Last semester, I walked with my early college students down the hall to the Tri-County Community College library. My students are juniors who have spent most of their high school experience (un)engaged in virtual learning due to the Covid pandemic. This past fall was their first semester back at school full time, and they were tasked with choosing a topic or issue of interest to research and learn more about. Research papers tend to be the bane of an English teacher’s existence as we struggle against technology and cheating sites to guide students in how not to plagiarize, by effectively integrating and correctly citing their sources. Librarians patiently showed students how to search for scholarly essays, find nonfiction books, and locate periodicals.
What I was unprepared for was the simple joy these students experienced going to the library. You would have thought I’d taken them on a field trip. The librarians gave them little library cards to hook on their keychains, showed them around, helped, and listened to them. They told them that they were welcome back anytime—to check out books, to read, to study, or just to chat. The experience was a gentle reminder that school and community libraries, the books contained therein, and the lovely people who curate and maintain these spaces, are an integral part of a student’s learning journey.
As we were leaving the library and heading back to the classroom, Tommy, a high school junior, exclaimed, “Dude, the library is the G.O.A.T.”
A few weeks later, those students asked if we could invite the librarians to our class to listen to their research presentations. A few other students began visiting the library on a regular basis, asking for book recommendations, and, well, reading. Amber, a sophomore, has since started reading everything she can get her hands on by Stephen King, telling one of the ladies, “That Stephen King really knows what he’s doing.”
I should not have been surprised by Tommy’s reaction. After all, I was a kid who grew up saving any money I got for the annual library book fair and seasonal Scholastic book orders. In many ways, books saved me.
The first time I experienced depression, I was in the fourth grade. Unlike kids today, I was not desensitized by overexposure to multi-media; in fact, there was a window of time when we didn’t even have a television. Thankfully, what I did have was access to books. I just remember for a time being deeply lonely and sad, and in some strange way, books made me feel less alone.
I first fell in love with books while helping Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys solve mysteries. Perhaps, this series was the easiest transition from my detective work with Scooby-Doo and the gang. I remember weekly class visits to the elementary library was time I treasured. Each year, the same kind lady explained the card catalog and the Dewey Decimal system, as we patiently stood there salivating, waiting for her to turn us loose to find a book we might be interested in borrowing. Repeatedly, I was drawn to the shelves lined with those blue-bound books, mystery and adventure waiting inside. I always wondered how these seemingly ordinary teenagers encountered mystery and crime around every corner.
Judy Blume wrote about things that no one I knew was willing to discuss: Bullying, divorce, racism, fitting in, isolation, self-esteem, spirituality, body image, sexuality… While greater awareness of these topics exists today, they were largely uncharted territory in the 70s and 80s.
I read Julie of the Wolves in the sixth grade, and it was the first time a book made me feel uncomfortable. While I didn’t have a word for sexual assault, I knew that what was happening to the protagonist was wrong. I didn’t need a teacher or a parent to explain it to me. In fact, I would have been embarrassed if they had.
For generations, books have afforded many of us the opportunity to learn about things that most adults didn’t want to or know they needed to discuss.
Mine was a generation that grew up reading Island of the Blue Dolphins and Hatchet. We snuck around and read The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar, came of age reading Go Ask Alice, and became Stephen King fans when we discovered The Shining. Our parents were none the wiser, and we turned out just fine.
And that’s the thing—reading won’t undo good parenting.
In fact, reading and the conversations that come from that are an integral part of what good parenting looks like. Books won’t cause a child to become more violent, do drugs, use profanity, or have sex, any more than listening to Rock and Roll creates defiant, sex-crazed, weed-smoking teenagers or watching horror films or playing video games produces serial killers.
I am forever thankful for the teachers who regularly read to me and my class. I have no doubt their impact continues to be far-reaching. A sixth-grade teacher who taught us about Greek and Roman mythology. A seventh-grade teacher who was not afraid to read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn out loud. A ninth-grade teacher who initiated us into high school with "The Most Dangerous Game," followed by "The Scarlet Ibis," "The Lottery," and To Kill a Mockingbird. A teacher who just simply read to us every day after lunch. And my favorite teacher of all, one who read Hamlet, Macbeth, and the Canterbury Tales with us, and decided we needed to take a day for a full-on school-wide Medieval Festival—in the South.
