This is the last installment of three in my series, “Great Literature in the Public Schools.” Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.
Hey, kids, it’s “Banned Books Week” again! Yes, the American Library Association is once again sponsoring “Banned Books Week,” September 23-30, celebrating “the freedom to read” as they have been doing since 1982. In fact, this year marks the 25th anniversary of this annual ALA event.
Personally, I have always felt and shown unqualified reverence and appreciation for librarians up until last year’s “Banned Book Week.” (Well, there was that one crabby elementary school librarian who forbade me to check out Moby Dick when I was in fourth grade, saying it was “too big” for me, but she was the only exception). All my life librarians have been just about my favorite and most admired group of people. Universally kind, helpful, and wise, they have opened a million doors for me in my life, from the first time my mother brought home an armful of picture books and Dr. Seuss Easy Readers from our tiny village library when I was four or five years old.
What a great deal! I thought, learning that more armfuls of wonderful books could be borrowed for free from our public library every week. Soon I was returning regularly to our little library (located in the bottom floor of an old wood-frame house on Main Street) with my own library card, so proud to be a reading patron (along with my mother, a voracious reader of biographies). At home I played “librarian” (presiding over books to check in and out) more often than I played “school.” Around the age of 12 or so I had finished reading my way around the small room of children’s literature (remember the Danny Dunn books? And Beverly Cleary and Booth Tarkington’s Penrod? Louisa May Alcott? And the wonderful dog books by Albert Payson Terhune?). I started working through the larger room of adult books across the hall, at first with my mother’s or the librarian’s guidance, and then on my own. What a pleasure it was to browse those shelves above those creaky old wooden floors, looking for another new book to lose myself in, enjoying that wonderful “freedom to read.” There was Charles Dickens, Ray Bradbury, Gone With the Wind, Philip Wylie, Arthur Conan Doyle....and in later years, plays and poetry, Shakespeare, and vast patches of non-fiction to plumb, along with biographies, histories, story collections and more.
I continued my love affair with librarians and libraries on through high school and college. In fact, my first paying job was working in my high school library for a few weeks during one summer. What an honor! There was no subject a librarian couldn’t help you with, or steer you through; there was no better place to find information, intellectual stimulation, friendly voices, peace, quiet, order, refuge, browsing pleasure, and new ideas. There was a huge unsuspected world out there, and books in libraries opened a million doors. Hanging out in a college library became my version of following my bliss. In recognition of how much public libraries had done for me, and how much they offer to every person without prejudice in our nation, I even included in my will the suggestion that memorial donations could be made “to your public library.” Ben Franklin had the right idea when he invented the public library.
I guess I’d noticed “Banned Books Week” once or twice since the 1980s, in passing. Sounded like a good thing to me. Nobody ever wants to see Hitler and the Nazis burning books, or great novelists like James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence “banned in Boston” by undereducated hicks, do they?
Last September I was volunteering one morning in my local middle school library (they call them “media centers” now) when the librarian gave a presentation to a visiting class of students on “Banned Books Week.” She put a list of 88 books on the overhead projector and explained to the students that here was a list of books that have been most often banned from libraries and schools all over the nation, for various reasons. I couldn’t see the list of books, but I was listening with half an ear while I worked. The librarian went down the list and said something about almost every book, such as:
- “That’s a really good book; I don’t see why anybody would want to ban that one.”
- “Does anybody know why this one might be banned?”
- “Has anybody read that one?”
- “That’s right, that one has an abortion in it.”
- “That one had a murder in it and some parents objected.”
- “Sorcery—some religious parents didn’t like the Harry Potter books because of that.”
- “We teach that book in seventh grade.”
In other words, she was pointing out by implication that the whole idea of “banning” books such as those on her list is stupid, pointless, and wrong, although some misguided and autocratic parents in some benighted hinterlands may believe otherwise. Then she said, in summary, “It’s your right to decide what you want to read and to have it all available to you. It’s your First Amendment right. Now most of these books, we have here in the library right now (except for the sex book), and if we don’t have a particular book, we have a lot of other books by the same authors.... If any of you want a copy of this list so you can go check out and read some of these books, I have copies here for you.”
