>I Speak, You Shut Up

>Following last Saturday’s colloquium at Simmons, I had an interesting dinner conversation with Megan Whalen Turner and Virginia Duncan about the Speak debate of a few weeks ago and the more recent challenge to The Hunger Games at a New Hampshire school. Both cases have me in “yes . . . but” overload.

Yes, the op-ed objection to Speak was stupid and uninformed, and I’m glad lots of people said so. But the #speakloudly hashtag campaign on Twitter felt more like a parade of people swanning about in their virtue than anything else: “My name is Roger and I #speakloudly against censorship.” Oh, good for meSpeak had not–in the situation being discussed–been censored or even challenged. I will spare you my usual tirade against the ALA’s willful and sneaky conflation of challenged and censored books but neither was the case here. This was one idiot in the local paper mouthing off about a book he hadn’t read. If this is what gets Twitter going, it’s not going to go far.

The Hunger Games challenge is more serious. In this case, a mother had gone to the school board because her eleven-year-old daughter was being required to read Collins’ novel in a seventh-grade class. This is a true challenge, and if the school board does remove the book from the curriculum I could be persuaded to call it censorship, if not as egregious as a decision to remove the book entirely from the school’s library. But still I think, The Hunger Games? Required reading? For an eleven-year-old? Whether to make a book required reading or not is a professional judgment on the teacher’s part, but must that judgment go unquestioned? In this case, I’m questioning it.

I wish the concerned parent had talked to the teacher rather than the school board. But I also wish schools and libraries would mean what they say when they ask parents to get involved. If the only possible solution to a parent’s objection to a required book is to remove that child from the classroom, the wrong discussion is going on. If the school board meeting was the first time the teacher heard someone say The Hunger Games? Required reading? For an eleven-year-old? then the right discussion never happened.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    >I agree with you about the #speakloudly thing, and about The Hunger Games challenge. Especially about how The Hunger Games discussion should have gone down.

    I disagree with you about how big of a deal the Speak situation was. It was a demonstration on how teenage girls are being objectified to the point where even rape is considered porn, dirty, and therefore making them dirty. Although the reactions were framed in terms of censorship, I think it was these implications that provoked the strong emotional response.

    But, then again, as I'm not in the fold with those #speakloudly-ing away, I cannot know this for sure. It's just my guess.

  2. >I love your posts – so level-headed and thoughtful. It's delightful to escape the knee-jerk reactions that seem to populate Twitter.

    I'd love to hear a teacher's explanation for why they are teaching Hunger Games in fifth or sixth grade.

  3. Anonymous says:

    >While you are free and maybe right to question it, please do remember that there quite probably were well thought out reasons for the teacher to be including this as part of a broader curriculum, and that we are unlikely to have that context explained in this forum.

    Though this doesn't completely obviate the question of age appropriateness, it should be noted that seventh graders in general are 12 and 13 years old.

    There was never a more likely candidate for a child to have nightmares and other issues stemming from reading this book than my 12 year old daughter with generalized anxiety disorder and a high proclivity for nightmares. She raced through the series, loved it and was repelled by it in powerful ways, and had nary a scratch on her psyche or a restless night–much to my surprise.

    Deciding whether the book should be required reading for an entire classroom is, of course, different, but it is certainly reasonable to expect that the teacher could make a good argument in support of the choice.

  4. >There are few 11-year-olds in seventh grade. My 13 year old is in seventh grade. My 11 year old is in fifth.

    If a child is going to be accelerated, the parents have to be prepared for acceleration of content as well.

  5. Anonymous says:

    >Tandy, my son wasn't "accelerated" and he was eleven. Just a late birthday. He wasn't the only eleven year old in his class either.

    But data isn't the plural of anecdote, is it?

  6. Scope Notes says:

    >Well put, Roger. Making a book available to kids through a library and a book as required classroom reading ain't the same, although they are often treated as such. Thanks for pointing out that these two situations are different and may require more in-depth consideration.

  7. Anonymous says:

    >Yep.

    I wish people would distinguish between a book being available in a library so people may read it and a book being required reading so everyone has to read it.

    I hope Hunger Games is available in the teen area of public libraries. But I don't think Hunger Games should be required reading for seventh graders.

    I'm all for freedom to read, but I'm against requiring students to read violent books before they're mature enough to handle them.

