On Tuesday, December 6, the Accomack County Public Schools Board, in eastern Virginia, voted to return the books To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn to county classrooms. The books had temporarily been pulled from classrooms after a complaint was filed on November 29; parents had expressed their concerns over the novels’ use of racial slurs. School policy for Accomack County mandated that the books be removed while the complaint was resolved.

PEN America, along with various other groups concerned with censorship in the United States, had expressed their disagreement with the Accomack County Schools Board original decision to pull the books. The National Coalition Against Censorship—of which PEN America is a member—delivered an open letter to the school superintendent earlier this week, calling on the district “to modify its policies so as to allow books to remain accessible while under review.”

Given the Schools Board decision to reinstate these iconic works of American literature, PEN America shares the reaction of Fatima Shaik, the celebrated author and co-chair of PEN America’s Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee.

“Books Like These Are Meant to be Troubling”

This is an era of toxic rhetoric. But we cannot shy away from words. For that reason, the decision of a Accomack County, Virginia, to remove To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum because of a parent complaint is more than troubling. It doesn’t even get to troubling because it is a knee-jerk reaction to racist language in an attempt to kick it out of the minds of young readers like a computer program that blocks harmful content but won’t allow a kid to research a science project.

But let’s not be afraid. The difference between humans and computers is considerable. Technology tries to replicate thinking. People actually do it, and literature is one of the building blocks of this process. Literature offers moral values, presents historical time frames, and provides context to promote civil discussions among classmates under the guidance of their teachers. That way students won’t grow up to be trolls and name-callers without knowing the weight of their words

The well-meaning parent who sought removal of these books was concerned about the stress of racist language on her child as well she should be. She might live in a culture where this language is commonplace and approved. But she shouldn’t stop there. Books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird let us all know that some people use racist words casually, act on them righteously, and even join in communities to persecute others because of the racist beliefs that these words connote. The popularity of these books should let her know that the rest of the world knows this is wrong.

Books like these are meant to be troubling because that is a type of deep, personal thinking about a word, an issue, or a social more. The two classics that are being removed have been challenging injustice in our society for generations.

I hope our children will be troubled by racist words, bad ideas, and society’s injustice. And I hope they will read about them before they experience them, so that they will have a good retort. May literature continue to point out society’s failures. And may we not become the automatons of parenting and teaching. We can explain to our kids what these words meant back in the day, and also what they mean right now.

Fatima Shaik

Co-chair, Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee

PEN America