High School Reading Lists: Pros and Cons of Controversial Books

Learn about the benefits and disadvantages of incorporating controversial books into mandatory public high school reading requirements.
As high schools analyze thousands of books to choose the most compelling and engaging titles for young teen readers, many parents often feel that the chosen books are inappropriate for their kids. According to Pearson Prentice Hall, an Advanced Placement educational network, some of the most highly recommended high school books include popular and classic titles such as:

  • Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart.
  • Alvarez, Julia. How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
  • Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio.
  • Angelou, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
  • Arnett, Peter. Live from the Battlefield: From Vietnam to Bagdad.
  • Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying.
  • Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury.
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby.
  • Frank, Anne. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl.
  • Golding, William. Lord of the Flies.
  • Remarque, Erich Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front.
  • Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.
  • Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle.
  • Sophocles. Oedipus Rex.
  • Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath.
  • Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  • Wharton, Edith. Ethan Frome.
  • Wright, Richard. Black Boy.
  • Wright, Richard. Native Son.
While these, among hundreds to thousands of other books, are commonly read in public schools across the country, many parents express concern over the content and topics of these required texts. For example, Steinbeck’s classic novel Of Mice and Men raises issues of euthanasia, murder, and justice as some of the core questions of the text. Adding to this, Salinger’s ever-popular Catcher in the Rye has been one of the most commonly banned books among public schools in the nation, specifically for its sexual content, language, and discussions of religion, death, suicide, and peer-pressure. As many of these required texts raise such complex, convoluted, and controversial issues, parents are often surprised and occasionally angered by a school’s approval of divisive books. 
 
The Raging Debate Surrounding Controversial Books
 
As Rose Ann Pearce from The Morning News reports, a local North Carolina high school, Fayetteville, held a meeting to discuss and debate 50 required texts currently being taught and read in classrooms. The school leaders and parents arranged the meeting to evaluate whether or not the 50 books were too explicit and sexually charged for young readers to pore without parental approval. According to Pearce, some of the parents contested the books because they felt the reading was “pornographic and vile.”  In contrast, teachers and students tried to explain their desire to offer up controversial books, topics, and issues. As one high school senior stated, “Books are the epitome of life,’” as the senior asserted that the protested books should remain in the libraries and classrooms. A fellow senior student offered more support in arguing that taking these books off shelves would be “‘Depriving students of an education about the world around them’” while adding that it is, “‘hateful and intolerant to portray these books as pornographic.’”
 
In addition to the protests about the sexual content of many of the contested books, the Forbidden Library, a site dedicated to posting the explanations behind the banning of books in public schools, reveals hundreds of other books that have been banned in public schools for various reasons. For example, the popular historical non-fiction text Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, was outlawed in Alabama schools due to “sexually offensive” passages. Adding to this, as the site reveals, “Four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee (1983) called for the rejection of this book because it is a ‘real downer.’” Among other banned books and authors is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, where parents and school leaders in Jackson County West Virginia banned the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel due to its sexually and socially explicit nature, in addition to the book’s “Troubling ideas about race relations, man's relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality.” While this banning occurred in 1992, it was finally returned to public school shelves after nine months of rigorous debate. 
 
Can Controversial Books Foster Important Learning for Teens? 
 
In offering an explanation for the support of the controversial texts, Pearce reveals one school leader’s fervent protest, in stating, “‘All of us are here for what's best for the youth in our community.” By offering up controversial topics and themes in a variety of engaging texts, schools and teachers are able to give students “materials that help answer their questions.” As many teachers reveal, the books are not intended to be read without guidance. The themes and controversies of many questioned texts are used to foster a dialogue and discussion in the classroom. By exposing students to a myriad of confusing and troubling topics, teachers are guiding students into the reality of the complex adult and social world. Each text is chosen for a specific grade and age group; therefore, the books serve as a scaffold to slowly guide students to build upon more complicated ideas and realities. 
 
Ultimately, while parents of teens possess the right to question books and texts that are being taught in their son or daughter’s classrooms, many school leaders and teachers want to remind parents that, regardless of the book’s topics, themes, and context, teachers carefully plan and explore issues with teen readers cautiously. The attempt to expose students to challenging topics and issues, as many teachers support, is not intended to force students into a certain mode of thought; moreover, the books are to serve as opportunities for students to think, theorize, question, and explore.

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