What do an anti-war comedy about a sex-strike in ancient Greece, a collection of poems for children, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning modern classic about racism, an exposé on the effects of welfare reform on the working poor, and a standard collegiate dictionary have in common? Lysistrata by Aristophanes, A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary are all books that have been challenged, restricted, removed, or banned. Lysistrata, along with other classics of Western literature such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders were all banned from the U. S, mails because they were deemed “lewd” or “indecent.” Shel Silverstein’s humorous poems have been banned in schools because some people believe poems such as “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes” encourage “selfish and disrespectful behavior.” To Kill a Mockingbird, which has been much lauded during 2010, its 50th anniversary year, has been attacked for its use of racial slurs, profanity, and rape. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America has been labeled as “anti-Christian” and “harmful to minors,” and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary has been deemed suspect because it contains the words “oral sex.”
These books are just a handful from a long list of works that some individual or group has decided not only that they should not read but also that others should be denied access to them. Banned Book Week 2010: September 25-October 2 is the twenty-ninth such observance in the United States. Begun by the American Library Association (ALA) in 1982, when the increase in the number of challenges to books in schools, libraries, and bookstores created new concern about literary freedom, the week-long emphasis is designed to remind Americans that the freedom to choose what to read is dear and that the responsibility to ensure that all opinions, popular and unpopular, are heard is one we share.
Too often Banned Book Week is just routine. Libraries mount displays of banned books, blogs sporting the current ALA poster appear and bloggers deplore censorship. Groups of readers and writers, most of them small, gather to read from banned or challenged books, and people act properly indignant when they are reminded that some literary classic or popular children’s or YA title is on the most challenged list. But the week is barely a blip on the consciousness of most readers. We take our liberties for granted.
My hope is that the recent storm over the attack on Laura Halse Anderson’s Speak will remind readers that the threat of censorship is real in 2010. All it takes for school boards to consider removing books is one person convinced he or she owns The Truth and has the moral obligation to impose it upon others, throwing around words like “filth” and “pornography” to recruit the frightened and the uninformed to the cause. For those who may be unaware of the recent controversy, here’s a brief summary. Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor at Missouri State University, delivered a twenty-nine page screed to his local school board, characterizing current curricula as erroneous and immoral and calling for sweeping changes. Among the changes he demanded was the elimination of three books from the English curriculum: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, named to Time Magazine’s All Time 100 novels; and two young adult novels, Anderson’s Speak (an award-winning novel about a girl who is raped and unable to talk about her experience to anyone) and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer (a novel about losing someone you love and the complexities of friendship). When the school board moved too slowly for Scroggins’s purpose, he took his case to the public in the form of an opinion piece in a local paper. He found Slaughterhouse Five “demeaning to . . . education” because of its “vulgar language” and “topics such as sex outside of marriage and homosexuality.” Speak earned his disapproval for “two rape scenes, drunken teenage parties, and teenage pre‐marital sex,” and he charged that Twenty Boy Summer “glorifies drunken teenage parties and teen pre‐marital sex.” He termed all three as “soft pornography.”
Slaughterhouse Five has already been eliminated from the curriculum. Speak and Twenty Boy Summer are under consideration. Books that are eliminated from the classroom are also withdrawn from the shelves of the school library. If Scroggins wins on all counts, he will have denied all students in the area high school free access to these books. Slaughterhouse Five has been a frequent target of banning; it is #67 on the ALA’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999. Anderson, author C. J. Redwine, and many others have spoken out eloquently in defense of Speak and against the horrific error of equating rape with sexual stimulation. Ockler, who is new to the censorship wars, states her views on her blog. Young adults who have found comfort and courage in the novels have added their voices to those speaking out.
I am angry and dismayed by Scroggins’s attack. As a former high school teacher, I have seen the importance of novels that address the real concerns of students. As a Christian, I know that labeling Scroggins's position as “the Christian view” is a claim as false as any Scroggins himself made. But I am heartened by the response of readers and writers to the attack. Within hours of the news, a Twitter campaign (#SpeakLoudly) was gaining wide-spread support, and bloggers in large numbers were expressing their indignation over Scroggins’s challenges, offering their support to Anderson and Ockler, and making clear their opposition to censorship.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if something positive and lasting came from Scroggins’s asinine accusations? I haven’t seen sales figures on the books involved, but I will be very surprised if all three titles aren’t selling more now than before the controversy. That’s a plus. I'm sure some of you added a Twibbon to your Twitter avatar and/or your Facebook profile photo. If you choose, you can still blog about the issue or express your opinion on the blogs of others. These are all worthy actions.
But your activism can move beyond this single incident. According to ALA, “More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities" Your community may be one of them. Most of the challenged books will not be banned, but often challenges result in boards of education and school administrators and curriculum directors choosing a more covert form of censorship, avoiding books that may be controversial. Protecting our freedom to read is not a one-week or one-incident task. I hope you are participating in the Speak Loudly campaign and in your community’s celebration of literary freedom September 25-October 2, but I also hope you stay informed and ready to express your opinion when those who would limit your freedom sound their challenges during the other fifty-one weeks of the year. Remember the words of poet Archibald MacLeish: “Once you permit those who are convinced of their own superior rightness to censor and silence and suppress those who hold contrary opinions, just at that moment the citadel has been surrendered.”
I only have two questions for you this week. Do you believe in the freedom of a reader to choose her/his reading materials? What are you doing to defend that freedom?