ALAN v27n3 - Middle Schoolers and the Right to Read

Middle Schoolers and the Right to Read

John S. Simmons

There was a time, a little over a quarter-century ago, when books and curricula for early adolescents were generally considered "safe" from complaints and challenges issued by parents and concerned citizens. Such critical input was mostly directed at senior high school literature, art, and history texts which offered materials containing offensive language, explicit sexual descriptions, nudity (paintings, drawings, sculpture, etc.), anti-Christian and anti-American tracts. That opposition promoted the occasional disciplining, even firing, of teachers who assigned the study of such texts as Salinger's Catcher in the Rye , Huxley's Brave New World , Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men , Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five , and others. Pre-1960's Young Adult Literature was, in the words of English educator Stephen Dunning, "consistently wholesome and insistently didactic" ( 317-318 ). Events of the past 30-plus years have caused all that to change.

As important as any factor in citizens' concerns with what was going on in the teenagers' classrooms was the wholesale transition from junior high schools to middle schools, roughly from 1965 to 1980. The earlier organization pattern was thoroughly content-oriented and teacher-centered. The newer model was student-centered and was built on an evolving curriculum, which emphasized the dynamic nature and needs of the early adolescent. It offered areas of study based on experiential features rather than those reflecting traditional/cognitively dominated subject matter. Furthermore, it was most often developed and taught by teams of teachers rather than by individual content specialists. Thus, once a relevant topic, e.g., "The Family" or "Self-Awareness" became the team choice, then materials and activities were selected to treat that topic in length and/or depth. These choices then had a profound influence on materials to be taught and shared in the classroom. Gone were such "golden oldie" texts as the Big Red series, Treasure Island, Ivanhoe, Lassie Come Home , and O. Henry stories, to name a few. In their place were assigned texts, which dealt with current considerations, realistically told. Writing also moved from set topics ("Compare city life with country life") and periodic book reports (usually from prescribed reading lists) to opportunities for personal expression and issues of social awareness.

Coincidental with the opening up of classroom reading options, as noted above, came the rise of the "new" Young Adult (once called "Junior") Novel. From the publication of three texts: Robert Lipsyte's The Contender ( 1967 ), S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders ( 1967 ), and Paul Zindel's The Pigman ( 1968 ), a whole caravan of texts rolled over the nation. They grappled with themes and conflicts of American young people and the life choices that faced them in the latter half of the 20th century. Their depictions of urban blight, rural isolation, the rites of puberty, teen-on-teen violence, parental neglect/abuse, street crime and violence, substance abuse, and on and on grabbed countless teenagers where they lived. The realistic treatment of these highly pertinent topics, while seldom presented through profane language or prurient descriptions, constituted a significant departure from the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew/Silhouette Romance days, which could be classified as post-Victorian residue. Not long after their appearance in middle school classrooms and libraries, however, these new young adult novels became the target of angry criticisms of parents/citizens across the nation, and these objections ran the gamut of social class as well as racial, ethnic, and religious groups.

Suddenly, then, the curricula of the once-safe junior highs/middle schools fell increasingly under community scrutiny. The negative reactions forthcoming were exacerbated by the significant increase in reader-response approaches in which young readers were encouraged to express their inferences and judgements of the themes, styles, and human values, which they found in those texts. The candor of such classroom interactions was troublesome to those who, deep in their collective hearts, believed that the main reason for having schools was to induct the youth tranquilly into an orthodox adult social climate. The more open the classroom dialogues were reported to be, the greater the increase in the tempo of adult criticism became.

