Literature has not always played a huge role in my life. As a kid, I was a voracious reader—I read anything I could get my hands on. But starting in junior high, I found myself reading less and less. As I look back on it, I’m sure there were a number of reasons. Life got busier in junior high, with more independence, friends, and extra curricular responsibilities. But I don’t exactly remember missing reading. Nothing in my school LRC interested me. The books we read for class had all the fun sucked out of them because we had to focus on motif, setting, mood, and all the other literary stuff I didn’t really care about as a 12-year-old.
In high school I remember wanting to read 1984 strictly because someone told me I shouldn’t. Twenty-some years later, I have no clue who said I shouldn’t be reading that book, but I really owe them a thank you note. Because it was forbidden, it was something I wanted to read more than ever. I still remember the used bookstore where I got my copy of it. I remember smuggling it home so my parents wouldn’t see it and reading it and reading it any time I got the chance.
As a parent, I look at the list of banned books and all I can do is cringe. There are books that I truly loved reading on those lists. Worse, there are books that I read with my children and loved on that list.
Yes, authors like Maurice Sendak pushed the envelope with In the Night Kitchen and Where the Wild Things Are, but to think that they were banned from some schools and libraries not just surprised me, it saddened me. (Where the Wild Things Are is the book I still remember my dad reading to me when I was young, so it has a special place in my heart.)
A picture book that I’ve used in class had found its way onto the list as well. Nasreen’s Secret School – A True Story from Afghanistan has been challenged by schools in New York, Florida, and Wisconsin.
The story is a quick read about an Afghan girl being raised by her grandmother after her father is arrested by the Taliban and her mother goes to find him and never returns. The girl is beyond sad and doesn’t speak to anyone. Her grandmother knows of a place where girls go to learn and Nasreen begins going. She still doesn’t speak until a classmate reaches out to her and then, for the first time since her parents disappeared, she speaks.
It’s a story that teachers could use to promote the Global Goals. Goal 4 deals with Quality Education, which Nasreen is able to get by going to the school and Goal 5 focuses on Gender Equality, an issue that still challenges many countries today. It’s a story that could help teachers with social and emotional learning (SEL).
A girl who doesn’t speak is friended by another student, and this allows her to open up and talk. It’s a story that allowed my 7th graders the chance to empathize with students in another part of the world even if just for a few minutes.
So why was this book with so many positive messages banned? These fifteen words describing the grandmother’s thoughts as she brought Nasreen to school for the first time:
Please Allah, open her eyes to the world, I prayed as I left her there.
And then the last two words of the book, Insha’Allah which translates to “God willing.”
So, what are we as teachers to do with this? These are the questions I’ve asked my students.
- What is the author’s purpose in writing this story?
- What could possibly have caused this book to be banned?
- How would you respond to someone telling you this book is offensive?
- Would this book have been banned if it contained the words, “God help us,” or “Amen”?
We have an obligation to provide literature to our students that represents all perspectives. Though set in a far off land, this book presents an important lesson for us all!