Last week, I mentioned that I see two particularly strong battles when it comes to the classroom reading curriculum. There are others, but I think these are the heart of the matter:
1. Parental control vs. education system control.
2. Age appropriateness
This week, I want to tackle the second of these issues.
The factor I see as the strongest argument to remove a particular book from the classroom is the matter of age appropriateness. It is one of the most oft-cited reasons why books are challenged in schools.
There are several reasons why the age appropriateness of a book should be considered. I'm going to concentrate on two of them:
- Enjoyment of the book
- Appropriate subject matter
And, if you choose to avoid controversial subjects, remember that there are kids (usually strong readers) who might develop a life-long love of reading after discovering that there is power in books. I loved reading as a kid. Next to running and playing sports, it was one of my favorite things to do. But by junior high, I had grown bored with many of the books I'd been exposed to. As a result, I spent more time running and playing sports in 7th and 8th grade and the amount that I read dropped way down. The stories I'd read as a kid seemed lightweight and unsubstantial. But then I discovered more grown-up books. Some of them had material that might not have been totally appropriate for a kid with exploding hormones and a growing sense that the world contained a broader range of ideas than I had been exposed to, or maybe reading about more adult situations was absolutely appropriate. The reading level and the material were both more challenging, and reading became fun again.
The age appropriateness of subject matter is much more complicated. Sometimes it's obvious. A sexually and racially charged book like Beloved probably should not be taught in fourth grade. For one thing, a child who is barely aware of sexuality is not going to understand a book that contains sexually charged scenes, explicit or not. Most fourth graders will also not understand the book or the issues it raises, and will not enjoy it.
Likewise, a book that relies heavily on irony (like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) or other literary devices will not be fully comprehended by kids who cannot yet process those devices.
There have been studies of Huck Finn that show that a large number of ninth graders don't catch the irony in Huckleberry Finn, and view the book as a simple adventure story. They don't see that, by depicting a racist society as correct, Twain shines a spotlight on the incorrectness, and they miss the point when Huck grows beyond what he's been taught and defies his conscience and declares that he'd rather go to Hell than to give Jim up. They miss the humanizing of Jim through the depiction of a dehumanized Jim. Likewise, younger black readers are more likely to feel targeted and hated by the way black and white relations are depicted in the book.
If ninth graders have so much trouble understanding the book, it probably means that its age appropriateness should be questioned. Many ninth graders are perfectly capable of comprehending the book's reading level and enjoying the book as an adventure story, but if the studies I mentioned are true, some might have trouble understanding the aspects that are most likely to be taught. By eleventh grade, kids are more likely to understand.
I look back at a chapter book I loved as a kid, The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth. Obviously targeted at children, the book is about a boy whose chicken lays a gigantic egg that hatches into a Triceratops. (And this was before the theory became prominent that birds evolved from dinosaurs.) What kid is not going to love a story about a boy who has a pet dinosaur, and both the good and bad things that result from this strange situation? I know I did. It was one of my favorite books. I have no idea how many times I read it.
I read it again as an adult. I still loved the story. I was also surprised to find an element of the story that totally escaped me as a kid. When the dinosaur becomes too big, politicians become involved. It is finally decided that the dinosaur is a national treasure and it should be placed in the National Zoo in Washington, DC for everybody to enjoy. Ironically, after this happens for the protection of the dinosaur, it faces its biggest threat. In what might be one of the best pieces of political satire I've ever read, a certain senator argues that the dinosaur should be disposed of because it is too expensive to maintain on tax dollars, among other reasons. Every adult should read his speech. That it was over my head as a kid can be shown by the fact that, looking back on the book decades later, I had absolutely no memory of that scene.
Should kids not read that book because they'd miss the point of that one one plot point? No. Authors of kids books often throw a bone to the the adults who might be reading it to their kids. Not only that, but that scene did not decrease my love for the story. I'm sure I understood at some level that adults were trying to rob a kid of something really cool, and all kids can relate to that in some way, even if I didn't understand the political overtones.
Anyway, back to my point. If a book is inappropriate for a child's age, the child won't understand it, and could actually be damaged by images that are disturbing and that the child is inable to deal with. When setting up a curriculum, educators absolutely must consider age appropriateness.
The problem is (and it seems like there is always a problem) kids mature at vastly different speeds. Anybody who has more than one child knows that. Multiply those differences by the 20-30 kids in a class, and age appropriateness becomes a difficult consideration. So do you teach to the least mature kids and risk boring the more mature kids? Or do you teach to the more advanced kids and risk losing the kids who are still developing? Or do you aim for the middle and miss the mark for the majority of kids who are either above or below that midpoint? It's not an easy target to hit. Even the question of what exactly "appropriate" means is subject to debate.
Discussions about the age appropriateness of a particular book are important, and parents should remain aware of what their kids are reading. I can understand (whether I agree or not) many of the challenges of books on required reading lists. For the reasons I've mentioned, I think it's important that kids read books that they understand, and that they can process with their growing minds, especially at younger ages.
That all changes in upper grades. I think an eleventh or twelfth grade AP English class should present challenging works, challenging both at the reading level and in content. A kid in an upper-level AP reading level is probably a strong reader who is able to comprehend and discuss a difficult book. Advanced reading material should be expected in an advanced placement course. I have less sympathy toward the parents who challenge AP reading classes, which is where many of the challenges occur. For one thing, it's kind of the point of an AP class to be challenging and to prepare the student for college-level English. For another, AP English is an elective class, so parents who are concerned about the reading materials can easily opt their kid out by not signing up for the class.
And, of course, the point I've made throughout this series of posts remains. If a book is not appropriate for child's age, either because your child is not yet able to process the material or because it contains stuff that, even if your kid can understand it, you don't want him or her to be exposed to, then by all means, you should raise the issue. If there's no alternative book that can be read, there is always the option of not reading. It might lower the grade, but in the bigger picture a lower grade is not a very high price to pay for maintaining your standards. So challenge the book's availability to your child. But remember that other kids in the class might want to read the book, might even need to read the book, that it might be completely appropriate for them, and that, just as you have the responsibility and right to decide what is appropriate for your child, other parents have that same right for theirs.
One parent might choose to protect her child by keeping materials out of her hands. Another might choose to protect his child by letting him have access to ideas and concepts that he is able to understand, and then discussing with the child, letting him know that there are many ideas in the world, some of which the parent doesn't like, but they exist and you'll run into them, and here are some tools for how to deal with them, starting with understanding why people might hold an opinion that seems contrary to rightness. The side I'm on is probably obvious if you've read this far, but I'm not going to say the other is wrong. That's a matter for each parent and child to decide. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to educating our children.
“It will be asked whether one would care to have one’s young daughter read these books. I suppose that by the time she is old enough to wish to read them she will have learned the biologic facts of life and the words that go with them. There is something seriously wrong at home if those facts have not been met and faced and sorted by then; it is not children so much as parents that should receive our concern about this. I should prefer that my own three daughters meet the facts of life and the literature of the world in my library than behind a neighbor’s barn, for I can face the adversary there directly. If the young ladies are appalled by what they read, they can close the book at the bottom of page one; if they read further, they will learn what is in the world and in its people, and no parents who have been discerning with their children need fear the outcome. Nor can they hold it back, for life is a series of little battles and minor issues, and the burden of choice is on us all, every day, young and old.”—Judge Curtis Bok, Commonwealth v. Gordon, 66 Pa. D. & C. 101, 110.