As middle school classrooms and libraries acquired "new" YA fiction, young adolescents became able to make individual choices as readers; students were encouraged to read widely and to link their choices to the "real world" themes being introduced by their teacher teams. Gloria Pipkin, a former Panama City (Florida) middle school teacher, a proponent of the students' right to read, and the target of intense community hostility (1985-1990), recalls parents' complaints that her classroom resembled "B. Dalton's with desks." Pipkin's routine reply to such charges was; "Absolutely! Don't you love it?" Sad to say, a small but vocal group of parents did not love it. Thus, Pipkin no longer teaches, and her old classroom now displays grammar books, spelling lists (long ones), and state-appointed literature anthologies. (Please see "A Chilling Case of Censorship," Washington Post Sunday Magazine , January 4, 1987, for a detailed account of Pipkin's battle.)

Expanding the Middle School Canon

Despite the setback experienced by Pipkin and other such pioneers, the individual choice, wide reading movement has grown among middle schools over the past quarter century. And this burgeoning reading list has continued to reflect diversity: In the first instance, this diversity features historical, sociological, biological materials, as well as contemporary health education materials. Texts attempting to reconcile scientific breakthroughs, advancing technologies, and morality are also becoming prevalent-all highly useful to middle school instructor teams. The second type of diversity can be seen in the influx of texts whose content, themes, and (often) authors represent minority groups residing in the USA, circa 21st century. Books, films, CD ROMs, music, videos, and other media dealing with life situations, aspirations, and traumas of African-Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos/Latinas, Native Americans, and others, up to and including Albanian refugees, now proliferate middle school classrooms and libraries. With their inclusion has come a rising tide of protest from those citizens who plead for-and demand-a curricular return to "the good old days" of White Protestant, mainline, Eurocentric programs of study; you know, "The ones which made this country great." This reaction has caused the multicultural movement in school curricula to become one of the more controversial ones as schools and communities struggle to iron out their philosophical differences.

Anti-Censorship Efforts in the 1990's

As one who has been an English Language Arts/Reading teacher/teacher educator since the year in which the Little Rock Central High School was forcibly integrated ( and the Soviets put Sputnik into orbit), I have closely observed relationships between social change and curricular evolution in the upper grades of our schools. One striking result of these changes is the growth of the school censorship movement in the last quarter century, one which has included middle school offerings with alarming frequency. In fact, the 1990's have seen a geometric increase in the incidences of censorship attempts in middle school materials, choices, and teachers' creative instructional approaches. My active involvement in the movement to contest book banning and defend students' right to read/teachers' right to teach has led me to join Norman Lear's non-profit, activist organization, People for the American Way (PFAW). This group has become a front-line supporter of intellectual freedom, standing shoulder to shoulder with a number of prominent national organizations. Another leader among these right-to-read proponents has been the American Library Association (ALA), which put in place many years ago its Intellectual Freedom Committee, and which, among other initiatives, published a bi-monthly Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom . Its annual Banned Books Week is enthusiastically celebrated by public school media centers/libraries coast to coast. With the publication of Dealing with Censorship , (James Davis, ed., 1979 ), NCTE began to weigh in with its response to what it considered unreasonable censorship demands. Its Standing Committee Against Censorship (SCAC), which published the useful pamphlet The Students' Right to Read (Donelson, 1972 ) has been increasingly active over the past 15 years, and certain of its major periodicals- English Journal, The ALAN Review, and Language Arts -have dedicated thematic issues to the censorship movement. In 1991, NCTE's SCAC joined forces with IRA's Committee on Intellectual Freedom to produce the pamphlet, Common Ground (NCTE/IRA, 1992 ) to reflect their combined opposition to unreasonable restriction of the right to reading and learning activities so central to American public education. And, in the decade of the 90's, a non-profit agency named the National Coalition Against Censorship was formed. Its periodical newsletter reports on national censorship issues within and beyond the classroom. Some of its prominent advisors, Judy Blume, Arthur Miller (both the playwright and the law professor), Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, and others have become vocal, public advocates of students' intellectual rights. To these groups, PFAW has provided valuable enhancement.

In 1988, the organization, PFAW, first published Attacks on the Freedom To Learn , an annual summary, state-by-state of the incidences of challenges to materials either available or taught in public schools. Since these years of publication parallel the scope of this research, a summary/update will follow.

