Two of John Green’s books, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, are being challenged at a high school in Colorado. They are two of the nineteen books (see list below) proposed for the elective course in young adult literature. Parents are petitioning the school board to change the book list. John Green is asking for letters in support of the teacher, who is standing by her curriculum. Here’s my letter:
To the School Board of Strasburg (CO) High School,
I am writing in support of the books in the new YA literature course, and in support of their authors, the teachers and librarians who wish to teach them, and the students who want to read them.
Parents have a right to decide what their own children read, watch, and listen to, but they do not have a right to dictate what other parents’ children read, watch, and listen to. Parents who object to the content of the books included on the YA course syllabus may choose not to allow their students to participate in the course, but they ought not be able to dictate to other parents, students, and teachers.
An earlier letter/petition to this Board asked, “How can students develop into strong and productive citizens when their minds are fed with that which is criminal and vile, crass and crude?” I would respectfully disagree with this characterization of the books included in this course. (I have read thirteen of the nineteen books on the list, including the two by John Green.) I would also argue that this question does a disservice to teens, as does the statement that “Teens have very impressionable minds.” Children and teens are able to tell right from wrong in life and in literature, and literature is one of the safest places to explore the gray area between the two. In her book Reading Magic, Australian author Mem Fox wrote, “The whole point of books is to allow us to experience troubled realities that are different from our own, to feel the appropriate emotions, to empathize, to make judgments, and to have our interest held. If we sanitize everything children read, how much more shocking and confusing will the real world be when they finally have to face it?”
Presumably, these same teens who may be denied access to and, crucially, guided discussion about, these YA novels are learning about “criminal and vile, crass and crude” events in their history classes. They have grown up with graphic images not just in music videos and magazines but on the nightly news. They are aware of the real horrors in the real world. Please don’t underestimate their ability to process literature – especially literature in which the characters are dealing with very real situations.
Fiction has a proven link with empathy*; if you truly want your students to develop into compassionate individuals with good judgment and strong character, you should be encouraging them to read and discuss the novels on this list, and many more besides.
Hampshire College, 2003-2007
Columbia Publishing Course, 2007
Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 2010-2012
*See “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul for The New York Times, March 17, 2012
Young Adult Fiction Elective Course (grades 10-12) Book List:
- Feed by M.T. Anderson
- Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed
- Delirium by Lauren Oliver
- Uglies by Scott Westerfield
- Taken by Erin Bowman
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
- The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
- Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
- Will Grayson, will grayson by John Green and David Levithan
- Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
- 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
- Paper Towns by John Green
- If I Stay by Gayle Forman
- Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
- Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
- Looking for Alaska by John Green
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
- Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
- The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis