Foothill Technology High School

Banned books: Controversy, satire, prostitution

“The Catcher in the Rye,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “To Kill a Mockingbird”: all highly respected novels that have been banned from classroom curriculum at one point or another because of controversial materials that were deemed inappropriate. From John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” to J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series to Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” the banning and challenging of books seeps its way into all genres and audiences.

The week of Sept. 24 to Sept. 30 is Banned Books Week, an annual, nationwide celebration of the freedom to read. The movement is run by multiple organizations who work to garner awareness about the detriments that come from censorship of literature. Common grounds for the challenging or banishment of a novel in the past have been the author’s inclusion of explicit language, racial slurs, sexual situations and religious views that are deemed unorthodox.

To get a book approved in the Ventura Unified School District, a teacher must fill out document with a supporting statement on the novel, a dissenting statement on the novel and list possible controversies from the novel. This is then sent to department chairs at other high schools in the district, who consider the novel’s suitability for the teacher’s intended purpose and approve the adoption of the novel. The curriculum specialist at Ventura Unified must then examine the paperwork and write a dissenting or a supporting statement on the novel. Finally, the School Board discusses the novel in session.

English teacher Jennifer Kindred has taught at both public and private schools, which have demonstrated two very different processes for book approval.

In her seven years teaching at a Catholic school, Kindred notes that she had “way more freedom in choosing books than I do here at a public school.” Kindred would talk to the principal, tell them a book she would like to teach, and then the books would be in her classroom in a short amount of time.

Although Kindred is a fan of the efficiency of this quick process, she thinks “there’s something to be said for a [School] Board that looks out for the well-being of all of its constituents” in the manner of approving books for public school curriculum.

“When you’re talking about requiring a whole class to read a certain book, there’s more that goes into it than what I, as a teacher, may want,” Kindred said.

Coincidentally, Foothill literature teacher Melanie “Captain” Lindsey is currently in the process of trying to get two books approved for curriculum in senior English classes: “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and “Woman at Point Zero” by Nawal El Saadawi.

Lindsey describes “The Handmaid’s Tale” as “a modern satire on the ideas of sex trafficking and slavery,” and “Woman at Point Zero” is about a woman who discovers that she “has more choice as a prostitute than she does as a wife.”

Her goal is to promote inclusion by teaching through the lens of “worldwide female voices.”

“They’re both female authors, and we’re severely lacking. Our curriculum is made up of dead, white authors,” Lindsey said.

As of now, Lindsey thinks “The Handmaid’s Tale” looks as if it is going to get approved because she says that the curriculum specialist, Greg Bayless, is in support of the adoption of the novel. Bayless declined to comment. The book will face the School Board in October.

“Woman at Point Zero,” however, faces more pushback from Ventura Unified for its controversial themes of sex and prostitution.

“We’re not done fighting,” Lindsey said. “What we have in our toolbox is not nearly ethnically inclusive enough, it’s not nearly male/female inclusive enough. It has some major gaps and we want to fill those gaps.”

Lindsey thinks that the major concern that Ventura Unified is facing with “Woman at Point Zero” is that “it has the potential to be taught in the wrong way if it’s in the hands of a teacher who doesn’t really pay attention to the fine details.”

She understands where the pushback is coming from, as if the book was not taught from the appropriate perspective, it could “come across as anti-Muslim” or “anti-male.”

Lindsey and fellow teacher Brooke Schmitt are working on a curriculum guide to be adopted along with the novel to ensure that the novel will be taught in “a culturally, sexually sensitive way.”

–Jocelyn Brossia

Featured Image Credit: Grayson McCoy


1 Comment

  • Reply Douglas Campbell November 1, 2017 at 4:19 am

    Actually, Ms. Lindsey’s short critique of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as “a modern satire on the ideas of sex trafficking and slavery” falls far short of what I thought the book was about. The major theme of the book is not “sex trafficking and slavery” but rather what happens when you have a government which is all-powerful. “All-powerful” leads to fascism — in which you might own something but government utterly controls it. There is only one religion — and that religion serves the leaders of the nation. The author couches the religion in terms of fundamentalist Christianity, but the closer religion — the one which really has killed millions to establish itself in other lands, and is making great gains in the USA — would be atheism. Be that as it may, this book, “Animal Farm”, “1984”, and “Brave New World” are parallel reads, and show where giving too much power to a government can lead. In this book, half of the population becomes enslaved. Cannot work. Cannot own property. Cannot own a gun. Are property — of the state. Think of communism, and its cousin, socialism, and there you are. “From each according to his ability, to those according to their need.” — and the leaders are always the neediest. Think North Korea — which is the nearest analogue to the USA in The Handmaid’s Tale.

    Satire always has an element of humor. For example, “The Russians are Coming” is satire on the Cold War, “Coneheads” is a satire on illegal immigration, and “Blazing Saddles” is a satire both on governmental corruption and racism.

    None of the books mentioned, including The Handmaid’s Tale, is humorous. If you want humor and a caustic look at our modern world, Terry Pratchett or Mel Brooks is the place to go — not Aldous Huxley, not George Orwell, not Margaret Atwood. They are writing allegory, and dystopian allegory at that — not satire.


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