It’s Banned Books Week so I’m highlighting a different banned book each day this week. My posts will include the banned book, where/why it’s been banned (or challenged), my opinion, and a student’s opinion. I’m also hosting a banned books giveaway, so I hope you’ll check it out and enter to win a banned book of your choice.
Where/Why It’s Been Banned: “Removed from a spring break elective course at the Bedford, N.H. School District (2010) after a parent complained about the novel’s sexual content. The complainant further suggested that the school only allow “youth versions” of particular books or organize a parental review system over the summer that would look at books that students need parental permission to read. A checklist has been proposed that Bedford school officials would use to rate books and other instructional materials.” (Source–Quote taken from ALA banned books resource page)
My Thoughts: I chose to highlight this book first for a couple reasons. First, I didn’t know until a couple days ago when I was getting these posts ready that Water for Elephants had been banned. Second, this book wasn’t published as a YA novel. I read it this past spring after one of my high school students handed me her copy and told me I had to read it. I was surprised by the mature, sexual scenes but that’s because I’ve been reading YA almost exclusively and had to remind myself that this novel wasn’t published YA. It did make me wonder what my student thought of those scenes, which we discussed when I gave her book back at the end of spring break.
Despite the maturity of the novel, there are quite a few positive messages in the novel which I think outweigh those scenes. Jacob, the main character, suddenly becomes an orphan just as he’s about to graduate from college and become a veterinarian. As a last resort he hops a circus train and is thrown into a bizarre and often dangerous life. Water for Elephants is historical fiction and Sara Gruen did a wonderful job researching the time period and the circus culture when writing her novel. Her story focuses on Jacob and how he learns to survive this new life, but also how he shows compassion for both people and animals, learns to stand up for himself, and finds his first love.
I have a copy of this book in my classroom library, because I know my mature readers will enjoy it. I made sure to buy a copy with the original cover (the movie cover has Robert Pattison and Reese Witherspoon) because I think my boys in class will be more likely to pick it up than they would if I had the movie cover edition. If you’re looking for a rationale for Water for Elephants, it’s listed as a Scholastic Reading Counts book **side note: I’m not an advocate of boxed reading programs like this, but I know many schools use them.** and it’s a 2007 Alex Award winner. The Alex Award is given to books that are written for adults but appeal to teen readers.
Student Response: This quote is from Tristan, my student who let me borrow her copy over spring break. “The book is an adult book to begin with, so why would the author have to worry about sexual content? As far as having it in a high school, I think that teens can handle it. And if a parent has a problem, THEN THEY DON’T NEED TO LET THEIR CHILD READ IT! But they don’t need to drag other students into it. I do agree this book does contain a lot of sexual content, so I wouldn’t want my middle school sister reading this. But teens can handle it, and parents shouldn’t be naive enough to think this isn’t something their children are oblivious about.”