Censorship and Its Lessons, Banned Books and Diversity

I begin with a story from my own education…

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Censorship and its Lessons

I grew up in something of a time warp. In the mid-1970s, my high school used decades-old textbooks, including censored literature volumes. The theory was that young women should be protected from some topics. And so my honors English class was handed copies of Hamlet that omitted many of Ophelia’s words.

But one day, our teacher came to class with the real deal and read to us from Act 4 Scene 5:

Ophelia enters singing about a bedroom door that opens to…

Let in the maid that out a maid
Never departed more

The song concludes –

Quoth she, before you tumbled me
You promis’d me to wed.
So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

The teacher let us know she was not supposed to teach this material but feared we would not understand Ophelia or the play without this scene, even if it did touch on sexual relations, real or imagined.

Was it Ever About the Play?

Over the years, I’ve wondered how temporary the censors’ goal was — Did they expect we would eventually learn more about Ophelia’s experience, when we were older? Or were they hoping to forever sanitize our view, permanently improving Shakespeare, so to speak?

I’ve also wondered about my teacher’s goal: Was it really about the play? About women’s lack of power, in the 16th or the 20th Centuries?

…I hope someone with a better understanding of Shakespeare and related fields can someday explore the ironies in a nun using censored Ophelia to teach feminism in a stuffy Catholic girls school…

I recently learned that Angele Spehn, a Dominican sister who taught English at Trinity High School outside Chicago for 34 years, died this past spring. So I cannot ask her now about that long-ago clandestine lesson: But I can say that decades after leaving her class, I remain grateful to Sister Angele for powerfully illustrating both the dangers of censorship and the importance of double-checking sources, and for instilling in me a great impatience with anyone who thinks education is best accomplished through limiting, rather than expanding, experience. I am grateful, too, that the school Sr. Angele and I knew has evolved a great deal in recent decades and long ago ditched those censored books.

Blood and Books

A few years ago, Sherman Alexie, an author whose works for young readers are often challenged or banned, wrote the following:

Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads.

And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them.

As a child, I read because books–violent and not, blasphemous and not, terrifying and not–were the most loving and trustworthy things in my life. I read widely, and loved plenty of the classics so, yes, I recognized the domestic terrors faced by Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. But I became the kid chased by werewolves, vampires, and evil clowns in Stephen King’s books. I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.
— “Why the Best Children’s Books Are Written in Blood,”2011 WSJ

In honor of the Banned Books Week – September 27 – October 3 this year:

  • Thank you to Sherman Alexie and all who are willing to share their blood in print, offering a full range of human experiences so that readers see and understand a world that includes each of us.
  • Thank you to Sister Angele and all teachers who refuse to sanitize or limit reading.
  • Thank you to librarians, booksellers, publishers, and others who fight censorship, ensuring that readers everywhere get access to the words and ideas we all need to fight the monsters all around us.

More Resources on Banned, Censored, Diverse Books

Even where books are not banned, the worldviews and characters represented are often quite limited. Visit We Need Diverse Books and previously, on Education Town Hall, to ensure variety and learn more.

BBW-logo122hThis year’s annual week of celebrating the freedom to read focuses in particular on young adult titles, which are among the most frequently challenged and banned.

Banned Books Week go-to site, don’t miss the resource page

Fun resources, including posters and such, from Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

Lots of great stuff on the School Library Journal’s webpage and Pinterest Page

DC Public Library always has great events, exhibits, and more for Banned Books Week page — what’s up at YOUR library?

American Library Association has great info, including lists of banned and challenged books

From Virtual Read Out


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