  8. >I agree with Anonymous 12:39 that the implications of rape being porn led to the vastness of the outcry. I also wish that the protests focused on the perception of rape as porn, and the battles girls and women face after they are raped.

    Instead, the censorship took the forefront. It makes me more than a little sad that the far more vile dangers of rape—social, emotional, physical—were overshadowed.

    While I agree that there should be equal access to books and all forms of protected speech, wouldn't addressing the underlying beliefs that lead to censorship be more valuable in the long run? If men and society in general believe that rape is violence and a crime, that women are not to blame, that it should never happen, wouldn't that preclude attempts to ban/challenge/censor such material?

    I participated in Banned Books Week as a bookseller, but now I plan to Speak Loudly about protecting women and girls from predators. I consider that the far more vital dialogue at the moment.

  9. >It would be nice to think that the teacher thought long and hard and decided that The Hunger Games was the absolute best book for the class to read because of the valuable lessons about literature the kids would get from it. But is that really the most likely scenario here? (Actually, The Hunger Games seems particularly ill-suited for a classroom assignment. WAY TO SUCK THE FUN, TEACHER.)

  10. Anonymous says:

    >But Wendy, it's so easy to get the kids to read it and so hard to get them to read anything else!

  11. Walter Underwood says:

    >Suzanne Collins says, "Well, the thing is, whatever I write, whether it’s for TV or whether it’s books, even if I’m writing for preschoolers, I want the protagonist to be the age of the viewing audience." Katniss is 16, so that seems like a poor match for 11 year olds or even 13 year olds.

    Quote from:

    http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/home/885800-312/the_last_battle_with_mockingjay.html.csp

    There are plenty of other good choices in recent SF. Scott Westerfeld has a couple, "So Yesterday" for talking about marketing and fashion or "Uglies" for talking about fitting in and the beauty culture.

  12. Anonymous says:

    >Judging the teacher's choice without knowing the curriculum and students is like judging a book without reading it. We can raise an eyebrow and discuss in generalities, but we should not condemn the use of the book in this particular classroom without knowledge of these very important considerations.

  13. Roger Sutton says:

    >I frankly thought Twitter went a little crazy over the rape=porn aspect of the op-ed, co-opting its author's point to evoke outrage over something else. Do we know that by "soft-core porn" he was referring to the protagonist's rape? I also somewhat unwillingly found myself in Camille Paglia's corner when reading the many tweets that said that rape and porn had nothing to do with each other. I think I used Gone With the Wind as an example of a book that used forced sex to titillate the reader (and the heroine).

    Re Hunger Games, I question whether such a popular book needs to be taught in the first place, whether the book is rich enough to warrant sustained classroom attention, and whether its plethora of violence might make enough seventh-graders squirm that assigning it to an entire class might not be a good idea. I'm happy to entertain opposing arguments on any or all of these fronts.

  14. Anonymous says:

    >All good arguments, but is the book marketed toward teens?

    And while we're careful about what young girls are exposed to in literature, what about boys?

    The best thing I've read in thirty years is a novel being written on a blog. Its about teen male street kids in the 60's in California.

    Just the title would get this work thrown in the bin, but this is a work full of stunning insight and emotion. Those who dare to open the cover become absolutely addicted to this story… 3 million chapters read on-line prove my point.

    From the comments left after each chapter is posted its obvious that a good number of teen boys are reading this. The subject matter is sometimes upsetting, but this story is about so much more than you might think. There are more lessons in humanity buried in this work than are consumable in one read.

    Obviously one can't check IDs on the web, but I would argue that any young person who sticks with this story has more than enough maturity to handle the harsher parts and will be rewarded with the gifts of wisdom and empathy for the effort…

    http://arentboynamed.wordpress.com/

    Kevin

  15. Walter Underwood says:

    >Teens are playing a public, real-life game on Facebook now, how is that like The Hunger Games?

    But I can see how it would run out of depth for high school juniors.

    Note that Suzanne Collins thinks of the series as a war story, so All Quiet on the Western Front or Joker One might be better choices.

    My son is a junior and his favorite book from the past few years is "The Help". He thinks it should replace "To Kill a Mockingbird", and he might be right.

