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Author Interview: Educators Perspectives of Controversial Children’s Literature

Read the latest JTE Insider blog interview by the Journal of Teacher Education (JTE) editorial team. This blog is available to the public, and AACTE members have free access to the articles in the JTE online archives—just log in with your AACTE profile.

In this interview, The JTE editorial team shares insights from the Sue C. Kimmel and Danielle E. Hartsfield, co-authors of the article “It Was . . . the Word ‘Scrotum’ on the First Page”: Educators’ Perspectives of Controversial Literature, published in the September/October 2019 issues of the Journal of Teacher Education.

What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

Sue: We both teach children’s literature, and we were interested in how our students who were pre-service educators reacted to controversy in children’s literature. We believe in the power of literature to promote empathy and positive inquiry into social issues. We were concerned with the willingness of pre-service educators to avoid “controversy” in the classroom and library with little critical thought about what it meant to withhold quality literature about difficult topics from their students. 

The Newbery Medal award-winning book that was the topic of this article, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, was of particular interest to us because it did cause quite a stir with the word “scrotum” on the first page. Students, however, found a wide range of issues from alcoholism to religion to emergent sexuality to running away from home to be concerning. The book seemed to represent many of the most frequent issues that cause a book to be challenged. The one thing it did not contain was profanity and yet it was a word, the proper anatomical word, that sparked so much controversy.

Danielle: The data reported in our article are drawn from transcripts of literature circle discussions that occurred in a graduate children’s literature course I taught several years ago (a course that Sue also teaches). As the instructor, I remember being surprised by students’ resistance to the inclusion of the word “scrotum” in The Higher Power of Lucky and their naming of other “problematic” content such as an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. As a reader, I feel the inclusion of “scrotum” is necessary to the character development of the book’s protagonist, while the other topics my students identified as controversial are not necessarily central to the main themes of the book. Given my own response to the book, I became motivated to find out why my students reacted the way they did and why they would presumably withhold the book – which received what many consider to be the most prestigious award in children’s literature – from the students in their classrooms. 

Were there any specific external events (political, social, economic) that influenced your decision to engage in this research study?

Danielle: We collected the data for this study in 2014 and 2015, and at the time, we were not motivated by any particular events. However, as we were writing the manuscript for JTE, it became clear to us that conversations about censorship are becoming increasingly relevant and timely. As we explain in the article, we have a president who has refused to allow the Environmental Protection Agency to speak to the public and routinely tries to discredit anyone who disagrees with or criticizes him. These attempts to silence others is a form of censorship. If censorship is a common occurrence in the highest levels of our federal government, I wonder if censorship is becoming a new norm in the public sphere, including public education. That possibility is deeply troubling. 

Sue: To follow up on Danielle’s remarks, while overt censorship is troubling, we all become complicit when we begin to censor ourselves or exert pre-emptive censorship over the materials we choose to share with young people.  This form of censorship is invisible and difficult to counteract.

What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

Sue: Interpretive research such as this is always challenging. We frequently have to ask ourselves “How might I be wrong?” or “What else could this mean?” As partners we help to provide some of this objectivity to each other. But we are also aware of ourselves as readers, and following Louise Rosenblatt’s theory that readers make meaning from texts, our reactions to a “text” as a data source is one valid interpretation that we should pay attention to. We learn to pay attention to that initial and subjective reaction and then ask ourselves, “What is it about this text, the word choice, or the order of phrasing, that leads us to this interpretation?”

What current areas of research are you pursuing?

Danielle: The research we reported in JTE suggests that teacher preemptively censor books because they fear how their students’ parents will react. But what do parents actually think about controversial children’s books? We recently completed a project to explore this understudied topic. 

Sue: As we suggested in the JTE article, when educators think about their own childhoods as readers, they appreciate how children understand texts. They never tell us “I read . . . and decided to run away from home.” But they will tell us a vampire series was what turned them on to reading and changed them from non-readers to readers. We are currently investigating which books and experiences are significant in the reading lives of pre-service teachers and school librarians. 

Danielle: We have also co-authored a new book, Genre-Based Strategies to Promote Critical Literacy in Grades 4-8, which offers guidelines for educators who want to share high quality literature addressing critical social issues with children.

What new challenges do you see for the field of teacher education?

Sue: Teaching requires courage to engage students where they are; not all students come from privileged backgrounds. Tough issues may be their reality. A challenge for teacher education is to awaken that sense of empathy for students and the courage to be a partner: to stand alongside students, address their questions, and give them the tools to grow to their full potential.  We find literature to be one of the more potent tools for this purpose.

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