Censorship Activity, 1988-1997

Through the analysis of censorship episodes chronicled in the PFAW annual reports, some revealing-and discouraging-trends in the nature and incidence of complaints and challenges lodged against materials used in classrooms and placed in school libraries in grades 5 through 9, during the period 1988-97 have come to light. First in importance is the number of episodes recorded:

17 in 1988-89;
35 in 1989-90;
28 in 1990-91;
80 in 1991-92;
80 in 1992-93;
94 in 1993-94;
107 in 1994-95;
113 in 1995-96;
120 in 1996-97.

It needs to be noted that, according to both ALA and PFAW sources, only about 20% of the censorship cases are actually reported for publication. A quantitative analysis of the nature of complaints/challenges over that period also proved informative. First, the ratio of library complaints to those of the classroom was 60% to 40%. The incidence of complaints of works containing objectionable material was as follows:

1 Offensive Language 204
2 Explicit Sexual Descriptions 194
3 New Age; Anti-Religious Stories, etc. 61
4 Attacks on Patriotism, Established Authority 23
5 Incidents of Violence, Brutality (including rape) 110
6 Treatment of Satanism, Occult, Witchcraft 67
7 Disparagement of Family Values 68
8 Derogatory Images of the Handicapped 4
9 Examples of Racism 39
10 Examples of Substance Abuse 31
11 Texts Which Include Anti-Feminism, Sexism 11
12 Materials Which Include Depressing, Morbid Topics 24

It is clear from the above compilation that inappropriate language and explicitly described sex, the two "old standbys" of the would-be censors, still represent the most objectionable contents of materials used or shelved in grades 5 through 9. Violence, brutality, rape, etc., has also been a consistent target. The three features which follow: New Age/Religion, Satanism, etc., and Family Values have made a move upward on the hit lists, especially since 1992. They are primary targets of certain of the crusading groups mentioned earlier. Racism, another slow starter in the PFAW decade's review, picked up an increased number of citations in the past three years (1994-97).

One further item gleaned from this summary could easily be considered disturbing by teachers and librarians: the number of challenges reported as defeated was 293. The number of those which caused removal, restriction or other modification was 201 -too close for comfort. A further, chilling fact for the two groups of professions to think over lies in the fact that from 1988-91, the ratio of retentions to removals, etc., was bout 2 to 1. From 1991 on, it was closer to 50-50, a finding which led the PFAW compilers of Attacks on the Freedom To Learn to warn all school personnel who choose texts, films, video or audiotapes for classroom or media center to review them with great care.

Summary of Findings

A number of pertinent findings and conclusions gleaned from this study which provide food for thought among those connected with middle grade curricula follows:

  1. While the number of complaints/challenges to certain elements of middle grade programs of study have significantly escalated over the period reported by PFAW, the most targeted component of the K-12 spectrum remains elementary school libraries, and by a considerable margin.
  2. Literary works were often challenged in the schools of the 90's, but materials related to health and safety, especially those including segments on sexually related issues were attacked even more widely, as were materials on developing self-esteem and facing diversity factors in the schools of the 90's.
  3. The geometric increase in censorship incidents across the curricular board has already been noted. Sad to say, PFAW has discontinued publication of this valuable yearly record. In fall 1997, it published a greatly reduced text, on a wide variety of intellectual freedom issues, titled Coming in on a Right Wing and a Prayer . Gone are the useful state summaries. School personnel wishing to stay abreast of challenges and their dispositions will need to consult ALA's Newsletter and/or the quarterly Censorship Newsletter , produced by the National Coalition Again Censorship. Both these publications are quite limited in coverage when compared to Attacks on the Freedom to Learn .
  4. Review of the origins of complaints/challenges made evident the fact that certain well-financed, growing, influential pressure groups, such as the Christian Coalition, Family Research Council, Eagle Forum, etc., have provided and are providing a large amount of support to the challengers, usually in the form of legal advice, propaganda materials, guest speakers/consultants, and so on. Local chapters of these groups, especially Citizens for Excellence in Education, the strike force of the American Christian Educators Association, have sprung up in communities large and small, coast-to-coast, during the decade of the 1990's.
  5. A source of disappointment and frustration to those who oppose school censorship lies in the imposing number of building principals and district superintendents who cave in when complaints and challenges are lodged. This record points to administrators' proponents has been organizations, such as the American Association of School Administrators and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, as well as the U.S. Department of Education, to provide leadership in the overall area of defending students' right to read and teachers' right to teach.
  6. The following young adult novels are those most frequently challenged since 1988, in no particular order. They are:
    1. Judy Blume, Forever
    2. Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War
    3. Anonymous, Go Ask Alice
    4. Robert Newton Peck, A Day No Pigs Would Die
    5. Katherine Paterson, A Bridge to Terabithia
    6. Lois Lowry, The Giver
    7. Chris Crutcher, Running Loose
    8. Lois Duncan, Killing Mr. Griffin
    9. Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
    10. Judy Blume, Blubber