I suppose by today’s narrow standards all of these texts have reasons why they could be deemed “inappropriate.” In rural Appalachia, I was lucky to have teachers who did an excellent job of engaging students in literature and writing, thinking and discussion.
I consider myself fortunate to have always worked in districts that provide resources that support academic rigor while trusting teachers to make choices in the best interest of students while guiding them in literacy and inquiry. As professionals, we owe it to our students to continue to be mindful of what we assign, offer choice, and take into consideration the age-appropriateness of texts. And we have a responsibility to create a classroom culture of inclusivity by balancing the curriculum with a broad selection of texts that equally represents women writers and writers of color.
I once had a student tell me that he couldn’t read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha because he was a Christian. My response was as honest as it was simple: So am I.
I firmly believe that reading about other cultures and world religions helps us to better understand our own.
Reading about other cultures and religions should elicit questions, and usually affirms our faith, rather than shakes it. And rest assured, it is highly improbable that if a child reads Harry Potter that they will begin practicing witchcraft and wizardry. Our moral compass, the core of our humanity, the foundation of who we are, is not so easily changed. And if reading a book causes it to be, perhaps the change is a necessary part of our personal growth. We are evolving beings, and books should be part of our natural evolution.
You may have heard of a recent book-banning battle brewing in some Georgia public schools, read about books being removed in record numbers from Texas school libraries, or the removal of Holocaust graphic novel Maus from classrooms and school libraries in Tennessee. Sadly, scenes like this are nothing new.
Book banning seems to me to be a slippery slope, influenced by political and public distrust of qualified educators and supported by a watered-down education system focused on homogenizing public education for the sake of standardized test scores, and less on encouraging young people to become lifelong readers, writers, thinkers, and learners. As teachers, we shouldn’t have to exchange one for the other, and we mustn’t take a one size fits all approach to education.
While I absolutely agree that not all books should be assigned as required reading or read aloud, it’s imperative that all students continue to have access to a rich culturally and socially diverse collection of texts with which they can relate, engage, and identify. Students must be exposed to literature with characters who look like them if they are to believe that they are included and matter in the broader social narrative.
Removing books from school and community libraries does nothing to diminish the corruption and corrosion of young minds. In fact, it does just the opposite. Books have always been a way to better understand the human condition and have infinite potential to teach us empathy and compassion.
If adults think removing texts that contain “inappropriate” and “obscene” material from the library will keep young people from learning about or seeing inappropriate or obscene material, they’re mistaken—and their naivete is risible.
What they think kids don’t know—they know.
Unfortunately, they haven’t learned it from Alice Walker or Maya Angelou or J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee or Flannery O’Connor or Zora Neale Hurston or Toni Morrison or George Orwell or John Steinbeck or F. Scott Fitzgerald or Mark Twain or William Golding…
Or from books like The Bluest Eye, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Maus, The Diary of a Young Girl, The Alchemist, Beloved, The Kite Runner, The Road, The Invisible Man, The Glass Castle, Looking for Alaska, Speak, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Thirteen Reasons Why, All Boys Aren’t Blue, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Nineteen Minutes…
The list goes on. All, at one time or another, authors or titles of banned books.
Instead, our students are being educated by fake news, social media influencers, and TikTok. And they are hungry for deep, thoughtful, meaningful, engaging, texts and conversations. If you don’t believe me, just ask them.
Caitlyn, a high school junior, explains why the library is such an important space and why it should be the center of a school and community. “The library is my happy place. It's where I go to calm down or come to peace with myself. It’s my sanctuary and I’m in control. When I was little my grandma would take me to the library all the time; that’s when I learned my love for books. When Mrs. Leek told us that some schools are being built without a library, I was in shock. I mean, yes society is becoming technology-based, but having a book in your hand (no, not a kindle) gives me a sense of being grounded. I think we need the nostalgic feeling as a kid, to be able to go to a library, pick what book we want to read, and sit in that quiet room and read in peace. Being able to do that all these years has made me love the art of writing, reading, and someday I even want my very own library in my house.”
We underestimate our children and our students. They have the ability to self-monitor and they know what they are ready to read. When my daughter was a freshman in high school, she asked to borrow my copy of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, one of my favorite books. It’s a beautifully written story about female friendship, love, and the transformative power of education. But it is also a book that contains depictions of suicide, violence, sex, and rape. She read a chapter or two and returned it unfinished. Two years later, I noticed she picked it back up. This time she finished it and it remains to this day one of her favorite books as well.