Of course, being a curious parent and book lover, I walked around and took a look at the list as she was sending the kids off to find books. Naturally, being against book-burners, religious nuts, First Amendment threateners, Nazis, and Bostonian bluestockings, I wanted to see what exactly had been “banned” and was now being pointed out and urged on the kids by the librarian.
Here is the list at the American Library Association website: http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/bbwlinks/100mostfrequently.htm
Note that on the ALA website it is not labeled “Banned Books,” but rather “The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990–2000.” And note that it is not the 88 on the librarian’s list, but 100 on the ALA’s list. What other 12 books had the librarian “censored” from the list for her presentation to the children? Didn’t the children also have “the First Amendment right” to read them, too? If not, was the librarian making that decision for them, even as she disparaged the fact that parents had attempted to make such decisions on the other 88 books?
Also note that it is obvious that these 88 or 100 books are not all “banned books” in the sense of having been stopped at the U.S. border by customs officials seeking to censor literature from adults. They were not burned in bonfires by the Taliban, or chopped up by hatchet-wielding bishops, or pulled out of stores by governmental agencies. Rather, this is a list of books that have most frequently been “challenged” --that is, protested by parents or others seeking to keep them from being provided to children by librarians and/or teachers
As I read through the list I suddenly realized with a horrible sinking feeling that there were more than a few books on the list that I myself wouldn’t want my children to read either, depending on their age. Did this suddenly make me a Nazi, a “book-banner,” a book-burner, a religious nut, an enemy of librarians and of the “freedom to read?” When it comes to censoring books from adults, I have no problem letting freedom reign supreme, but yes, I do think some books are not appropriate for some children at some ages, and clearly this list and the librarian’s lesson was aimed at teaching children that my own and other parents’ opinions on this constitute a silly and inappropriate “censorship” of children’s “First Amendment rights
For the ALA to tout a list like this, with Heather Has Two Mommies
and Sex by Madonna
on the same page with actual literature like Huckleberry Finn
and To Kill a Mockingbird
is, I think, a particularly offensive slap in the face to all parents who are rightfully concerned about the nature and the quality of the education their children are getting from their public schools which their tax monies support. Clearly there is a subversive agenda
going on here, and one of its methods and goals is to undermine the parents in the eyes of the kids.
I was convinced of this after the second class of students came in that morning and got the same lecture. But this time the librarian, well aware by then of my interest in her talk, summed up by saying, “Of course, you’ll want to check with your parents and find out their values about these books before you read any of them.” It was clear she would not have said that if she hadn’t been reminded of my presence after seeing me walk over and look at her list. I doubt she continued to include that politic disclaimer after I left the library that morning, since it directly contradicted her entire message. “Banned Books Week” is not about asking your parents how they feel about the wide range of literature and its appropriateness for children of varying ages, backgrounds, and beliefs, is it? It’s about librarians teaching children that anyone, even their own parent, who wants to limit their access to any and all books, for any and all reasons, is one of those “bad censors.”
Don’t believe me? Check out this webpage at the ALA site on “What is censorship
” and keep reading down the page. It says, in essence, that even “well-meaning” parents or community figures or bodies have no right to censor what materials their children are exposed to in any public library--only the librarian decides, which is not censorship because the librarian’s process is “inclusive,” not “exclusive” (“exclusive” means censorship). A very nice Catch 22
, if you ask me. No mention is made here, of course, of the funders of the libraries: the taxpaying parents of the children paying the salary of the librarian and funding the costs of the library. Otherwise known as those saps.
Of course, when it comes to deciding which books should be provided to young people, there is always room for quibbling. The ALA and its leftist supporters make the most of this. Some few parents, for example, in recent years, took a stand against the Harry Potter books
, based on purely religious objections. Their rebuffed challenges make other protests against more egregious books harder to accomplish as the ALA smears all protests with the same “censorship” and “right-wing religious zealot” labels. Many parents find the smut provided to young people by their schools to be highly objectionable
, and yet must fight tooth and nail to bring about changes. And as Linda Harvey
Library selection committees are systematically purging libraries of any conservative or serious Christian viewpoints and instead, loading the shelves with left-wing propaganda and pornography....Steve Baldwin has written an excellent article
The ALA is terribly concerned that these "gay-themed" books be available for our youth. After all, their standards, adopted by many libraries in this country, urge librarians to "model and promote a non-judgmental attitude toward ... and preserve confidentiality in interactions with young adults." This has a nice ring until one learns three things: the ALA defines "young adults" as ages 12 to 20 – they recommend that no item in a library be off-limits to a child at any age who requests it. Therefore, the obvious meaning of "confidentiality" is that they have a goal of withholding information from parents.