    The title of five novels, widely read by teenage individuals (often outside of school) can be added to the list of YA texts:

    1. John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men
    2. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
    3. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    4. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
    5. William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Challengers most frequently claim that the books in the latter group are too mature for children in the middle grades.

Resources for Middle School Teachers

For middle school teachers who wish to pursue the banned books issue further, there are several useful references available. Time and space here limit the amount of review, which can be offered, but one or two texts can be especially helpful and deserve mention. At the top of this list is one by Nicolas Karolides, John Kean, and the late Lee Burress, who completed a lengthy analysis of most censored books in US Schools in 1990. Then they identified most frequently attacked and recruited a cadre of scholars/authors/researchers to compose essays in defense of these texts as used in middle and high school classrooms. The anthology produced by these three veteran Wisconsin English educators, Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints ( 1993 ) features a series of essays by various authors, which support the case for teaching some 45 texts in both public and private schools. Of particular interest is the fact that of the total defended, some 18 were YA novels, all written since 1968. Furthermore, five of those which received similar apologies were among those mentioned earlier, which are generally considered "adult" novels, but which have found places in a considerable number of classrooms and libraries, grades 5 through 9. In their "Introduction," the anthologists state:

The central charge to these reviewers was direct and simple: Why should anyone read this book? Why should it be recommended? They were asked to express their impressions of the text, of the concepts and emotions that readers might experience, of the personal and social understandings that might be achieved. A second concern addressed the question, Why is this book under attack? The reviewers were asked to consider the censorial challenges to the text in relation to its perceived merits. Another consideration suggested to reviewers was pedagogic, that is, classroom application.

The essays included in Censorship Books: Critical Viewpoints provide, in effect, a defense of these frequently challenged books, a rationale for ensuring access to them for readers and support for teaching them. This collection does not, however, propose a curriculum for the English language arts classroom nor is it a cultural literacy list. The editors are not arguing that everyone must read all of these books. Rather, we strongly advocate the right of readers to select materials in an open marketplace of ideas and of teachers to select classroom materials in keeping with appropriate teaching objectives. ( p. xx )

For any middle grade teacher or librarian who decides to introduce any of these works to classroom or bookshelf, the essays in the Karolidas/Burress/Kean anthology can provide valuable support.

While the 4th edition of Nilsen and Donelsen's comprehensive Literature for Today's Young Adults (1993 ) provides its traditionally wide coverage of YA topics, its treatment of the censorship issue is extensive and helpfully pragmatic. Alleen P. Nilsen was, for many years, a professor of Library Science at Arizona State University. Ken Donelson, a longtime English educator and author of the popular NCTE pamphlet, The Students' Right to Read, 1992, has been in the forefront of the fight against unreasonable and mindless censorship for well over a quarter of a century. Together, these researchers cover both major venues of censorship confrontations.

