Banned Books Case Study

Grade level: 8+

Background: This lesson is delivered in an 80-minute block. Some years, this lesson is followed by a short unit in which students work in pairs to read a challenged book, research the challenges against it, and then present to the class.

Instructional plan

What is Banned Books Week?

  • “Every year, the last week of September is Banned Books Week, when librarians, teachers, publishers, and readers all over the country talk about freedom and open access to ideas.”
  • It is not about finding the edgiest book, it’s about celebrating the rights that we have here, and the fact that we are allowed to read (and write) what we want.

Read a banned book
Share one of the year’s most challenged picture books (we’ve done Nasreen’s Secret SchoolI Am Jazz, and And Tango Makes Three – these all went fine with my particular group of kids, but YMMV. It’s important to ensure that members of marginalized groups, in particular, aren’t made to feel uncomfortable during these conversations, so if your students are likely to freak out about gay penguins, find a different book.)

  • This is one of the most banned books in the US; as we read it, I want you to think about why that might be the case.
  • Read book to class
  • Why do you think this book gets banned/challenged so frequently?
  • Who do you think conducts these challenges? Who are the stakeholders?

Present Banned Books Week slideshow with discussion questions

Into the River case study
What do you think is threatening about this book?
What genuine concerns might people have?
How would this have gone differently in the United States?
Case studies: Each group (of 3-4 students) needs a copy of the packet and a copy of the book; we sourced these from the public library

  • Group 1: Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi), Chicago, 2013
    • publisher’s summary and journal reviews (“objective” source)
    • overview of the case
    • selection of CPS e­mails (censor/complainant perspective)
    •  interviews with CPS students (reader perspective)
    • Tribune article (author perspective)
    • relevant pages from bookGroup 1: Persepolis, Chicago, 2013
  • Group 2: Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell), Minnesota, 2013
    • publisher’s summary and journal reviews (“objective” source)
    • overview of the case
    • PAL flyer & editor letter (complainant/censor perspective)
    • Linda Hughes column (reader perspective)
    • interview with RR (author perspective)
    • relevant excerpts from book

Instructions for students

Read the documents provided. These should give you an idea of what happened when this book was challenged.

You can read the documents however you like: my recommendation is that you each read one or two pieces and then share out to the group. Once you have all gotten some background, discuss the case with your group.

Questions to discuss:

How did the “challenge” process unfold? Did the process make sense to you?

Who are the stakeholders? What are their perspectives on this book and the discussion about it?

What concerns do the complainants have? Do you share any of their concerns?

What arguments would you make against making this book available to young people? What arguments would you make for it?

Questions to respond to in writing (individually):

In your opinion, does this book belong in a public library? A school library? Should it be part of the curriculum (taught in a classroom)?

How are the standards different for those three places?

Creating Booktalks

Grade level: 6th-8th (I’ve done booktalk projects with kids as young as 3rd grade – obviously the expectations are different! This particular lesson plan is for middle school kids.)

Background: Our eighth graders have been watching me do the Book of the Week for a long time, so we had the students model their booktalks off of that format.

Individual note-taking sheet
Class note-taking sheet
Examples of good and not-so-good booktalks on YouTube
Hook starter ideas
Laptops with movie-making software to create booktalks (our students used iMovie or QuickTime)

Instructional plan

Booktalk components

So today we’re going to talk about the components of a booktalk – we’ll watch a few examples to try to develop our own components and criteria. Then we’ll talk about some sort of basic pointers for booktalks, things that I’ve figured out, and then you will have some time to think about a book you might want to talk about.

We’re going to develop the criteria & essential components together. In order to do that, we are going to watch a few video booktalks and book trailers.

While we’re watching the booktalks, we’re each going to take notes on this sheet.
Take note of what happens in each kind of booktalk/trailer. What techniques do they use to get you involved? What do you notice about what they say and how they talk? How are they structured? How do they begin and end?

(watch book trailers, with ~30 seconds at the end of each video to take notes)

OK, now share your notes with your partner. Go through and circle the things that you felt were *most* important.

Make a list on the board with the entire class.

