Controversy can be found in anything and literature is no exception but students and English teachers have united to learn from them.
Carrie, Gone with the Wind and Harry Potter – aside from all being award-winning and iconic books, they’re all challenged novels as well. GS is no stranger to controversial books, with an incredible collection in the library and a project exploring controversial topics through books in 11th grade.
“What I like about the project, I think it gives students, first of all, a choice so that’s one big reason I like to have that project,” English teacher Mrs. Marla Nelson said. “I also like the project because it connects directly to Fahrenheit 451 which is a book that we read so it’s another reason why I selected the project for the research aspect.”
This challenged book project gives students a chance to choose and read a controversial novel like the aforementioned titles.
“I think they’re valuable because they present some good, controversial topics that give students a chance to really look at things from a different perspective,” Nelson said. “Often times the books that students select have a strong connection to the teenage years, so I think that’s another reason why the topics are engaging and the books are engaging for the students.”
However, Nelson thinks the books in this project are subject to change.
“I think there will be ones [books] that will be added,” she said. “Just because of the nature of our young adult literature genre, a lot of the authors are writing controversial books, for example, Speak which was a more modern young adult piece of literature dealing with very controversial topics.”
While there may be movement nationally to ban or remove a book from shelves, there is rarely, if ever, a problem at GS.
“I always make sure the students are aware that they have to make sure their parents are on board with approving it,” Nelson said. “I have in the past had, maybe a parent that would say, ‘I don’t want this one read,’ so then we just select another one.”
However, school districts are able to ban books from being taught in class.
“As far as the curriculum, that is usually decided upon by the English department working together,” she said. “Many of our books in the curriculum are books that are challenged.”
At a high school age, reading these controversial books can be especially critical.
“There should be the opportunity, within of course some limits because it is a school, there are some things if a principal says this can’t be read,” she said. “I do think that especially at the high school age that the more you’re exposed to things that are controversial it helps you to grow as a person [and] to become more well rounded.”
However, is there ever a point where a book crosses the line?
“I think it depends on the theme [and] the message of the book,” Nelson said. “I think sometimes it can be graphic in nature if that is to get across a particular theme. For example, AllQuiet on the Western Front is a book about war and it is graphic. It has to be graphic and vivid in its description.”
Of course, doing this project means spending time in the library.
“I think that our library with Mrs. Vottero, she’s really provided a good atmosphere for our students to have the opportunity to read a lot of different types of books,” Nelson said. “She just has been able to bring in a good variety of books which I think has been beneficial for our students.”
Librarian Mrs. Carrie Vottero is the gatekeeper of all things literature at GS and describes herself as pretty open minded.
“I know there are certain things that are kind of trigger points for some people: sex, drug use, violence, diversity of characters, language, those are the big ones,” Vottero explained.
She takes great care in ordering books that will not only pique student’s interest, but be engaging and valuable to read.
“The only books I buy for this library are books that I’ve read a review about that have been really, really well reviewed,” she said. “I want you to have the very best literature that’s available so that’s what I base a purchase upon.”
While she researches the books before buying them, controversial issues don’t necessarily influence her judgement as long as they are presented in an enriching way.
“What I’m concerned more about is the quality of the literature – the story itself – is it something I think is valuable for you to read and for you to have access to,” she said. “If there’s content in it that’s controversial, what’s controversial to me might not be controversial to you.”
She firmly believes in having a wide variety of novels, catering to both students and staff.
“Books are supposed to make you think, they’re supposed to make you question and wonder and see somebody else’s point of view,” she said. “If it’s something that’s unpleasant for you or something that you don’t agree with, then I would expect you not to read it. I don’t want you to read that. A library is all about choices and I want you to have as many choices as I can possibly give you here in this library.”
Everything she does is to promote learning through books.
“Having the best books makes you, I think, excited to read things and I want you to be readers,” she said.
Most students have noticed the work that goes into building such a wide collection of books and really haven’t experienced a time where they wouldn’t be able to read something specific.
“The library has always had books that are controversial and I think that’s important,” senior Jessica Winrick said.
She agreed that it’s especially important for high schoolers to be able to choose what to read.
“I think it’s up to the student,” Winrick said. “I mean, we’re almost adults now. We’re in high school, we’re not kindergarteners.”
For books that already have a reputation as being controversial, they often comment on national and world issues as well.
“From where we’re heading now, I think they might become more controversial,” she said. “Lately our country specifically has become very divided and everyone is mad at each other for these things and it’s only getting worse.”
Furthermore, due to the sheer amount of information available due to the internet, it’s not so easy to control what should and shouldn’t be seen.
“I’ve seen controversy on the internet so I assume that it has an effect on what we read,” she said.
The value of controversial books is not lost within the walls of GS and there are certainly the resources to experience new perspectives.
“You get to learn about other people’s opinions,” Winrick said. “You’re being open-minded instead of sticking to your own opinions. You’re learning about other things and that’s what a book is for, to learn.”