The anthology, Censorship: A Threat to Reading, Learning, Thinking (IRA, 1994 ) also represents a broad view of school censorship, including three primary subdivisions:

  1. Some Dimensions of the Problem (7 essays)
  2. Complaints and Challenges in the Classroom (8 essays)
  3. Some Plans of Action (7 essays)

The essays cover K-12 and deal with several content areas. Given the fact that an extremely large number of middle school curricula now feature an integrated, team approach to subject matter, the anthology includes essays on content areas other than language arts. On the whole, there are a significant number of discussions in this text, which would be of interest to teachers, grades 5 through 9.

Clouds on the Horizon

At the beginning of a new century, several factors are now impinging on middle school students' right to read and their teachers' right to teach. Here are a few which are both recent and provocative:

  • Certain middle school dictionaries have been barred from secondary school classrooms because they contained "dirty and suggestive" words.
  • Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird , along with many other classics, has been challenged in numerous secondary schools for containing "racist language".
  • A beginning reading series has been challenged by several districts in California and elsewhere because its contents were "satanic and un-Christian" in nature.
  • A big-city superintendent and widely respected educator has lost his job over his support of a contemporary, multicultural program of studies.
  • Children's fairy tales, including Snow White and Sleeping Beauty , have been challenged in elementary schools because of their "negative stereotyping of women".
  • A public library has been accused of taking the lead in promoting homosexuality because its collection included two children's books- Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate -about tolerance for families where parents are gay or lesbian couples.
  • The Holocaust has been excluded from history courses in several communities because of its "mythological basis".
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank has been removed from an entire school district because the protagonist mediates briefly on her first menstrual period.

Teachers and other school/school district personnel, who keep up with the ALA Newsletter , as well as other publications cited earlier, will undoubtedly be able to add to this wondrous list.

In summary, it is fair to say that middle school curricula in general, and student resources in particular, have become the object of public scrutiny over this final quarter of the 20th century. As an example, PFAW's newer annual summary, Coming in on a Right Wing and a Prayer ( 1997 ) states that "certain creative teaching practices"---role playing, creative imagine, discussions of self-definition, and oral readings of materials on the world of the extra-terrestrial---have been increasingly challenged during the same decade. Supreme Court leanings, most notably in the Hazelwood East School District decision of 1988, augur little respite for the immediate future. Because the pendulum has apparently swung from teachers' prerogatives to those of parents in justifying materials choice, it is probably very wise at the outset of each school year for today's middle school teachers and librarians to keep their eyes and ears open and their rationales at the ready.

John S. Simmons is professor of English Education and reading at Florida State University.

Works Cited

Davis , E. Dealing With Censorship , Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1979.

Dunning , Stephen. A Definition of the Role of the Junior Novel Based on Analyses of 30 Selected Novels . Diss. Florida State University, 1959.

Karolides , N., L. Burress, & J. Kean. Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints . Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993.

NCTE/IRA Common Ground , Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 1992.

Nilsen , A. P., & Donelson, K. Literature for Today's Young Adults (4th ed.). Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1993.

People for the American Way. Coming in on a Right Wing and a Prayer . Washington, D.C.: PFAW, 1997.

People for the American Way. Attacks on the Freedom to Learn . Washington, D.C.: PFAW, 1988-1996.

Simmons , J. (ed). Censorship: A Threat to Reading, Learning, Thinking . Newark, Delaware: International Reading Association, 1994.

Young Adult Services. Division of Intellectual Freedom, Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom . Chicago American Library Association, 1999.

Editor's note: John S. Simmons was the guest editor of the winter, 1993 issue of The ALAN Review, an issue that addressed censorship. He served as the Chair of the Standing Committee Against Censorship for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) from 1989-1992, and is editor of Censorship: A Threat to Reading, Learning, Thinking (IRA, 1994) a collection of essays, each of which speaks to teachers' concerns.


Reference Citation: Simmons, John S. (2000) "Middle Schoolers and the Right to Read." The ALAN Review, Volume 27, Number 3, Pages 45 - 49.