OK, so these are the components we’ve come up with:
[YMMV, but my kids reliably came up with: title and author; introduce main character; introduce setting; some kind of “hook”]

Writing a hook

Go back to the videos and watch the “hook” again. Have students identify the techniques the presenters use to hook their viewers.

We ALWAYS start with a hook. We never start with “This book is about…” or “I read The Fault in Our Stars and…” Instead, I usually start booktalks either by talking about the main character OR setting the scene, depending on whether I think the characters or the plot/setting are more compelling. You can also start your booktalk with a question – great for both speculative fiction and realistic fiction – or a quote, or anything else. Just not “This book is about.”

Alone or in pairs, students complete the Hook Writing Practice sheet with a book they’ve read (doesn’t have to be the one they will do for their project!) Display hook starter ideas while they work. Ask volunteers to share their hooks with the class.

Pointers & ideas

So before you guys start planning, I want to give you a few pointers that will help you be successful, and show you a few resources that might be useful.

  • A booktalk is NOT a review, report, or summary.
  • You only have one minute! This is one challenge of Book of the Week – they basically have to be exactly one minute. This means I run through it a few times to figure out pacing. Mine are usually 170-200 words long, but I’m a fast talker! A typical presenter reads about 140-160 words per minute, so that’s probably what you should aim for.
  • Think about it like a movie trailer. You’ve all heard the old-school movie trailers that are like, “IN A WORLD where…” or, for romantic comedies and stuff, “Meet Jane. She was just a normal librarian until one day…” Those movie trailers don’t explain the whole plot to you – and they also don’t explicitly give their opinion about the movie. Of course they want you to think the movie is great, they’re selling it. That’s what you’re doing too.
  • I usually start out by deciding what’s most compelling about the story – not just to me, but to people generally (or to the audience of the particular book). Usually it’s the main character or the setting, but sometimes it’s the plot or the writing style, if it’s something really unusual – but you want to lead with that most compelling thing.

Racism in Children’s Books

Grade level: 8+

Background: This group of students had discussed book challenges at length, and we’d also talked about diverse literature and why it’s important. I think that students need at least that much background to be successful with this lesson. I used the “further questions” at the end as an exit slip – kids wrote their responses on post-it notes and stuck them up on the whiteboard. I left them there for a few days and they generated a lot of conversation!

Big question: How does this controversy connect to larger issues in children’s literature? (Diversity and representation, censorship)

A Fine Dessert, Emily Jenkins
A Birthday Cake for George Washington, Ramin Ganeshram note: this book is not easy to source, since it was pulled from publication. My local library had a copy, and yours might too; check WorldCat to find out. If you can’t get ahold of one, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do.
My Google Slides presentation has the back cover of Happy Birthday and the discussion questions
Enough copies of the primary source packet for each group (see below for links)

Instructional plan

Show picture from back cover of A Birthday Cake for George Washington on the whiteboard. Ask students to discuss it at their tables for 1 minute. What do you think of when you see it? What’s happening in this picture? What’s absent?

Introduce the two books.

A Fine Dessert: Give backstory, then read first two sections. Briefly explain the rest of the story. Display author’s note.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington: (This is where the back cover came from.) Read entire book out loud

Compare & discuss. What do you think the response might have been to these books, and why? What questions do you have? What do these stories highlight in our history, and what do they obscure?

Explain A Fine Dessert backlash;  show AICL article (here) with link round-up (all circa Oct-Nov of 2015). End result: A Fine Dessert remains in print; Birthday Cake (Jan 2016) was recalled & pulled from publication.

Show Jenkins’s apology note (on presentation) and ask for student responses.


In groups, students examine primary sources through the lens of two questions: How do/should we represent these topics in books for children? Is the recall of Happy Birthday George Washington an act of censorship?


    1. Scholastic (publisher) statements (first statement, second statement)
    2. Ramin Ganeshram (author) statement
    3. Andrea Pinkney (editor) statement
    4. School Library Journal & Kirkus (industry journal) reviews
    5. NCAC/PEN (free speech advocates) statements
    6. Two articles comparing uproar over both books (article one, article two) – these are long, it’s okay for students to skim

Wrap-up & exit slip

Bring conversation back to the whole group and ask groups to share their responses to the questions, or any additional thoughts they have. “I don’t expect us to solve anything or answer these questions in any definitive way: I just want us to engage with these issues.”

