbird”, but the N-word is used over 200 times in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I fully support African- American parents who want to keep the book from required reading.”

Johanningsmeier said that there are a few reasons a school might try to censor a book, but the main three are religion, bad morality and racially- charged content.

Perhaps a new trend, the U.S. Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) found that many of the 10 most-challenged books of 2016 were targeted for their portrayal of lesbian, gay and transgender characters. For the past 27 years, hundreds of complaints by parents, teachers and the public have poured into the OIF’s online reporting system. There were 323 challenges to published books recorded in 2016, and Johanningsmeier was correct. Most of the challenged books had themes of race or religion, but many others discussed gender or featured gay characters.

Choosing what to expose a child to can be a tricky decision. The parents who fight for the censorship of certain books often do so with the intention of shielding their child from ideas or events they see as harmful. The reality is that the U.S. is built on a history of racism and oppression, characters in books (like people in real life) are diverse and complex and “banning” a book will not stop an eighth grader from reading it.