The first academic freedom book of 2013 is, I'm glad to say, an excellent one. Its subtitle is "An Anti-Censorship Handbook for Educators."
There are many titles that could precede a subtitle like that. Teacher advocates might look for something like "Defend Your Rights: An Anti-Censorship Handbook for Educators." Civil libertarians might expect something like "Protecting the First Amendment: An Anti-Censorship Handbook for Educators."
But the actual title is both unexpected and perfect: Keep Them Reading: An Anti-Censorship Handbook for Educators.
Teacher advocates and civil libertarians will like this book but the authors are, first and foremost, English teachers writing for English teachers. And what English teachers want above all is to get students to read and keep them reading.
Neither ReLeah Lent nor Gloria Pipkin, the authors of Keep Them Reading, grew up with a dream of becoming an intellectual freedom activist. They studied to be teachers, and as English teachers in the 1980s they were concerned with finding books that would interest their students and promote reading. But serious teaching and serious reading can generate serious trouble.
The transformation of the authors into intellectual freedom activists is chronicled in their compelling At the Schoolhouse Gate: Lessons in Intellectual Freedom (2002). Biting the forbidden fruit of young adult literature, they came to understand that to get students to read means defending their right to read against those who would limit curricular and student choices.
Neither Lent nor Pipkin still teaches English in classrooms but both continue to write and work on behalf of reading and intellectual freedom. In Silent No More: Voices of Courage in American Schools (2003), they edited a collection of essays by other teachers who also learned that in order to really teach they would have to defend their own intellectual freedom and that of their students.
Now Lent and Pipkin and have provided a highly readable, informative, and practical handbook for educators, especially English teachers and school librarians. Perhaps the central theme is this: Plan for censorship. It is part of human nature to censor what we fear. Understand and respect censors, and prepare for them.
How to prepare? Don't wait for a challenge. Get a policy in place, including clear and fair procedures and a written form that encourages those who object to a book to consider the work as a whole and requires them to state specific objections and requests. Educate everyone -- teachers, administrators, parents, communities, and students -- about the role and value of intellectual freedom in education.
Other suggestions? Always provide alternative books for individual students to accommodate personal or parental objections but never allow parents to limit the reading of children other than their own. Whenever possible, let students choose their own books and take responsibility for defending their own choices. Encourage them to read and write about censorship.
Although the authors don't suggest it, students might even profit from reading this book. They would see it at first as a book about censorship, which it is, but might come to see that it is most fundamentally a book about the love of books, and the need to protect them and to read them.
And if you love to browse, as I do, in lists of censored books, you'll find here a rich selection of old favorites and new evils. There are, of course, the classics such as Brave New World, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
There are also old friends I met on previous censored book lists, such as the Captain Underpants series, beginning with The Adventures of Captain Underpants. I haven't kept up with all the sequels but my favorite title remains Captain Underpants and the Invasion of the Incredibly Naughty Cafeteria Ladies from Outer Space.
And then there are books new to me from authors new to me, such as Carolyn Mackler's The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things. I may not be in the demographic this book is aimed at, but I immediately wondered: Who wants to censor this book, and why?
Thus Keep Them Reading kept me reading about reading. If enough teachers read it, it will help keep children and teens reading for years to come.
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