Best Laid Plans: Sharing a Difficult Novella

Some after the winter break, I will pull out the classroom set of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and place a copy upon each of the 32 desks in Room 210. I am never disappointed that a student will walk in and ask, “What are these?” Thank goodness, Lane Smith has a new book that answers the question, “It’s a Book!” so that I can save my snark for Twitter and Facebook updates.

It is a book, and an oft-challenged one at that. Last year, I was quoted in Education Week in an article titled “Reading Aloud to Students Gains Favor with Teachers.” In the article, I talked about this title aloud six times a year for the past six years. I have now read Steinbeck’s work thirty-six times to just shy of one thousand students who have been a part of Room 210. To date, I have not received a call or letter of complaint. No student has ever requested an alternate text. And I think the answer to this novella, and many others that might be included in a classroom library or a shared text within the classroom, is in the approach. Perhaps if we looked at the book that might be potentially challenged for what it is. What is it, Mr. Smith. Yes-that’s right. “It’s a Book.” And now I have saved more of my brand of snark for my friends and followers. Let’s look at a book at the surface level to see how we might avoid challenges to the the titles we offer our students.

1). Judge the book by it’s cover: Most YA titles that are released now have blurbs and reviews by the ALA, Kirkus, and YALSA. What’s more, the teacher can look at the book within the context of the many reading management programs such as AR or RC to see if the title is included within. While these endorsements are never a replacement for good judgement and author/title awareness, it certainly helps to have done the initial assessment on a title before placing it on the shelf or putting on a desk.

2). What’s the preface?: How the teacher introduces the book to the group is so important in the avoidance of a challenge. For Of Mice and Men, I actually spend some time covering the symbiotic relationship with my students. We talk about films like Finding Nemo, Dumb and Dumber, and the Karate Kid. We watch the old animated shorts of Tex Avery (Remember George and Benny?) and the Warner Bros animated shorts with The Abominable Snowman and his affections for Daffy Duck (who can forget this classic case of mistaken identity?). The preface allows me, the lead learner, in the room to demonstrate a purpose for the title and a number of in-roads into the book rather than living life in the median wherein we have to leave the drive at sixty miles per hour to merge with traffic. This slow, methodical, front-loading process allows for conversation into the book that is lost in the traditional approach of a class-long lecture on historical background that has lost a majority of our reluctant readers before we have settled in with our bean cans for the night.

3). The voice on the page becomes the voice in the room: From the first time I read Of Mice and Men, I knew that I would one day share this book with others. In fact, I did share this with a group of residents in a long term care facility in northern Indiana when I was the Activity Director there. Those patient older folks allowed me to craft the voice I use when I read Of Mice and Men to my students today. No, you will not take Of Mice and Men from me without going to the mat first. Which character would you like to take on in your challenge? I can turn on Whit, Candy, Crooks, even Slim on the turn of a dime and make an argument for this text. I have prepared myself for this book. There is not one book I share with my students that I have not prepared to share, like an actor would prepare. But more than this, I have looked at the themes, I am comfortably aware of the issues. What’s more, earlier conversations regarding Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey monomyth allow Of Mice and Men to take its place among the other stories and films we have shared within the course of the year.

3). Make them want the next chapter. Even when chapter three, the longest chapter in Of Mice and Men begins to unfold, we have the students in Room 210 aching to know more about these characters. By the time we have left the bunkhouse to meet Crooks in the barn on Saturday night, we have students hooked like a broken frame hanging on a peg. And every year, without fail, because of dramatic pauses and a modulation drop, you can hear the collective gasp that comes of Chapter Five when we return to the barn with Lennie and Curley’s wife. Who would walk away from a text like this?

4). Is the end really the end?: When we finish Of Mice and Men, we are not finished with the reasons we went into the text-to find connections. After we say goodbye to George and Lennie, we say hello to Max and Kevin in the film adaptation of Philbrick’s Freak the Mighty. Ask me later for some of the bigger connections, but it is not to be missed that Max is seen wearing a Chicago Bulls hat for most of the film (did you say you were looking for a way to teach allusions) or Max’s interior monologue regarding the “place he goes inside of his head.”

And while this guest post was not about how Mr. Hankins teaches Of Mice and Men, it would certainly seem this way. But it’s not just this book; author/title awareness is essential to addressing a challenge to a book. As a member with the Standing Committee Against Censorship with NCTE, I keep my ear to the ground to listen for challenges as they present themselves to the YA titles I offer in my room. Just a week ago, a teacher from another part of the country shared with me a challenge within her school of Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer. I could have said, “Wow. That’s too bad.” I had not read the book. It was not my school, but I made it my Saturday evening to go ahead and to become familiar with this work. I struggled to find anything objectionable or out of the way in the title. But I couldn’t form any kind of opinion without author/title awareness. Now, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has come under fire and a ban has been upheld in a school for this title. Strange, as this case has come to a close, it was just beginning the day, I did reader advisory on this title placing it in the hands of one of my readers I thought could pull something from the work.

So long as books are challenged, those of us in the business of promoting YA titles and independent reading will need to rise to this challenge not only with our love and passion, but with our reasoned approach for why that title has earned a place on our shelves and on our desks. Many times, when I hear of a local challenge, it is a younger teacher who read and enjoyed a title, but has not thought through the pedagogy of why this book would need to be in the hands of a group of students. This is dangerous planning at best. It’s like going into the challenge with dry cheeks. You will take and absorb every blow and without a strong policy regarding book challenges, you will find that all that is needed is passion and a pen to take that book away.

I want to thank, E. Kristin Anderson for inviting me to be a guest on The Hate-Mongering Tart this week (where this blog appears as part of a series of blogs on the subject of book challenges). I hope you are looking forward to the other guests’ posts on this topic as I am. I look forward to interacting with many of you. I am most transparent on the web. You can find me at Facebook: or at Twitter: @PaulWHankins

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *