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How To Get Kids To Read? Give Them Banned Books

The greatest novel of the 20th century or a novel that’s been banned for bad language and sexual references. Those are both descriptions of The Great Gatsby, but only one gets poor students excited about reading.

If kids’ desire to read rivaled their instinct for rebellion, good books would fly off the shelves. That’s the thesis behind Uprise Books, a nonprofit that is sending low-income students all the good books that have been banned or challenged to promote teen literacy, fight censorship, and halt the cycle of poverty.

It’s not that the books are obscene (at least, not only). They’ve typically been selected by teachers, librarians, and other educators for school curriculum and libraries, but were challenged by parents and interest groups. The American Library Association reports the most frequently banned or challenged books in 2010 included Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (about a dystopian future), Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed describing life in the American lower class, and the paranormal series Twilight. The Great Gatsby and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn have been favorites for banning in the past. (A full list is here.)

Justin Stanley, who founded Uprise Books, says the nonprofit is just getting off the ground, but the project has already attracted a national network of librarians and teachers interested in helping address the problem. Poor kids, according to a 2010 study (PDF) by Learning Point Associates, simply have fewer chances to read: They have fewer books in the home, live farther from public libraries, and often attend underfunded schools with poorly stocked libraries. But Stanley, who grew up familiar with food stamps and government assistance, knows that getting books into the hands of disadvantaged kids isn’t enough.They have to want to read them. If you tell them that they can get a book with sex in it for free, that might be enough to spark some desire for reading.

"Learning, knowledge, reading … all of that tends to be frowned upon by the kids we’re trying to reach (and, sadly, by many of the adults in their lives)," writes Stanley by email. "At best, it’s 'nerdy,' at worst, it’s 'selling out.' We’re playing off a teen’s inherent sense of rebellion. The same teen who would never think to read The Great Gatsby because it was named the best book of the 20th century might be turned on to the book that was challenged for its 'language and sexual references.'" It works simply. Students go to the site, request their favorite banned book, and Uprise sends it to them, free of charge.

So Stanley is doing more than providing paper; he’s creating the psychological motivation for students to dive into literature (or books of any kind) despite their surroundings. "Pushing banned/challenged books provides those kids with a shield to use against that pressure. Instead of reading a great work of literature, they’re breaking the rules and discovering what they (parents, adults, the establishment, etc.) don’t want them to know."

It’s not yet clear this will work. Uprise Books does not have a research department to conduct large studies testing its effectiveness. But it has drawn on a lot of detailed, primary research, anecdotal evidence and stacked its team of advisors with those who know their students and reading well: a social worker in New York City, the circulation manager for a large public library, and a national network of librarians and teachers.

For now, Uprise is initially targeting the Portland and Vancouver, Washington, area through its Kickstarter campaign, but qualifying students (ones who either attend schools serving low-income families and/or receive free/reduced school lunches) will be eligible to make book requests as soon as the site goes public. Uprise will be using Amazon to handle transactions. One of the biggest challenges is figuring out a way for qualified students to order off the website, while preventing abuse of the system with free ordering. For now, Uprise will err on the side of accessibility.

Stanley has been encouraged by what he has seen among students who pick up the right books. Ellen Hopkins, author of Crank, one of the most frequently banned/challenged authors in 2010, sat on a panel discussion about banned books at the Wordstock Festival in Portland last year.

A large percentage of the audience were teens interested in her and her books. Afterwards, writes Stanley, the librarian "told me that their branch was packed with middle school kids when she was last in town for a reading there. [It] definitely felt like the kids wanted to know what she had to say."

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  • katyuno

    I worry that this idea won't be enough to pique a teenager's interest for more than a few minutes-- reading a novel is a time-consuming under-taking. In my experience teaching in an inner-city school-- many of my students don't like to read simply because they have not developed basic reading skills-- like decoding and comprehension. I've had the experience of students getting frustrated reading a paragraph of instructions, or the questions on a 3 page survey. If reading is this hard for those students, they aren't going to enjoy reading an entire novel-- no matter how juicy. 

    I like the idea of getting kids excited about reading great books-- but we have to pair this with major efforts to improve literacy instruction and literacy skills among struggling readers. 

  • Cnagel

    I'm a teenager, and the minute you tell me it's a banned book, I go out and read it too see why. Some of the people I go to school with sometimes call me a nerd, but once they find out that my book follows the life of a porn star, or is about anarchy in a totalitarian government, they don't say that so much. This is an amazing idea. Thank you for anyone who supports this. 

  • DevilsAdvocate

    I agree though, what a fantastic idea. I remember my sister lending me some Anne Mcaffery books in highschool because I was too bored to play any more videogames and gosh, if Mcaffery didn't go into some explicit detail... needless to say I'd read all of 'The Dragon Riders of Pern' series within a year.

  • Jakigaudet

    What a nice idea! Because let's face it, these books are brilliantly written and they are by no means  worse than what people can get for free on TV. I hope this goes national.

    I even think I recognize that book cover. Macbeth? I own that copy.