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A teacher's opinions on YA literature and the state of public education in America.

Shame on Toni Morrison



So, there’s this hubbub about Pulitzer-prize-winning author Toni Morrison and some smut she wrote back in the godless seventies called The Bluest Eye. Apparently, Ohio’s School Board President, Debe Terhar, made some innocuous remarks about not wanting her grandchildren or “anybody else’s grandchildren reading” The Bluest Eye—a book which she’s “very passionate about” removing from the recommended reading list for 11th grade, a list put together for the Common Core Reading Standards (that piece of Federal whimsy!). For some reason, this has Toni Morrison a little chagrined. But, I say shame on Toni Morrison.

I admit, back before there was such a thing as Common Core, I used The Bluest Eye in my classroom for literature circles. Kids loved that book the way you love a grandmother who curses like a sailor and doesn’t go to church; she scares you a little but you adore her. The Bluest Eye wasn’t a book that coddled students—as a matter of fact, it gave them the creeps—it was a book that shook them. Every batch of students who read it recognized Pecola, the very poor, very ugly, very black protagonist who is raped and impregnated by her father. They knew her. They saw her in their poor, marginalized classmates. In rural Kentucky, black or white, they didn’t have to look very far. As much success as my students had with that book, the censors who banned it from me were more successful. (Well, they actually meant no harm to that book in particular; it was banned en masse ). It was just as well though; it was one of those books students always “forgot to turn in.” By the time the heavy-handed ruling came down, there weren’t many Morrison books left on my shelves anyway (The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Beloved, or Paradise ). The students kept that amoral filth. And they’ve probably kept reading it, too. Bless their hearts.

As a wiser, now National Board certified, now five years more experienced, now 50+ times censored, now three times a mother, I wish I had listened to the voices like Debe Terhar’s who said that books like The Bluest Eye were inappropriate not only for their children but for anyone’s children. Because now I’ve realized that these grotesque depictions—cruel poverty, incest, indifference, self-loathing—are not present in the lives of the kids we service as educators.

Because kids do not hate their self-image.

Because kids are not raped (especially not in Ohio).

Because kids do not come from extreme poverty.

And  Toni Morrison should be ashamed of herself for representing a group of people whose obscure voices still shake polite society so harshly that folks like Debe Terhar, et al, know no other course of action than to ban ban ban.  How dare authors write—and then defend!—books so alien to the gentler side of the human experience that it shocks folks who just want to parent everyone’s kids–oops, I mean, who just want to provide a challenging, complex, diverse, quality, and rigorous education for all kids.

What a shame.



  1. Ideally it would obviously be best for all children to escape the evils brought into this world by previous generations but unfortunately we do not live in an ideal world. :(
    However, we all know that is not the case…children are exposed to many different ‘wrongs’ and evils in this world.
    I don’t believe in blanket bans on books, children should be allowed to read age appropriate books and if there is any controversy concerning any particular title, that should be down to parent/teacher communication and agreement and or some form of assessment to determine the level of understanding and maturity of children who are given the books.
    The freedom to decide, the power of choice and the moral/lack of morality of the government in power throw up all sorts of complexities.
    Some parents are hardly parents and in which case couldn’t give a damn what their children are doing.
    Some have strict moral codes and don’t believe that anything remotely adult (even if it’s within a constructive context) should be shown to children.
    Some parents are liberal and new-age, with limited or no moral guidelines and believe that children should experience anything and everything.
    And those are just a few of the categories…

  2. Right–we don’t live in an ideal world. Though the issue can seem complex, we have to understand and support that banning or censoring books is not the answer. Everyone brings a unique experience to a text, and most readers need to make their own choices about what is inappropriate for them. When we train readers to believe that they can’t make those decisions on their own, we do society a major injustice.

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