Further questions: How can you connect these conversations back to your life as a reader? How does (or will) this conversation change the way that you read fiction – particularly historical fiction? Who has the right to tell certain kinds of stories?

Investigating Historical Fiction with Primary Sources

Grade level: 6th, but you could easily modify this to work with younger or older students

Background: Students were working on a historical fiction genre study.

Resources: Primary source sets for each book:
Chains, Laurie Halse Anderson
Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson
Forge, Laurie Halse Anderson
The Green Glass Sea, Ellen Klages
A Break with Charity, Ann Rinaldi

Instructional plan

Intro questions:
What is a primary source? What’s a secondary source?
What is the value of primary sources? What can they show us that we can’t get from a secondary source?
What are some types of primary sources?
Complex cases: What about a painting? What about a book? (Chernobyl, American Plague)

First, we will work as a whole class on a modeling activity using a photo from 1950s Soviet Russia. Students will receive a copy of this photograph at their tables and we’ll project it on the board, then as a whole class, we will discuss the photograph and complete a graphic organizer.

Students look at photo for 60 seconds, noting everything they can.
What can we observe? What can we infer from these observations? What can we infer from our prior knowledge? What questions do we still have?

Ask students to confer about the questions they wrote down. Which of those might be productive for further research?

After completing the graphic organizer, ask students: OK, what do we know about this time period that we didn’t know ten minutes ago? What ideas do we have for further research – what sparked our interest and made us want to learn more?

Group activity:
Students will break out into their book groups and work with these groups to interpret primary sources from their novel’s time period.

Students view or listen to the provided primary sources (using laptops and/or photocopies) at a table with their group. Students will have bibliographic information for their items.

Students work together to complete an analysis sheet (observations/inferences/questions) for their primary sources. Teachers/assistants spend at least a few minutes with each group, mostly observing student discussion, but prompting as necessary.

Independently, students answer questions:
What do I know that I didn’t know before I looked at these sources?
What new questions do I have? What seems most interesting? What would I like to research more?

Circle of Viewpoints/Fiction Writing Extension:
Show students the “Circle of Viewpoints” handout. Who might care about this document? Who are the stakeholders? Who might be affected? Brainstorm as a class. Ask: Do you think someone could write an interesting book from any of these perspectives? Which ones are most appealing to you?

Students return to their groups to complete a “Circle of Viewpoints” activity for one of their documents.

Using the ideas they generated in the “Circle of Viewpoints” exercise, students write a short story set during their time period from the perspective of one of the stakeholders they identified. They can also write a brief reflection on this experience: how did changing perspectives alter their own understanding of the time period?

Build-Your-Own Dystopia

Grade levels: 8+

Essential questions
What are the characteristics of a utopian society? A dystopian society?

What do we value the most in our society? Safety, freedom, wealth, comfort, equality? What do we sacrifice in order to achieve these values?

How do fantasy novels help us understand truths about the real world?

Students will be able to identify elements of dystopian societies.

Students will be able to analyze short stories and provide evidence to support their analyses.

Students will be able to make connections between themes in dystopian stories and present day society.

Short stories: “Harrison Bergeron”, Kurt Vonnegut; “The Lottery”, Shirley Jackson; “All Summer in a Day”, Ray Bradbury; “Old Glory”, Kurt Vonnegut

Movies: 2081 (“Harrison Bergeron”) – 20 minutes

Trailers (via YouTube): Wall-EMinority ReportChildren of MenDivergent

In groups of 2-3, students worked to create a dystopia. Students could present their dystopia in any format as long as they include the required elements: some students created videos, some wrote stories or screenplays, and one group made a (ridiculously impressive) comic book. Others just answered the questions, which is also totally okay.

Analysis of “The Lottery” (in small groups)
Movie trailer analysis (in small groups)
Final writing exercise (short answer, independent work)
Build-Your-Own Dystopia project (in pairs or groups of three)