about parents protesting the ALA’s stand:
There are very few libraries today in which I would leave my 13-year-old son unescorted, because, unfortunately, the protection and safety of our children is simply no longer a priority for libraries or for the ALA. That may sound harsh, but it’s true and the shrill cry of censorship one constantly hears emanating from the ALA is really disturbing considering the shocking books they defend. Unbeknownst to most people, a new wave of literature called "authentic literature" hit our public school libraries over the last few years. The ALA claims such books portray American life and culture in a more realistic fashion. But they don't. These books feature druggies, sex addicts, pedophiles, gang members and others on the fringes of society. Increasingly, this literature is replacing the traditional literature classics, which, in general, promoted mainstream American values or at least didn't undermine them....
Naturally, parent groups have formed to protest such books and many have put up websites with excerpts, but much of it is too graphic for me to repeat here. The best of the parent web sites is www.pabbis.com; take a look and weep. Yes, this is the trash many of our public schools are feeding America’s youth. The books that used to inspire; which celebrated American values; that chronicled the exploits of trailblazers, astronauts, soldiers, and other heroes, are fast disappearing. ...
The ALA response to parental complaints was the creation a few years ago of a national event they call "Banned Books Week" in which outrageous charges are made about parents supposedly attempting to ban classics like "Huckleberry Finn" and "Of Mice and Men." It’s an ingenious tactic considering the ALA seems intent on phasing out the classics. However, parent researchers and bloggers have found many of these allegations to be false or grossly exaggerated; for example, the ALA counts as censorship incidents in which a parent simply requests that the school or library be more age selective when assigning books or amend a teacher’s mandatory reading list to include other books not so offensive.
Following “Banned Books Week,” I went home and began my education about what kind of literature is being promoted to our children these days. If you haven’t looked into it, you are in for a shock. This is the kind of book
you will find at your local book store’s “young readers” section, in close proximity to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books (here’s another take
on the skanky “Gossip Girls” series). These kinds of novels are evidently wildly popular these days, along with others of the same ilk approved by the ALA and incorporated into school and public library stacks.
Take a look at your local public library’s “Young Adult” section, or your local public school library during “Banned Book Week.” A cautious parent can no longer afford to let a child wander at will among today's books, whether in a library or bookstore. There is too much chance of him or her falling into shallow, inappropriate, and objectionable, if not disgusting and obscene books now crowding out the old classics. These creepy books make the old Hardy Boy and Nancy Drew novels look like substantial art, just for offering rafts of relative safety and familiarity in the modern minefield on the library shelves. So much for the “freedom to read” that I enjoyed as as child.
Rebecca Hagelin had a similar eye-opening experience while writing her book, Home Invasion
, and put it succinctly in her essay, “Are Your Kids Reading Rot?”
And this is the garbage that today's educators pass off as great literature for our children? The great classics, meanwhile, are all but missing. One [assigned reading] list for eighth-graders contained about 20 authors -- none recognizable save the lone great Mark Twain. And they call this education?
Locating a wealth of dogged parental protests (such as the www.pabbis.com site above, and the often informative one-star book reviews at Amazon.com), was indeed depressing and alarming. Finding that the ALA had given awards to books that parents found disgusting and pornographic
, and that the ALA has aggressive policies and measures
laid out for countering and shutting down all “challenges” (never for considering the validity of the challenges or acknowledging and working with the concerns of the challengers) was not reassuring.
Meanwhile, the novels being added to my own middle school library throughout the year followed the trend: an unending stream of the latest glossy dustjackets covering the pseudo angsty “real-life" soap operas for teens--full of flip, risky talk and action, meant to be easy to read, hip to consume.
