Books: Windows and mirrors


I recently experienced a graphic novel: a currently-popular format, just not one I had actually read. Briefly, a graphic novel is an adult comic book. Mother never permitted comic books; she considered them low-caliber reading material – anyway, why waste money when the library was full of free stuff?

Quality questions aside, I read the sophisticated, Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, Art Spiegelman’s illustrated story of his father’s Holocaust years in the camps, a jarring juxtaposition between content and format. Reading Maus for free online, I was intrigued to see Jews portrayed as mice, Nazis as cats, and Poles as pigs.

My reading of Maus stemmed from headlines that the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee unanimously voted to remove the acclaimed novel from its eighth-grade curriculum. A meeting transcript reveals that most of the 10 duly-elected officials had not read Maus, basing their decision instead on several curse words and a small scene of nudity. Beyond one board member’s inexplicable comment: “… educators don’t need to enable or promote this stuff. It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff, it is not wise or healthy,” there was virtually no discussion about the merits of the novel, its value in helping students learn about such an impactful chapter of history. Instead, the group spent an inordinate amount of time planning to white out the offending words: because students are disciplined for using these words elsewhere in the school, they should not be included in their classroom materials. There was no realization that any educators worth their teaching licenses would be fully capable of placing proper focus on the offending words and guiding students toward their appropriate use.

I am reminded of my first experience with Germans in Germany about the Holocaust. In 1976 – 31 years after the war ended and more than 1,000 concentration camps were liberated – my students and I briefly visited Bergen-Belsen, where Anne Frank perished. Our German partners, however, did not enter the concentration camp. Clearly, German adults had not yet determined an explanation for the horrific era planned and carried out by their country. A German mother took me to task for the visit, maintaining the German kids were uncomfortable, that the Holocaust was a closed chapter of history best forgotten.

But another mother opined that the German kids should have indeed joined us, that if the young people did not learn about it, it could very well happen again.

I have never understood individuals or groups seeking book removal: why should other children also be prevented from experiencing that same book? While banning a certain work may provide temporary “protection” from some words, an offensive picture, an uncomfortable reaction, parents are actually abdicating the responsibility and opportunity of teaching their children how to handle such situations when they arise.

This Facebook comment outlines a realistically-effective strategy for navigating a world filled with judgment calls at every turn: “watch over their shoulders…pick up their phones unpredictably…they’re going to see something we don’t want them to see, but they need to learn what to do when that happens…if they’re determined to do something they should not do on their phones, they’ll find a way…the more we try to block, the more determined they become…we just try to have a very open dialogue about what’s trending and what to do with it.”

Although a former teaching colleague agreed with me that Spiegelman’s novel seems more appropriate for high school students, I also asked GMS teachers Lori Black and Lauren Buell for their views. The two eighth-grade teachers flabbergasted me with a barn-burner of an idea! The same quarter GHS grad Jeff Adams presents his social studies unit on freedom of speech, Lori and Lauren introduce their lessons based on books banned in various institutions and communities including Hop on Pop, Charlotte’s Web, The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, Harry Potter anything, To Kill a Mockingbird. Eighth-graders, under the guidance of their teachers, discuss an entire range of challenged books on their merits. Meanwhile, they add to their arsenals of writing skills in preparation for a final, culminating project: a formal paper on a challenged book of choice with reasons for its banning or acceptance. Top notch teaching concept!

I will be the first to urge that choices of reading materials for school kids be made carefully and thoughtfully. However, some children are unable to experience one of the great friendships of literature because some adult somewhere considered it odd that a spider and a pig spoke as humans! Adults disapproving of Anne Frank’s private diary entries about typical adolescent sexuality concerns have deprived some teenagers of her exceptionally-mature sense of hope in an ugly world: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”! Adults “protecting” kids from profanity, racial slurs, and adult themes in To Kill a Mockingbird have prevented young people from reading the sage advice of Atticus Finch: “You never really understand a person…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”!

That very same Lori Zimmerman Black, who spent a couple of her adolescent years in my classroom and a couple of summer weeks in Germany with me, inspired me when she explained she wants students to consider books not only windows on the world but also mirrors for themselves. We all have much to live up to…

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Shirley Scott

Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.

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