Monday, May 30, 2016

Reflection: Challenging & Banning Books

One big topic that always comes up when discussing children's literacy is books that have been challenged or banned. You can view some of the lists of frequently challenged books here. Challenging a book means that someone has attempted to remove the material from either the classroom or the library (Short, Lynch-Brown, & Tomlinson, 2014, p. 134). Banning a book means that the book went through the process of being challenged and was successfully removed.  Most recently, I have heard of a few books being challenged, such as El Deafo by Cece Bell and the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey.
In order to get a better idea of why a book might be challenged or even banned, I picked up a book called Olive's Ocean by Kevin Henkes. This book has won many awards, including the Newberry Honor award in 2004. It is a story of a young girl entering her teen years and describes her emotions and life experiences at this time in her life. The book also deals with the topic of death. It has a lexile score of 680L, but the book itself is recommended for ages 10-14 due to content.

But, what is that content, you ask? I'll get to that in a moment.....

First, I wanted to mention that while this book is 217 pages long, most students would find it a quick read. Some chapters in the book are very short; only a paragraph or two long and barely cover a page. Also, the pages seem to contain lots of empty white space. Every page has a one inch border around the entire frame of text. I have to assume this was done on purpose because Martha, the main character in the book, feels very alone in the book, and the use of white space gives the reader a sense of that feeling while reading the pages.

Going back to the content, I took a few notes while reading the book, and here was my thoughts as to why the book was challenged and banned:
  • The book deals with the death of a young girl and the emotions of another girl that could have been her friend. Many times in the story, Martha visualizes the death of Olive and gives us a sometimes violent picture of how she died. Also, the topic of death is revisited quite a few times in reference to other characters in the story, such as Martha's grandmother. The visualization and the topic could both be disturbing to some children. 
  • In one part of the story, Martha's parents are kissing and acting silly towards each other. Martha describes the behavior as something her brother told her- MSB or morning sex behavior. This brief discussion of how her parents may or may not have just had sex could be startling to some readers. 
  • Martha's emotions are very "all over the place". She mentions quite a few times about disliking her parents and at times uses very strong words to describe her feelings towards them.
  • The term "assholes" is used by a teen boy. Some readers may find that term unacceptable in a book labeled for children. 
  • A teen boy tricks Martha into thinking that he likes her and uses her for a kiss. He videos the kiss to show others that he won the bet that he could get her to kiss him. Martha feels used and embarrassed. Some children may feel uncomfortable about the events that took place, but nothing went past the kids holding hands and a simple kiss. 
  • In the story, Martha almost drowns in the ocean. Martha did not intend to drown, but at one point, the reader is not sure if she wants to live. Some students may find it unsettling and upsetting. 
According to a press release from the ALA, the book was most frequently challenged because of offensive language and sexually explicit content (Morales, 2008). As you can see from my notes above, banning this book for those reasons alone may have been somewhat of a stretch. In my opinion, the topic of death and Martha's response to the classmate dying is more disturbing than the brief language and kissing that happen in the book.

Altogether, I found this a very interesting book that could help many children come to terms with their emotions during a time when they are confused. Martha's feelings about the girl dying could help others work through their own emotions of having a classmate die. While I do see how the book may not be appropriate for all children, I do believe that it offers a real picture of the world we live in and the many emotions that our students and children are having.

In the Classroom.... 

Using this book in the classroom may be difficult because of the likelihood for some parents or caregivers to find the topics not appropriate for school. However in some cases, like with the death of a class or school mate, it could help a lot of children deal with how they might be feeling. Also, Martha's emotions about growing up are very real and easily relatable for many children. Students will find themselves connecting to Martha and her journey to discover herself over the course of the summer.

If using this book in the classroom, I believe that the recommendation for the book to be used in the 5th-8th grades is appropriate.  First, you would want to identify students that could be mature enough to handle the topics discussed in the book, and gain approval from their parents. Then, I would form a small reading group from those students. The students would be required to do assigned readings outside of the classroom for homework every night, and the group would have discussions about what they read and how it made them feel. Questions should be formed beforehand to help steer the conversation. Some possible questions for the discussion group can be found here.


Henkes, K. (2003). Olive's ocean. New York: Greenwillow Books.

Morales, M. (2008, May 7). Children's book on male penguins raising chick tops ALA's 2007 list of most challenged books. Retrieved from 

Short, K. C., Lynch-Brown, C., & Tomlinson, C. M. (2014) Essentials of children's literature (8th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.

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