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Adults Who Want to Ban Textbooks Don’t Understand How We Students Read Them

Last fall my ninth grade English class read Catcher in the ryeand like many JD Salinger fans, I was intrigued by the power of the 1951 novel.

My interest, however, stemmed not from the vivid depiction of teenage angst shown by protagonist Holden Caulfield, but rather from the controversy that accompanies it. the Receiver in the Rye’s place in classrooms has been frequently contested, with at least nine different attempts to remove it from schools between 1986 and 2000.

Reasons cited for the removal include the use of profanity, sexual references, vulgar language, defamatory statements toward God and more.

These attempts to ban The Heart Catcher surprised me, not because I found the reasons irrelevant, but because of how little influence the topics flagged as problematic have on the novel as a whole. The Heart Catcher is, at its core, a chronicle of the feelings and thoughts that accompany adulthood. It seemed to me that removing this book would do more to block the lessons that Holden learned than to protect students from anything else.

As 2021 drew to a close, the American Library Association reported an increase in attempts to ban books. Conservative campaigns in states including Virginia, Kansas, Missouri, Utah and Florida staged protests that led to school libraries removing books from their collections.

And it wasn’t just conservative members of the community who were involved; government officials also play a role in banning the books. In October, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Tyler, asked school districts to report if they had any of the 850 books that could make kids “uncomfortable.”

A month later, Texas Governor Greg Abbott targeted the removal of books with “overtly sexual” content about teenage gender identity.

In December, Oklahoma State Senator Rob Standridge proposed legislation that would allow parents to compel parents to remove a book, and if the book was not gone within 30 days, parents could receive $10,000 from the court. And the librarian could be fired.

This information greatly discouraged me. I was a public school student for eight years, and the unconventional books I read during that time greatly enriched my outlook and outlook on life. Literature like that of Mikki Kendall Hood Feminism and Ruby Bridges’ It’s your timeboth on Krause’s list, were childhood staples, as well as key influences on my journey in discovering my voice and potential for social good.

These books are the ones that really prepared me for the real world and its challenges. To say that children’s experience of reading them is just “discomfort” is a gross oversimplification.

Of course, some books with extreme content aren’t suitable for teenagers to read in school, and adults need to be selective about library and classroom materials. But to me, these attempts to ban the books also signify a larger problem of adult political posture in the classroom. There has been a resurgence of conservative interest in public education, with high-profile school board fights featuring parents arguing over topics such as mask mandates and critical race theory.

Now, some adult and conservative organizations are trying to more tightly regulate the literature children read in classrooms. In fact, one Virginia school board member even suggested burning books in school libraries with sexually explicit content.

Although these adults may feel they have students’ best interests in mind, much of their concern reflects a lack of understanding of how we interpret literature. As a student, I find that a passage containing obscenity or vulgar language is often overshadowed by the content and meaning of the literary work itself. It’s not fair to prevent students from learning a book’s message just because adults don’t trust children with uncomfortable content.

I decided to reread The Heart Catcher to see if my perspective of Holden has changed in light of attempts to ban him from classrooms. I realized Holden’s cynical take on the adult world ironically represents the very people who are trying to suppress his story.

Shelley Keller-Gage, an English teacher at Boron High School in California, where the book was retired in 1989, says it best in her message to Boron residents:[They] are like Holden. … They try to be catchers in the rye.

I hope that in 2022, those trying to ban books will reconsider and find, as Holden Caulfield did, that the reality of children growing up isn’t so dangerous after all.

Sriya Tallapragada is a freshman at Pingry School in Basking Ridge, NJ. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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