In the 8th grade, my son asked if he could read Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. Again, probably not an “appropriate” choice considering it tells in graphic detail the story of a drug deal gone bad and is riddled with violence. But McCarthy’s cautionary tale of a nihilistic America in the 1980s is so much more than that. He read the book and we had some interesting family conversations as a result.
When I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, I joined the Children’s Book of the Month Club. At the time it was a luxury we couldn’t afford, but I considered it an early investment in our children’s education. My husband and I read to each of our children from the day we brought them home. Before they could understand language, they heard the cadence and rhythm of words and text, the lilt and inflections of my and their father’s voice.
I regularly took them to our small-town library to borrow stacks of books. One time, my daughter checked out a book about baseball. When she pulled out the card from the back of the book stamped with the due date, she noticed her father’s name in his childhood handwriting, beside it a 1975 due date. He had checked it out years before. Both of my children remain lifelong readers. Reading experiences are powerful and pivotal in the life of a child.
As parents and educators, it is easy to be afraid, and to function under the guise that if we monitor—control—what students read that we can protect them from a bitterly divisive and cruel reality. What we fail to realize is that they are already being exposed and manipulated by multiple forms of digital and social media on a daily basis, and the results aren’t pretty. We are allowing our students to be molded into a generation that will lack communication and critical thinking skills, and that oftentimes altogether avoids or Googles and plagiarizes their way through difficult tasks and assignments.
Walk into any high school in America at break or lunchtime and you’ll see students sitting together like they always have—but the one difference is that the majority of them are staring at a screen instead of talking to each other. I wonder what a John Hughes movie would look like today. You probably wouldn’t see teenagers in a library talking about their problems or spending the day skipping school to hang out, talk, and explore their home city. A cross-country family vacation would also look much different. Our conspicuous consumption of media is out of control.
Books aren't the problem. Lack of authentic communication and education is the problem.
Last week, I read about a study conducted by Yale University that concluded that adults who read books lived on average two years longer than those who didn’t. Strangely enough, the statistic did not hold true for reading magazines or on a device such as a Kindle. Something about a book stimulates our brains; Reading books enriches our lives.
Sometimes I think about what it took for humans to pass along stories before books—through word of mouth, through art, through letters—and what it took to create books before the invention of the printing press. Those who were literate painstakingly transcribed words and sentences, creating meaning for others to read, learn from, and enjoy. They folded, sewed, and bound the pages together. Books held versions of history. Books contained tales of human experience. Books sparked the imagination and inspired change.
Libraries are and should remain a well-used and beloved part of our schools and communities. However, due to budget cuts and reductions in funding, they are slowly disappearing. In the last few years, communities across the nation have shortened the hours that libraries are open to the public. It has become difficult to find people willing to lead after-school and summer reading programs. Fewer people are committed to a career in library science, and it has become harder to obtain that type of degree. If someone is going to invest in a Master's degree, they typically will choose something more financially lucrative. Most school libraries understandably function dually as media centers, but some schools are removing school library spaces altogether, claiming that physical books are too expensive and a lack of funding for personnel. Most students now read on school-distributed devices, and most school textbooks are available online. Teachers who want to create a classroom library for students frequently do this with their own money or through donations.
My Appalachian Cultural Studies class recently read David Joy’s article “Digging in the Trash” which takes a hard and honest look at poverty, addiction, family, and the destructiveness of Appalachian stereotypes. They then read a selection of short stories by Ron Rash. Some beautiful discussions resulted from those readings. One student informed the others that she had seen some books by Ron Rash and David Joy in the library. Then several of the students asked if they were “allowed” to take Rash’s book of short stories home for a few days. My response: Absolutely.
I came to school yesterday to find a simple post-it note left on my desk by one of my students—“Dear Mrs. Leek, I came by and borrowed that Kim Richardson book, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. I had finished my work in another class. I hope you don’t mind. - Carmie”
Carmie, you are welcome to come by and borrow books anytime.
Marianne Leek is a retired high school educator who lives in western North Carolina and teaches part-time at Tri-County Community College and Tri-County Early College in Murphy, North Carolina. Her work can be found in the Bitter Southerner, Okra, WNC, Good Grit, Plateau, and Salvation South magazines.