In a recent editorial piece on The Huffington Post, author and high school teacher Peter Brown Hoffmeister discusses the hot topic of banning books and explores the dangerous implications and imminent pitfalls of censoring the materials teenagers have access to in schools.
Whether it be award-winning books like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, acclaimed graphic novels like This One Summer, or seminal classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the issue of regulating the books included in school classrooms and libraries has come to a head in recent years. From concerns over possible traumatic triggers or language and content that could be perceived as inappropriate or offensive and hurtful to particular groups of people, many school administrators are succumbing to the knee-jerk reaction of simply pulling controversial books from curriculum and library shelves if someone complains.
Hoffmeister, himself, recently became intimately familiar with the controversy when another teacher expressed hesitancy over his selection of the modern memoir, The Glass Castle, for his 9th grade English class. Concerned over the book’s “dark” themes, a teacher at Hoffmeister’s school questioned his inclusion of the book in his high school classroom.
Despite concerns, though, Hoffmeister stuck by his decision, and is now speaking out not only about the importance of including books with difficult subject matter in schools, but also in defense of the students, who he argues are strong and mature enough to handle challenging books and are ready to take ownership of their own education. “This is an important fight,” writes Hoffmeister. “The fight against book censorship — and that I have to stand up and challenge this insidious point of view.”
The core of Hoffmeister’s argument overturns three common assumptions often made by those who challenge books in high schools: 1) We need to protect young people, 2) teenagers can’t handle gritty material, and 3) teens won’t understand what’s going on if the materials are too complex.
“Books are often banned for teens because of vaguely ‘adult’ subject matter,” notes Hoffmeister. “Book censors are attempting to protect teens from ‘inappropriate’ and ‘controversial’ material.” Although concerned parties often argue that they are protecting vulnerable children, Hoffmeister counters that you are simply stunting their intellectual development. He writes:
Teens reading the book will discover real-world issues, real-world language, and real-world situations. They will read those very real scenes and have to decide how they feel about them. In reading a real book, they will sometimes laugh, sometimes cry, and sometimes root for or against certain characters and events. In short, they will have normal responses to lifelike things. And what’s wrong with that?
When Hoffmeister interacts with his students he sees them as capable young adults with developing opinions who are exploring different ideas and thoughts when they tackle subject matter that challenges them to think. “In my experience as a high school teacher, I’ve found teens capable of incredibly insightful readings of novels and nonfiction,” Hoffmeister argues. “I’ve seen teens be creative, argumentative, philosophical, and opinionated. They often discover something in a text that I’ve never thought of. So why shouldn’t we put excellent literature in their hands?”
Literature is a gateway for teens to grow not only as students but citizens. Hiding behind concerns that these young adults need to be protected or simply are unable to understand complex subjects is a disservice not only to the schools and teachers who have dedicated their time to helping children grow into young intellects, but also a direct disservice to teens themselves.
At the end of his article, Hoffmeister makes the rallying cry for all students to take up and take back their educations from those who would deny it to them:
To teens, I say take back those great books. Take back the classics. Take back gritty, contemporary material. Look at the banned and challenged book lists and decide what you want to read, decide what you want to learn, decide what you care about. Then you can ask great questions, develop strong opinions, and be open to new ideas.
Read Hoffmeister’s full editorial piece, “Should We Censor What Teens Read?” here.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!