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BANNED: Of Mice and Men

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Published in 1937, Of Mice and Men has long been a fixture of high school English curriculums. Author John Steinbeck used his own experience as a bindlestiff to tell the story of two migrant workers, one of whom is developmentally disabled, living and working in Depression-era California. Lenny and George dream of acquiring their own piece of land, but are thwarted by forces beyond their control.

The book debuted to instant acclaim, and was soon adapted for the screen and stage. But that didn’t insulate it from censorship challenges; in fact, Of Mice and Men is amongst the most challenged books of the last few decades. Challenges have included complaints about “profanity,” “morbid and depressing themes,” and the author’s alleged “anti-business attitude.” Others have called it “derogatory towards African Americans, women, and the developmentally disabled.”

Jodie Scales teaches English at Wapahani High School, in Selma, Indiana. She’s taught Of Mice and Men for the past five years. American Experience spoke to her about her experience.

Why do you teach this book?
It tackles moral and ethical issues within the structure of a story. The students really relate to the characters. For example, we have a really strong special education program at our school. We have a lot of kids that are very protective of those students that have special needs. I think when they start to read Lenny’s character, they think about some of the kids with special needs in our school — they think about what could happen if they aren’t protected. I’ve never had a student making fun of Lenny.

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Jodie Scales

Does it surprise you that it still gets challenged?
If a parent is just seeing the language, or hearing some of the topics, and they haven’t actually read the book themselves, or sat down with an English teacher and talked about why this is such a good book to teach — then I guess I could understand how it might be challenged.

There’s a lot in there that might make parents say, “I don’t think my kids are ready for this.” But once they see the purpose — that we’re not throwing something at their kids for the shock value, then it becomes a safe environment to discuss issues that the students are going to deal with in life.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Read an interview with Robert P. Doyle, editor of the American Library Association’s Banned Books, a collection of thousands of titles that have been subject to censorship challenges.

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Originally published September 2017.

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