Bullying, Censorship and Blubber

I am an unabashed scavenger, always on the lookout for the next great lesson. www.readwritethink.org proves an Aladdin’s cave including this favorite, studying banned books.

Most books I teach have been banned, burned, defenestrated--To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, Flowers for Algernon, A Separate Peace, The Outsiders, A Wrinkle in Time. 

The lesson includes these steps:

1.) Students choose a novel from a list of banned books, including The Chronicles of Narnia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Blubber, The Westing Game, and The Giver.

2.) Students research the rationale for censorship. My kids were shocked to find the bogus reasons why some books are censored. For example, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory receives censure because the “Oompa Loompas” are slaves, and the “Oompa Loompa” song mocks an African war chant.  Charlotte’s Web shows a spider-considered by some to be an “evil” creature-in a good light, talking to a talking pig. Many folks, it turns out, object to talking animals as young children might think that the animals are on an equal footing with humans, subverting the “natural order” and causing young folks everywhere to eschew bacon. Don’t even get me started on The Lorax and the lumber industry.

3.) Students do a close reading of their book, writing down quotes and examples of the censor's objections.

4.) Based on their findings, the students write a persuasive essay explaining the objections, determining whether the criticisms were legitimate, and as a result, recommending whether this book should be A.) included in our K-8 school library, B.) allowed with age restrictions for access, or C.) whether it should be banned outright.

Most of the books received high recommendations from the reviewers, however, one result shocked me.

Enter Blubber-the book by Judy Blume which I devoured and re-devoured as a kid. 40-something Americans know how mean kids can be to the “fat girl” and what it means to be flensed. I loved that book. It reflected my feelings about being chubby and weird. I knew every kid in that story-the popular bullies as well as the “middle group” of kids who would pick on me just to go along with the others.

Imagine my surprise when my students harshly condemn the novel, almost to the point of bringing their own kerosene and matches. Why?

My students trash the book for showing bad parenting, bad teaching, and for lacking a good moral message.

  • The bullies win. They are not punished for their actions.

  • The parents do not intervene. They advise their daughter to ignore the bullies.

  • The teacher does not intervene to stop the bullies.

  • The victim remains the victim, and she does not triumph over the bullies.

 

So, I am left to ask, has parenting and teaching changed, or has bullying changed? I posit both.

When I was young, my parents would never have intervened in the social aspect of my school life. I was advised to “ignore” bullies. My teachers often took the position that being bullied is a rite of passage, and when a victim learns to stand up to a bully, then that victim is “toughened up” and no longer vulnerable.  Now, parents and teachers fight daily against bullying, from bringing special programs into the schools to monitoring the children’s social relationships. Adults encourage kids to “tell,” and then the adults take an active role in finding a solution.

Bullying, too, has changed. As a kid, the 40 minutes between boarding the afternoon bus and getting off said bus would be torture. I would dodge spit balls and whacks from “unbreakable” combs. But then, I would have 23 hours away from the hell bus. Today, with social media, the bullies can reach right into their victims’ homes. Moreover, unkind words can spread to hundreds of people at the speed of a tweet.

This observation raises more questions than answers. Should kids be allowed to read books where the bullies win? Should kids be protected from novels with undesirable outcomes? Or, should we all use these stories as a springboard for critical dialogue?