Judging Books

The adage, Don’t judge a book by its cover, might well be re-stated into Don’t judge a book by the Internet.

According to news reports that I have read, a mother and father at the November 8th  meeting of the Spotsylvania County (VA) School Board meeting, complained about two novels: Call Me by Your Name and 33 Swordfish. The former is an acclaimed novel that centers on a gay relationship, and 33 Swordfish, is a story about three homeless teens that was named a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association in 2004. The mother described 33 Swordfish  as “disgusting” for its discussion of sexual abuse, and she added that she had searched the school system’s online library catalogue and found 172 hits for the word “gay,” as well as 84 hits for the word “lesbian.”

The report that I read did not say if the parents had read either book, but I will give them the benefit of the doubt that since they disapproved of them, they had read them. However, I wonder what the mother wants to do with her internet search results of the school system’s online library catalogue that revealed the presence of gay 172 times and lesbian showed 84 presences.  That statement by her causes me great concern.

I believe that any literature worth its ink will upset the reader because good literature causes its reader to react. If the reader just reads and does not have any reaction to the words, then the words do not matter and there is no justification for the reading. Even the fairy tale, “Jack and the Beanstalk” causes emotional reactions such as pity for the family’s plight, anger at Jack for not obeying his mother, fear of the giant, relief with the giant’s death, and contentment with the happy ending. But the story also raises the question of honesty because Jack did steal something that was not his-or did he? This ancient tale is more complex that is often recognized, and a simple internet search would not serve it well. Indeed, this fairy tale so often told to young children is a good example of good literature causing a reader reaction. But it also offers another example.

The teacher of “Jack and the Beanstalk” is responsible for how it is presented and thus viewed. For example, does the teacher (often a parent) stress the resourcefulness of Jack? Or does the teacher stress the disobedience issue? Does the teacher dwell on the horrors of the unnamed giant, or just celebrate the happy ending? I wonder if any teacher raises the issue of Jack’s honesty, or is it an issue? After all, the magic beans that grew into the high reaching stalk belonged to Jack and his mother because he (foolishly?) traded the family cow for them. But who did the gold belong to, and why did Jack steal from the giant owner three times?

If an Internet search for such words as honesty, integrity, resourcefulness, murder, and fear was performed by the unnamed mother in Spotsylvania County would the fairy tale of Jack be mentioned? What literature would come up on her screen for those words? None of this matters, honestly, because “Jack and the Beanstalk” is just one more example of what any literature worth its ink must do—cause the reader to react. And how the literature is presented by the teacher has a great deal, but not entirely with,  how the reader/listener will react.

Some of the best questions ever asked of literature in my classes over forty years of teaching were those asked by students. While I never taught Jack or young children, I did teach grades 6 through college. The students I encountered raised probing questions of readings such as Macbeth and Beowulf and The Gift of the Magi because any literature that is worth its ink will raise questions about a myriad of issues, and those questions-often from young readers-may lead us to answers.

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