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Debate Over Which Books to Ban Shines Light on Literacy, Expert Says

Books have had a rich history of, at times, being too controversial, especially for young audiences. KSMU’s Theresa Bettmann has this report on how this topic has reignited a spark in parents, educators and librarians across the Ozarks—and what the end result might be.

“Book Ban Week” kicked off the month of October—the week was supposed to raise awareness about censorship. But here in the Ozarks, the debate over which books to allow in local schools has been in the headlines for several months now.

The Republic School District is considering what to do about a parent’s complaint that some of its textbooks misrepresent American history and government, and also that its sex education classes are not appropriate.

Stockton High School banned the book “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie after deciding it contained too many sexual references and objectionable language.

Dr. Judith John is an English professor at Missouri State University. She says the good thing about this kind of controversy is that it sheds light on the subject of reading. However, she personally feels that banning books is not in any child’s best interest.

“The advantage I see is that those who desire to ban a book is, first of all, they are paying attention to what their children [are] reading, which I think is a positive thing. And they are opening a dialogue within the community,” John said.

John says books can have an effect on a child’s life, but that reading a book is never a substitute for how a child is raised.

“I’ve read all kinds of books. My mother was a very strict, religious woman. One thing she never did was, she never told us what we could or couldn’t read. And it did not make me an evil person to have read a wide variety of many kinds of books. In fact in probably prevented me from going out and trying things on my own, that I could read about in books,” said John.

John says typically, when a book becomes controversial, it usually ends up becoming much more popular. She says parents and schools are creating a “boomerang” effect by making certain books taboo.

Brandon Bond is a librarian in Springfield. He says he’s more concerned about the long-term effect of not allowing certain books in schools.

“In the short-term all of the people who are following this can see that, can hear about these books and can go to get them. But then a few months or years pass by, and it is hard enough to get peoples’ attention to stay with something like the gulf oil crisis, or earthquakes in Haiti, or things. So if something on that monumental of a scale can be forgotten, so can something like this. And then you’ll have kids coming through the high school who have never even heard of this controversy, and you’ll get right back to the beginning,” said Bond.

Bond says books are a great way for kids to learn about difficult topics—things they might not ever talk about otherwise. He says many teens are grappling with tough issues, and that reading can be a safe medium for dealing with those issues.

Bond says that one positive thing to come from this debate is the power to keep books alive. He says in this day and age, books seem to fall by the wayside, and that this kind of controversy sparks a renewed interest in the art form.

“The very idea that if we don’t keep books important, and show that they’re so important we can have a controversy like this, then I think more and more they will be forgotten. And then one of the greatest things humankind has come up will be gone,” Bond said.

According to public documents on the Republic School District website, the parent who has filed the complaint about textbooks and other material is Dr. Wesley Scroggins. According to his original complaint, Scroggins is asking Republic to – quote – “discontinue the use of textbooks and any materials that create false conceptions of American history and government or that teach principles contrary to Biblical morality and truth.” – end quote.

Phone calls and emails to Scroggins were not returned.

Amy Cook, director of curriculum at Republic School District, said the complaint is being reviewed at this time. For KSMU News I’m Theresa Bettmann.

Click here to see Republic School Board Documents