  16. >Last year one of my school's middle school English teachers taught a dystopia/utopia unit using The Hunger Games as one of her examples. To tie it into the larger curriculum (we're an IB school), students had to research various habitats and the skills necessary to survive should the next Hunger Games be held there. Our students were totally engaged in the unit because of the way it connected across subjects and the fact that it involved a book they wanted to read and talk about anyway.

    I have no idea how the teacher in question plans to teach the book, but there are uses for it if you've got creative, engaging teachers.

  17. Anonymous says:

    >Thank you for this, Roger. I did wonder why people were up in arms about one man who hadn't read a book and was clearly misinformed and very right wing. It happened to fall during Banned Books Week which blew it out of proportion, I feel.

  18. >Well, The Hunger Games is one of the three California Young Reader Medal nominees for this year along with Unwind and Adoration of Jenna Fox. However, they are nominees for the Young Adult category. So unless this 11 year old girl is in a GATE or Seminar program, I'd consider the assignment age-inappropriate.

    That said, there are procedures which this Mother probably did not follow. The first is to read the book. The second is to contact the teacher. Most teachers will offer an alternative assignment.

    If she's gone to the school board, this sounds like she's not only trying to control what her daughter cannot read, but also trying to deny this book to everyone else's child. While parents certainly have the right to decide what their own children can and cannot read, they do not have the right to make that decision for other people's children.

  19. >I have yet to hear of a case where one parent DOES "get" to make the decision for other people's children. It may be one complaint from one parent, but isn't it always up to the teacher, the principal, the school board, the librarian? I think parents can and should speak up for what they think is right, even if that isn't what other parents think is right. And I think there are cases in which it's appropriate for a parent to say "I don't want an alternative assignment for my child. I don't think this book is appropriate for this classroom". What's so horrible about that?

  20. Anonymous says:

    >In a reasonable world, I don't believe there should be any stigma attached to questioning a text used in the classroom.

    But here's what's horrible. People like Wesley Scroggins are horrible and there are lots of them and not all of them are conveniently as obviously bat shit crazy as Scroggins. They are individuals who work tirelessly to deny children their intellectual freedom.

    Lots of them have a thin veneer of reason and they will come back again and again and again, just as Scroggins has done, until they succeed. They are cunning, they are tenacious and they game the system. Roger points out that Speak hasn't been removed from any classroom. But the Vonnegut book has. Next time, maybe Scroggins will attack Twisted and get The Bluest Eye removed.

    Yes, there are administrators and teachers who are supposed to stand between these people and our children, but the level of selflessness and sacrifice this situation demands is ridiculous. ONE parent comes in to complain and there are endless meetings and acrimony and job risk and even if you win this round, you know the person will do it again the next year –at no particular cost to him. The cost for you will the be the chance to do your job for the children in your classroom. Which will you pick? Risha Mullins can tell you about her decision.

    The principals who should defend these teachers are in the same boat. They already have more than full time jobs. Where do they get the time to fight?

    So, the ALA whips us into a fine and frothy hysteria every year to defend these people and to draw community support for them. And I am sorry if it is stupid. I really hate it. But I don't see any alternative right now to us getting our knickers in a twist every damn time this happens.

    Because I am afraid that the alternative is that the Wesley Scroggins, inch by inch, book by book, win.

  21. J. L. Bell says:

    >I agree that the “Speak Loudly” campaign showed one of the less admirable aspects of the Twitter/online universe, the way self-selected networks can start echoing one message back and forth for each other’s sake.

    However, I don’t think your analysis of the Missouri case is accurate. The man who called Speak and other titles “soft pornography” described that book in detail, suggesting he did read it—just not well. He specifically mentioned the rape scenes as part of why he found the book objectionable. He’s educated enough to be a professor at a state university. He had already filed a lengthy complaint with local authorities, which had resulted in changes to the curriculum.

    It’s true that rape and near-rape have long had a role in pornography. But this man’s complaint suggests that every rape scene is pornographic, regardless of context. In calling Speak a form of pornography, that man implied not only that it was sexually titillating, but that Laurie Halse Anderson wrote it to be sexually titillating.

    By that standard, no author could write graphically about sexual violence without becoming a pornographer. To borrow the Gone with the Wind analogy, the scenes between Rhett and Scarlett would have the same function and meaning as the hackneyed scenes of Scarlett being threatened by free black men and Yankee soldiers.

