Reviewing School Book Lists, Part One

Reviewing School Book Lists: Part One. Part Two. Part Three.Part Four. This post by Emily Whitten, co-founder of Redeemed Reader, is part of a series about the senior high school student Nathan Austin and the role literature played in his death.

And the Winner Is…A Clockwork Orange?

Since Janie Cheaney and I founded this website back in 2011, one of the top three posts has consistently been an early post on A Clockwork Orange.  I don’t think the post is especially perceptive or well-written; it’s part of a series that needs a lot of rewriting.  And I admit, it’s possible there is some weird spam-related reason the post ranks so high.  Maybe it’s a technical glitch in the software we use to count visitors.

But there’s also another possibility.  A possibility that I’ve come to take more seriously over the years.  Maybe moms and dads as well as teens themselves are actually interested in a Christian view of the book.  A Clockwork Orange is considered a classic by many, and as such, it often appears on high school and college reading lists.  Yet it contains a rape scene, gang fights, emotional brutality, and much, much more.  Maybe parents who are concerned about the book have come to our site for help.

While I can’t say for sure why my post has been so relatively popular, it is certainly true that I have heard from many parents and educators over the years who are concerned about the books their kids are reading.  And for all the scrutiny I’ve given Hunger Games and Harry Potter, the reality is that the problematic material in these books pales in comparison to the books I was asked to read in high school.  Native Son by Richard Wright is a book I remember quite vividly having to read in my public high school, and it is basically the tale of a young black man who kills someone, stuffs her in a furnace, and leaves the scene of the crime.  Oh, it resonates, and has lots of noble themes about the suffering of main character, but it’s also a really gruesome tale of an evil act done by an evil man who has suffered at the hands of other evil men.

I could list other books I remember–The Red Badge of Courage, A Scarlett Letter, etc.–that had very disturbing, problematic content.  But the point is, my mom knew I was reading these books.  She was concerned that the messages of the stories didn’t reflect her values, and she put the time in to actually read ALL of them along with me.  But she still didn’t know how to counteract them, other than to say, “That’s not what we do,” and “That’s not what I think.”

Books aren’t like guns or machetes.  When their victims leave the scene of the crime, they don’t usually leave a bloody trail.  Compared to doing drugs, or viewing pornography, or being in a gang, or going to frat parties (all of which I have done, save the gang part), they just don’t seem that bad.  I mean, if we can’t even get people to agree that killing babies in the womb is wrong, how can we expect people to believe that sitting quietly in a room, snuggled under a Hello Kitty blanket and simply READING about killing babies is a problem.

And yet, it is.  It’s not the only problem teens face, certainly.  And I don’t believe the answer is book burnings or government censorship.  But just because there isn’t a simple solution doesn’t mean we should deny the problem.  And the reality is, one of the major reasons I felt it was ok to get plastered at frat parties, laugh at my roommate’s porn use, do drugs, and do any number of other foolish things I did before I was saved was this: the books I trusted, and that were given to me by trusted adults, said it was.  All those external sins were birthed by my disordered heart, which had itself been shaped in large part by the books I read:

21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. (Mark 7:21-22)

We do, as a society, at least keep some tabs on the violence and problematic material of movies.  We have a ratings system–however flawed–for movies, video games, and music.  We put labels on coffee telling us it is hot.  But books?  They are vocabulary builders.  They ennoble us and develop empathy.  And we can leave those to the professionals, can’t we?

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ve invited a number of people to join me as we look at school book lists–in both Christian and secular schools.  We will look at how they have impacted families like Paul and Karen Austin.  (You can read a little about their son Nathan’s experience with books in this article I wrote for World Magazine.)  We’ll hear short quotes from Christian leaders like Gene E. Veith and Tony Reinke about one book list in particular.  In addition, I’ve asked my fellow RR writer, Betsy Farquhar, a real-life librarian and Christian literature teacher, about where our book lists are headed.  And Lord willing, we’ll also look at what Christian families can do to protect their children who are in public and Christian schools.  (Believe it or not, book burning didn’t make the list!)

