By Ann Camacho, editor of Bookmarked, a collection of teen essays
According to the American Library Association, “Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read . . . in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.” As an English teacher, when I encountered a book-banning experience last fall in my hometown, I was ready to storm the proverbial castle to make sure every book had its chance to be read, regardless of its content.
I guess one might say it is ironic that the name of John Green’s male protagonist in The Fault in Our Stars, Augustus, is contained within the name of Frank Augustus Miller Middle School in Riverside, California, which got a social media shout out from the author himself after the school board there overturned the decision to ban his book.
I must note that Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) is quite an amazing district to work for overall. I have spent 24 of my 27 years in teaching at one of their high schools. They are progressive, innovative, connected to student and teacher needs (as well as a large public institution can be), and have an amazing ensemble of teachers, administrators, programs, and district and board members. They just got a bit lost for a while.
But on appeal, they found their way back to their senses. And you want to hear some real poetic justice? The assistant attorney for the ACLU was a former student of mine at John W. North High School, and a product of RUSD! After hearing from her and two of my other students who waited over three hours to speak, the board returned Fault to its rightful place on the shelf. How’s that for a plot twist?
It was a mighty powerful sight to attend the board meeting and listen to my current and former students rise up in protest against banning a book and rail against removing it from a public school library. The students, including my former student, Shaleen Shanbhag, who was one of the attorneys for the ACLU, eloquently stated their cases and were more articulate in their arguments than I could ever muster. It was a proud moment for their English teacher, and it reflected the power of an enlightened and developed public school education.
The overall opposition to the book? Well, it had something to do with sex and profanity and young people dying in the story. Green’s response to the ban was rightfully glib when he wrote on his Tumblr page, “I guess I am both happy and sad . . . happy because apparently young people in Riverside, California, will never witness or experience mortality since they won’t be reading my book.”
Most readers know that books open our hearts, expand our minds, and help us make connections to others by reading about others’ pain and sorrow. Books show us who we are and who we don’t want to be. They help us develop compassion and give us insight into others’ worlds; they help us become better human beings.
And so, at least for now, banned books are a thing of the past for RUSD as it continues to educate young people who read, recognize the need to read, are willing to speak out about reading, and ultimately, realize that if we take books off the shelf, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.”
Ann Camacho has been an English teacher for more than 20 years. She currently teaches American literature at North High School in Riverside, California. Her students (and the student body as a whole) are very diverse, and many are in the school’s International Baccalaureate program and AP classes. Ann also participates in the AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination) college preparation program for students who have college aspirations but are falling short of their potential or who don’t believe college is within reach.
Ann is the editor of Bookmarked: Teen Essays on Life and Literature from Tolkien to Twilight.
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