  22. Roger Sutton says:

    >J.L.–you're right. I let my rhetoric get ahead of my reading. (Just like Mr. Scroggins!)

    Colleen, I'm sure a curricular defense for Hunger Games in the seventh grade can be made, I just want to know if this teacher had one. However, your example of the survival skills tie-in reminds me of how uncomfortable I once saw Paula Fox get as a teacher proudly described "having the children" sit squeezed together on the floor of the classroom to simulate the experience of being in a slave ship. And then she played the fife for them, allegedly "bringing home" Fox's book The Slave Dancer and providing a handy curricular shout-out to the music department at the same time. If we use a book about a soul-destroying dystopia to also provide lessons in, oh, hunting and gathering, are we confusing the point?

    I don't deny that The Hunger Games is excellent entertainment as well as timely sociopolitical commentary, but sometimes the book allows the first to trump the second. Apropos of the Speak discussion, there's a Robert Westall YA short story (name, anyone?) about a man who enslaves a woman (or maybe she's a robot?), and while the point seems to be to show how terrible this is, there's a bit too much authorial pleasure in describing it to make the message less than mixed.

  23. >As for the age thing, I was a seventh grader in 1984 so guess what we had to read? 1984!! And a bit of the book was even excerpted in Read magazine — which we got to read in class — most notably, the part where they were putting the cage on the guy's head AND THEY WERE GOING TO LET RATS INTO THE CAGE TO GNAW ON HIS FACE OH ICK ICK ICK.

    I'll take Hunger Games instead, thanks.

  24. >I don't know — is The Hunger Games more inappropriate for a 7th grade classroom than, say, In the House of the Scorpion? The Farmer title has been showing up on required reading lists for middle schoolers for years. When I was in seventh grade, my class read I Am the Cheese and unexpurgated versions of Greek myths. (I think we all knew better than to go home and complain to Mom about Zeus castrating Kronos with a scythe. What self-respecting 12-year-old would want those kind of stories to end?)

    But, yes — did the parent talk to the teacher about her choice? Why couldn't they have found something else for that poor kid to read?

  25. Anonymous says:

    >I think there's something wrong with a program where you tell everyone to take out their books for the next lesson except BROOKE BECAUSE HER MOTHER WON'T LET HER READ THIS BOOK.

    I can see why it's less exciting, both for the class and for the teacher to teach to the Least Dull Common Factor, but I just can't accept that isolating one or two kids from the curriculum is the thing to do. Especially in Middle School when conformity is the only safety.

    I wish teachers wouldn't push the envelope if the kids don't have a reasonable means of opting out. When they or their parents can choose between the stodgy-old-books class and the racy-relevant-books class, I think that's great. Extra credit reading assignments? Cool. After school book groups? Awesome. A selection of books–pick one and join it's literature circle? Fine by me. One size fits all whether you like it or not? Ick.

    Anon 7:13

  26. Anonymous says:

    >So, you are a teacher. You have 32 students. 3 want to opt out of Greek Myths. 5 want to opt out of geometry. 4 don't want to read Romeo and Juliet because it's too sad. 8 find history too boring to contemplate. Several don't want to study evolution…

    Opting out is not an option.

    Teachers should push the envelope. Doing it successfully requires skill, wisdom, and good communication with students and their parents.

  27. Anonymous says:

    >Well, no, Anon 9:27, I can't actually agree that reading The Hunger Games is as important to the intellectual development and later success as say, learning Geometry. And I think it's a stupid argument to say, "but now we won't be able to make them learn anything!"

    I think there are scads of people who can live a full and happy life without reading The Hunger Games. Without learning Math? Not so much.

    That's why I was talking about the envelope. The stuff in the middle, most people agree on. For that, it's really easy to tell my kid to stop whining and do her homework. For the stuff on the edges, there's less consensus. When there's so much inside the envelope already, why do we have to reach outside of it? Why do you pick the thing that's going to be a painful experience for some and force it on everyone? (Please don't try to convince me that anyone is as distressed by Romeo and Juliet as they are by Rue's death in HG.)

