Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Catcher in the Rye banned? Check. Merriam-Webster? Check?

Banned Books Week took place a few weeks ago. It started in 1982 and is a "national celebration of the freedom to read." When I think of the phrase "banned book" the first image that comes to mind is the mom ranting and raving at a PTA meeting in a small Iowa town during Field of Dreams.

"And I say smut and filth like this has no place in our schools."

"The so-called novels of Terence Man endorse promiscuity, godlessness, the mongrelization of the races and disrespect to high-ranking officers of the United States Army."

That scene fits the stereotype many people have of passionate book banners. Middle-aged moms in small Midwestern towns who attack any book that discusses sex or drugs. And there are plenty of real-life middle-aged moms in Midwestern towns who do just that, year after year, complaining about The Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter, and Judy Blume books.

But as this map shows, people want to restrict books on the East Coast and West, in the Midwest and the South. It's not a regional thing and it's not a small town thing. In a time when people lament how difficult it is to get a child to read anything that's longer than a text message, it seems a bit odd that there are still thousands of people who make it their mission to restrict the types of books available to kids in their school libraries.

Shouldn't a parent have the right to decide what their child reads? Shouldn't they be able to restrict what their innocent, wide-eyed, never-says-a-swear-word-and-doesn't-know-what-witches-are child reads? Sure. But it becomes a First Amendment issue when those same people try to decide what other people's children are allowed to read. When these people petition school boards to remove certain books, that's when they cross the line. Or, as the American Library Association notes in a newsletter, people "must not call on governmental or public agencies to prevent others from reading or seeing that material." Often times, challenges fail, but even those have a long-term effect, as a school board or library may hesitate in the future before buying a book, out of fear someone will one day accuse them of promoting cocaine use, treason and, worst of all, masturbation.

What kind of material are we talking about? A list of some of the most-challenged titles from 2009:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
And Tango Makes Three

Yes, 60 years after publication, Catcher in the Rye still draws attacks. "Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, not suitable for age group." And those three things are supposed to frighten people away from it?

The ALA releases a newsletter and bibliography detailing the stories behind many challenges. For example, in West Bend, Wisconsin - which had several controversies from fragile, overly concerned citizens - a group challenged Baby Be-Bop. The reason? Four men "belonging to the Christian Civil Liberties Union sought $30,000 apiece for emotional distress they suffered from the West Bend, Wis. Community Memorial Library for displaying a copy of the book. The claim states, 'specific words used in the book are derogatory and slanderous to all males' and 'the words can permeate violence and put one's life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.'"

The challenge failed, by a 9-0 vote. No word on whether the men recovered from the slanderous terms.

Book challenges cross political and racial lines. They can come from any group, from any state. And when they restrict any viewpoint, they damage their community. Again: If someone wants to keep little Johnny from reading about atheists who don't believe in the power of Christ's blood or vampires who crave blood a bit too much, that's their choice. I'd almost always disagree, but the parent has the right. What they can't do is crawl through a library's shelves searching for titles that personally offend them, just so the book can be removed or put in a brown paper bag.

How crazy can people get? In Menifee, California, a parent complained about Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Why? A child "came across the term oral sex. Officials said the district is forming a committee to consider a permanent classroom ban of the dictionary." The kid surely just stumbled upon the phrase, while looking up the definition of oracle or orality. An idea? Instead of sprinting to the school district, talk to the kid. Or, do what parents have been doing for hundreds of years and don't talk to the kid. But take responsibility. Don't blame the dictionary for doing what dictionaries do. And don't blame the school board and library for doing what libraries do.

People have challenged books for decades and will never stop. Fortunately, there are people who will never stop fighting for books.

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