A Request

I’m also going to ask on the front end that you all be praying for this series.  It’s a topic I think I can very easily be misunderstood, and I do not want to come across as calling for censorship or government intervention on any of these books.  But the books our kids are reading are, I believe, greatly impacting the church as well as those outside it, and I am praying that the Lord will keep me focused and help me convey both my burden AND my  hope on the subject for all who have ears to hear.

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  1. Kim on August 6, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Great topic, and I look forward to it! I went to a Christian high school and read The Red Badge of Courage and a short story called The Lottery (that one I remember vividly), among others, and it never even occurred to me that they might be problematic back then.

  2. Kim on August 6, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    I’m a different Kim than the one who commented above (though everything she said is true of me, too!), but I want to echo that I’m looking forward to this series as well.

    Emily’s request at the end particularly resonated with me. I was a precocious reader whose books (and TV, and movies, etc.) were not screened, censored, discussed, or much thought about by my parents, and as a result the effect was a feeding of sin to which my heart was already prone. I have read and seen much that I shouldn’t have, especially as a child and teenager, that despite my self-justifications was sin. I’ve been really burdened lately in a similar way about what we as Christians are watching and reading, all the while justifying ourselves. And yet those of us who even faintly voice such concerns are often shut down as legalists, “weaker brothers” who can’t handle the meat, or worse. For many of us, these concerns come not from legalism but from the grief of those who have experienced first-hand the harm that can come from a lack of shelter. It’s lonely to be misunderstood in such a way.

    So, I guess I want to encourage you that while, as you said, some may think you are calling for censorship, SOMEBODY has to be voicing the truth, so please take courage as you begin this much-needed series. You’re right, it is impacting the church, and it will carry forward and continue to do so in ways we don’t now see.

  3. Betsy Farquhar on August 7, 2014 at 4:55 am

    For the record (Emily already knows this, so this is more for our readers to see), I have taught high school in Christian schools only. I’ve taught (or will teach this fall) the following works–ALL of which are depressing and/or tragedies (some I’ve taught multiple times, hence the short list):

    Macbeth (multiple times)
    Romeo and Juliet
    The Scarlet Letter
    Frankenstein (multiple times)
    Lord of the Flies (multiple times)
    Great Expectations
    Our Town
    Their Eyes Were Watching God
    Things Fall Apart

    Perhaps the most uplifting, redemptive book I have taught is To Kill a Mockingbird (and I loved teaching it!).

    The only books I added to the list were Frankenstein (replaced, with school’s permission, a different book that wasn’t as appealing to my students) and Things Fall Apart (also for a fairly specific reason/unit on African literature). All the rest have been dictated by school curriculum.

    I also make all my students experience a Shakespearean comedy (usually Twelfth Night) to balance out the tragedies. For some reason, in high school we seem to teach only the tragedies (adding Julius Caesar and Hamlet to those I listed above).

    Looking forward to others’ lists and thoughts!

  4. Kelli on August 8, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    I agree, this is a great topic. You’ve given me some things to think about. I can’t keep
    up with all of the books my 9th grader reads. Almost all of them are books I see reviewed
    on this site and a few other places.I wish I could pre-read many of the books before she actually reads them, but thats just not realistic. She tends to really enjoy the sci-fi/fantasy genre and I worry about the ideas presented in them. Luckily my husband is an avid sci-fi reader as well and can discuss certain books with her. She recently finished The Giver. I have not read it, but I saw Jeff Bridges (he’s in the movie) being interviewed about it this week. He said that at one time The Giver was on the banned book list at many schools. Anyone know why?

