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Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Critical literacy: Examining controversial and banned children's literature.

I was reading about controversial children's literature in an article or a book (I read so much that I cannot always remember), and being the ever rebellious teacher that I am decided that I needed to bring these books into my classroom. Including something controversial in my lessons is no big deal on my end, as I am always willing to push boundaries. I have used trade books in class previously, and the response was positive, so I decided to engage my students in a critical literacy/inquiry lesson involving the analysis of controversial and/or banned children's trade books.

The Books

The following books were chosen from different lists I found online while researching this topic. Every selection was available at my local public library:

  • Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola (witchcraft)
  • In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (nudity, phallic representation)
  • The Stupids Have a Ball by Harry Allard and James Marshall (intelligence)
  • White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman (segregation, violence)
  •  Smoky Night by Eve Bunting (riots, violence, differences)
  • Friends from the Other Side/Amigos de otro lado by Gloria Anzaldua (illegal immigration)
  • The Amazing Bone by William Steig (witchcraft, robbery, violence, kidnapping)
  • and Tango makes three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (gay couples, gay parenting)
  • I am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings (transgender issues)
  • In Our Mother's House by Patricia Polacco (lesbian couples, lesbian parenting, discrimination)
  • Flabby Cat and Slobby Dog by Jeanne Willis and Tony Ross (fat-shaming)
Planning for the lesson

I read each of these books before bringing them into my classroom. After reading, I knew I would have students who were uncomfortable with some of the topics, but I did not want to censor the readings in my classroom. The book topics are all real-life issues, and I felt that my students must learn to critically analyze information regardless of personal beliefs as part of becoming informed citizens. I wanted them to think about why some of these books would be complained about to the point of being banned in addition to how they felt about the topics personally. 

Mentor Text

I began the lesson with my students using Strega Nona as our mentor text. I explained that the story was considered controversial. [Side note: It took me two class periods to realize that my students did not understand the meaning of controversial. This will be addressed first in future presentations of this lesson.]

We listened to a Tomie dePaola audio recording of the story, during which I directed my students to actively listen for and determine what might be controversial about the story. Many thought that priests and nuns in a children's book might offend people. Others thought Big Anthony was being treated like a slave. Only a few were able to determine that there are people in our society who find witchcraft to be offensive.

[Side note: We also discussed what the Caldecott Award is and why a book that wins awards can still be controversial.]


I sorted my classes into diverse groups. I know my students pretty well and am comfortable saying I know what most of them believe about a lot of topics. I created groups that reflected a wide range of thinking in order to create some discussion among the students.

Book Selection
Initially, I planned on assigning specific books to my groups based on what I thought they would be comfortable with. I quickly changed my mind. I wanted the kids to be slightly unsettled and uncomfortable in order to get them thinking about the topic being presented. To randomize the process, I had one member of each group blindly draw a book from a basket. I kept the spine-side down to prevent any peeking.

Critical Literacy Questions

After reading the selected text, each group conducted a critical analysis. I provided my students with a list of questions (see below) I found online and left them to it. I told them I would answer and assist as needed, but I wanted to see what they could come up with on their own.

The biggest issues turned out to be with the power and interest questions. In one-on-one conversations, my students completely understood the questions and were able to present responses. They had never considered these to be power issues, however. This was quite eye opening to many.


Textual Purposes

  • What is this text about? How do we know?

  • Who would be most likely to read this text and why?

  • Why are we reading this text?

  • What does the author of this text want us to know?

Textual Structures and Features

  • What do the images suggest?

  • What do the words suggest?

Power and Interest

  • In whose interest is this text?

  • Who benefits from this text?

  • What knowledge does the reader need to bring to this text in order to understand it?

  • Which positions, voices, and interests are at play in this text?

  • How does the text depict age, gender, cultural groups?

Gaps and Silences

  • What views of the world is the text presenting?

Interrogating the Author

  • What kind of person, and with what interests and values, authored the text?

  • What view of the world and values does the author assume the reader holds? How do we know?

Multiple Meanings

  • What different interpretations of the text are possible? Who would support this text? Who would argue against this text?

Adapted from:


Graffiti Walls

The culminating piece to our analysis was to create graffiti walls. This is a connection response activity from Kathy Short:

This was a little too much freedom for my students. With most creative assignments, I hear, "Do we have to color? Does it have to be neat?" With this assignment, I said, "Be as messy as you want. You do not have to color. It does not have to be neat. You can make a great big mess." I even ripped pieces of butcher paper in odd shapes to help exemplify that the work could be messy. My kids could not handle it. They asked if they could cut the paper. They asked if they could color. They asked for more time. I got some of the neatest and most creative work ever. The silly part of me wanted to tell the kids I was taking off points for not being messy, but I was afraid of scaring my kids for life.


 Student Examples


This is one of my favorite lessons of the year. From an AVID perspective, all elements of WICOR were included - writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading. From a proud teacher perspective, I heard some amazing conversations taking place in my classroom, and those conversations included understanding, tolerance, and acceptance, regardless of personal beliefs.  There was some disagreement about who should be reading the books and at what age, but my seventh and eighth grade students were incredibly mature in all aspects of the lesson.