The very popular book, Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson
by Louise Rennison was typical of this genre. Among all the reviews by teens and preteens at Amazon.com raving about the book, I found these two 'one-star' comments from more mature voices:
Making teen girls look worse one page at a time.., December 26, 2002
Reviewer: A reader
There should be a way to select zero stars. Everyone told me how amazing this book was, but after reading it, I am shocked. Georgia is shallow and pathetic. She is a degrading representation of today's teenagers. She whines about her nose, the possibility of being a lesbian, and how she wants to kill herself but she is too depressed to do it. The first half of the book is about her eyebrows, but the majority of the book is about a 14-year-old girl making out with guys. Now there is a great life lesson.
Now, if you waste your time moping over garbage then go ahead and read the book. It's probably for you.
and this one:
Georgia is not my idea of a role model, December 4, 2001
Reviewer: A reader
I am a parent and a high school teacher. I read this book before giving it to a favorite teenager of mine. I threw it out after reading it. Georgia is self-centered, self-absorbed, shallow, without ambitions or dreams, and flighty. She is mean to other girls who she deems worthy of being picked upon. She is willing to be a complete fool for a boy. She has no dreams or ambitions beyond kissing a boy that she has her eyes on. And she is a disrespectful brat to all adults in her life. It is discouraging that this book is touted as a book girls can relate to. I think girls are much more complicated and capable than the foolish protagonist of this book.
But were a parent to lodge a “challenge” to a novel like this being in a school library, as being a waste of time and money, I have no doubt the ALA would ride to its defense on a white charger. We can’t have any censorship here!
“Boy, almost all of these new novels we’re adding turn up as being written on the fourth- or fifth-grade reading level,” I pointed out once in the middle school library. “How come so low, for students in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades?”
novels are written at the fourth- or fifth-grade level,” was the answer. And, I was told, the more books read by the students, the better the library is seen as performing, in the eyes of the administrative powers that be, which track “success” as the number of books checked out. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that if this is how the school system rewards its librarians, the librarians will make sure to maximize checkouts of very slender, very glossy, easy-to-read, MTV-like, attractive-to-teens (i.e. full of cusswords and sex) books.
But dare I say that this is not the best way to educate young people? Dare I suggest that plying kids with this kind of literature, at this level of reading, and calling it adequate is just another example of the “soft bigotry of low expectations
And so another year has gone by. I am left sadder but wiser about the state of young people’s so-called “literature” these days. I will never again assume that a “prize-winning” children's book must be a good one. I am left wary of librarians and teachers, instead of unquestioningly admiring and supportive of them. I cannot count on them to share my values about literature
, education, or morality, and I can't even trust that when they are alone with my children they aren't undermining me in my kids’ eyes.
I am left wondering if I should allow my daughter to enter this middle school next year, or make other arrangements. This whole episode has been a vivid illustration of the major rift between my own mission in attaining the best possible education for my children and the public schools’ mission to deliver “educational services” and more to mass quantities of children in accordance with governmental, teachers’ union, and political dictates.
And speaking of “banned books” and that glorious freedom to read, I am still wondering how that copy of Moby Dick
ever got into a fourth-grader’s hands, let alone into an elementary school library. But that was
back in the early 1960s. No librarian would ever make a mistake like that today.
UPDATE: I’ll make a prediction here. I’m guessing that “Banned Books Week” as it is currently celebrated won’t be around for too many more years--nor will the ALA keep publishing its lists of “challenged” books
and “most challenged” authors
for anyone to read on the Web. Not because the ALA and its minions won’t still keep doing what they do--but because they will become aware of the fact that with the internet parents and others are becoming more informed about their activities, and the ALA will no longer be as willing to put such helpful tools into the “challengers’” hands. My prediction is that these hypocritical self-proclaimed promoters of “intellectual freedom” will become less transparent and even more subversive as more people step up to confront them.
And I’ll make a wish: how about a rival professional association for librarians who truly want to remain professional
as opposed to leftist?
Surely there must be a few.
UPDATE: Visit the Family Friendly Libraries
website for more information, especially the essay "The Internet and the Seduction of the American Public Library
" by Helen Chaffee Biehle, "What's Wrong with the ALA?" and "FFL's Five Point Truth Test for Kids" (click on FFL Book Reports).