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September 28, 2011

A Look at the History of Book Banning in America

By Thaisi DaSilva and Veronica DeVore, PBS NewsHour

Subject(s)

English, Language Arts

Estimated Time

One 45-minute class period

Grade Level

7 – 12

Objective

Students will gather background information about banned books and will explore reasons why they were banned.

Overview

Throughout history, books have been banned for a host of reasons, from politically controversial content to profane language or violence. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees that writers may write and readers may read freely, but many books continue to draw scrutiny from certain officials and institutions.

Background

Each year, National Banned Books Week brings attention to books that have been banned or challenged in the past and that, in some cases, continue to draw criticism for their content. The National Banned Books Week campaign encourages readers to celebrate banned books and their contribution to the literary canon, as well as intellectual freedom – the freedom to access information and express ideas, even if they are considered unorthodox or unpopular.

Procedure

Activity 1

Have students view the above slide show and discuss which of the books they have read and/or are familiar with. What do they know about those books? Why do they think those books were banned or caused controversy at one time? Divide the class into groups, one for each book featured in the slide show. Have each group view or read the report from the NewsHour given for each book in the slide show. Have each group give a summary of what they read or saw for the class, then have them analyze why the book might have been banned, according to these guidelines:

Types of Objections Against Books

Profanity.  Books are often challenged for the language they contain, even though profanity is often used in literature to convey social or historical context, local dialect or simply to better depict reactions to real-life situations.  Books such as Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut have been challenged or banned due to objections to profanity.

Read a letter protesting censorship of a student poetry reading due to objections of profanity.

Sex.  Books as varied as Judy Blume’s Forever, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, among many others, have been challenged by parents and school boards who deem certain sexual passages inappropriate for young people.  Works such as It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris and Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman, among others, face demands for removal for their frank discussion and focus on gay/lesbian issues.

Read a letter protesting censorship of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a high school AP English course.

Violence.  Objections to violent content are often based on the idea that these works trivialize violence or desensitize readers to its effects.  Books challenged on these grounds include One Fat Summer by Robert Lypsyte and Native Son by Richard Wright.

Read NCAC’s letter protesting removal of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, on grounds that the book contains hate speech and would incite violence.

Religion.  Religious grounds have long been cited as reasons for censoring books.  Reading translations of the Bible was once forbidden.  Today, parents and ministers often object to works which discuss topics such as sex, evolution, or witchcraft or occult themes.

Activity 2

Using this map provided by the ALA, have students look at what book banning incidents took placed nearest to where they live. As a class, find information about the book or books that were banned in your area and discuss why those works were challenged. If possible, have students do research find out whether that ban is still in effect and whether there are other books being challenged in schools or institutions near you.

Extension Activities

Have students read the banned book of their choice off this list, then have them report on it for the class. What elements seemed controversial? Why do they think it was banned?

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  • Common Core Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      Level III [Grade 6-8]
    • Benchmark 3: Summarizes and paraphrases information in texts (e.g., arranges information in chronological or sequential order; conveys main ideas, critical details, and underlying meaning; uses own words or quoted materials; preserves author’s perspective and voice)
    • Level IV [Grade 9-12]
    • Benchmark 3: Summarizes and paraphrases complex, implicit hierarchic structures in informational texts (e.g., the introduction and development of central ideas, the relationships among concepts and details)
    • Standard 5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process
    • Level III [Grade 6-8]
    • Benchmark 6: Reflects on what has been learned after reading and formulates ideas, opinions, and personal responses to texts
    • Level IV [Grade 9-12]
    • Understands influences on a reader’s response to a text (e.g., personal experiences and values; perspective shaped by age, gender, class, or nationality)
    • Standard 6. Uses skills and strategies to read a variety of literary texts
    • Level IV [Grade 9-12]
    • Benchmark 10. Uses language and perspectives of literary criticism to evaluate literary works (e.g., evaluates aesthetic qualities of style, such as diction, tone, theme, mood; identifies ambiguities, subtleties, and incongruities in the text; compares reviews of literature, film, and performances with own response; cites textual evidence to support analysis, including inferences drawn from the text; analyzes multiple interpretations of a subject, scene, or entire literary work, including their relationship to the source)

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