  5. Kelli on August 8, 2014 at 12:37 pm

    We homeschool and this is a list of some of the books my freshman daughter will be reading this year-
    The Cat of Bubastes (G.A. Henty)
    The Art of War (Sun Tzu)
    Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare)
    The Imitation of Christ (Thomas à Kempis)
    Here I Stand (Roland Bainton)
    A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens)
    North and South (Elizabeth Gaskell)
    The Hiding Place (Corrie Ten Boom)
    Bridge to the Sun (Gwen Terasaki)
    Cry, the Beloved Country (Alan Paton)
    Animal Farm (George Orwell)
    The Abolition of Man (C.S. Lewis)

  6. Janie Cheaney on August 8, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    I think the main problem may be not just the negativity, but the lack of positivity (if that’s a word–doesn’t sound quite right). I’ve read before that the Gospel is bad news before it’s good news: mankind is depraved and helpless without Jesus Christ. And I believe it was Chesterton who said that original sin was the only church doctrine completely affirmed by human history. What we’re getting from most of these reading lists is confirmation that the world is fallen, but no word about the remedy. And in spite of the fallenness, “Heaven and earth are full of thy glory”–the earth retains the beauty breathed into it the hovering Spirit. For the most part, these books communicate no sense of beauty, hope, and genuine love.

  7. Megan on August 11, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    Kelli, here is a recent RR post on The Giver that contains discussion excerpts describing some of the elements that parents objected to in The Giver. My objection to the objections raised by parents who wanted to ban the book is that Lois Lowry never condones life in the society she describes, and I fear that too many Christians overreacted without reading the book. It is a book I have recommended many times to readers who I trust are discerning.

  8. Kristina on August 23, 2014 at 10:24 am

    We homeschool, and my oldest is in 7th grade. I agree that I don’t just want to read the books with them and point out negative elements. I need a guide to help me approach them from a Biblical worldview.

    For school, we are keeping with a middle ages theme. Our co-op includes these books:
    Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher
    Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray
    King Arthur: Tales of the Round Table by Andrew Lang OR
    The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Rosemary Sutcliff
    A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
    The Canterbury Tales retold by Geraldine McCaughrean
    The Adventures of Robin Hood by Roger Lancelyn Green
    Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli
    Fleas, Flies and Friars: Children’s Poetry from the Middle Ages by Nicholas Orme
    Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
    Mansa Musa by Khephra Burns
    Sundiata: Lion King of Mali by David Wisniewski
    Traveling Man: The Journey of Ibn Battuta 1325-1354 by James Rumford
    First Voyage to America: From the Log of the Santa Maria by Christopher Columbus
    The Second Mrs. Gioconda by e.l. konigsburg

    I have a little trouble with the King Arthur stories (currently previewing Sutcliff’s The Sword and the Circle) because of the sexual elements and the fact that I don’t see a clear reason his fighting was “good.” Robin Hood is problematic because he is not submitted to the governing authorities. Is it all right to keep giving young men cleaned-up versions of these classics?

    Thanks for keeping me thinking!

  9. Marion Stade on October 23, 2014 at 6:34 am

    I wish there was a “like” button!

  10. emily on October 23, 2014 at 9:33 am

    I apologize that we have not been able to address any of the lists posted here in the comments. I had hoped there would be time, but homeschooling this year has been much more time consuming for me. Thank you to those of you who took the time to share your lists. We will try to do something like this again sometime, and maybe we can address your lists then.

  11. Julie on August 10, 2020 at 10:24 am

    I too wish there was a like button. I definitely want to follow and read your series on this subject. As an adult I read Kite Runner which I just read your review on as a required read for high schoolers, and I couldn’t agree more with your assessment on that book and others like it. There are images in my mind from reading that book that create a visceral response and I can’t clear from my mind. It makes me think about the things we take in and how they can darken our spiritual light. My parents didn’t monitor my avaricious reading and I wish they had because it did affect my spirit and character formation. What you are speaking on with this series is something that needs to be heard and understood for our children’s sake. I will be following this series and praying over you for the discernment of wisdom and the speaking of truth. Thank you for writing about this.

    • Betsy Farquhar on August 10, 2020 at 11:00 am

      We love it when our readers pray for us! Please do! This series on school book lists is an older one on our site, but it’s time to revise it a bit as new books are landing on the school lists.

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