    MInd you, I don't think my kid would actually mind The Hunger Games, but I still have reservations about using it, mostly because of the quality of the writing. Seriously, if you have low performing students and it's all you can get them to read, go for it. But if you've got good students and you're teaching it as Literature, please don't.

  28. Anonymous says:

    >It's a lot of things, but A TALE OF TWO CITIES it ain't.

  29. Gregory K. says:

    >Roger – I think you're focusing on one small aspect of the #SpeakLoudly tag and failing to look at the bigger picture (some of which was covered in and is actually demonstrated by the existence of this New York Times blog post).

    If you read Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everyone, you'll see plenty of examples of how the online world lets groups form globally in a way that wasn't possible before. This is a powerful thing. These groups can offer support – I wonder how many people who tweeted or blogged stood up in public with their opinion for the very first time? – as well as places where a group can gather to strategize and develop a plan of action (as in the airline passenger's bill of rights, outlined in Shirky's book).

    Will that happen here? Too early to say, but it's key to note that the tag quickly moved beyond being about Speak and to a bigger set of issues. And sure, there's "noise" on the SpeakLoudly tag. But does that mean that it's better to stay silent because it might allow noise into the stream? Has silence worked on any social issue? Isn't standing up and owning an opinion important, or is it only "swanning about in virtue"?

    If you're viewing social media and the #SpeakLoudly tag as an end in itself instead of as part of the larger landscape, I think you might be focusing too narrowly. Twitter and Facebook offer the potential to transmit a message widely and to create the numbers needed for action. That's what the tag demonstrated to me, anyway.

  30. Michael Grant says:

    >At age 10 we have plenty of boys reading books. By age 14 we've lost them.

    I think a lot of the blame for that goes to the parents and teachers and school administrators who disapprove of action-heavy books like Hunger Games.

    People need to stop telling kids — especially boys — what not to read. Unless we're talking about genuine pornography I don't think the words, "Don't read that," should ever be uttered. Kids will put down a book they find too troubling or too far over their heads. They don't really need a squad of hysterical authority figures protecting them from Suzanne Collins.

    They also don't need well-meaning intellectuals pushing them away from HG and onto the preferred literary medicine du jour.

    I'm on book tour at the moment, going into Elementary and Middle Schools and I tell kids not to let anyone tell them what not to read, not to listen to people who prattle about reading level or sneer at their choices. The exact script goes: "If you want to read Junie B. Jones, read Junie B. If you want to read Harry Potter, read that. If you want to read Batman, read Batman."

    Between right wing nuts and left wing nuts and overprotective parents and scared administrators we're doing a really good job of sucking the joy out of reading. And once it stops being fun for kids, they stop doing it.

    We're already burying kids under obscene workloads, depriving them of sleep, smothering them with layers of protection, all so they can nail good test scores and end up carrying $100,000 in economically foolish college debt. At least let the poor kids read something they like.

    So bravo for the teacher who assigned Hunger Games. She's trying. She at least is not just another brick in the wall.

  31. Anonymous says:

    >*eye roll*

    Anon 7:13

  32. >There is a big difference between assigning a book to be read as a classroom requirement and having the book available to be read by those who choose to do so.

    The Speak and Hunger Games issue is about required reading, not available-to-be-read reading.

  33. Anonymous says:

    >Gregory K.

    I am not sure what the upshot of all the speaking is, though. What's the success in defending Speak if it wasn't really going to get yanked from the curriculum? Especially when Vonnegut, as far as I know, hasn't been restored? I think it might be a lot of sound and fury that makes the Speakers feel good, but ultimately serves as a pacifier. People feel they have taken their stand and can now go back to their TV show.

    The Texas school's disinvitation of Ellen Hopkins might be a better example for your case. Without all that publicity, I think the people in charge could have substituted other authors for the ones who pulled out. Thanks to the notoriety, they couldn't. I'm eager to see what happens next year. Maybe someone there will think there is community support for envelope pushing, or maybe they will go for all puppies and rainbows. It will be interesting.

    If they go for puppies and rainbows, who wins? If they go P and R and dwindle out of existence after a few years, who wins?

    I am not sure that having everyone talk about the business in Kentucky with Risha Mullins did her any good. She had a lot of people to pat her on the back, but she still couldn't do her job because of the challenges.

    Do you have any hope that the talk at #speakloudly will have in affect IRL?

    Anon 7:13

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