Monday, September 27, 2010

Today is the third day of Banned Books Week, a week I wish we had no need of but sadly, we do. The First Amendment seems positively clear to me: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." And yet, every year there is a long list -- about 10,000+ titles -- of books which narrow-minded people around the U.S. deem inappropriate, for children and adults. Can you even imagine that among the books banned are four books by Judy Blume, including Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret, The Anastasia Krupnik series by Lois Lowry, James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, The Cay by Theodore Taylor, Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth, Sophie's Choice by William Styron, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood? But I once read an article about the reasons The Wizard of Oz had been banned over the years, and one of the reasons was that it promoted vegetarianism (!??!!#$%&), causing me to ask myself, "what's wrong with people?"

I abhor censorship in any form, not only because it is obviously against our Constitution, but more importantly, because when censorship is applied to what we read -- even for what appear to be the noblest of intentions -- we teach, to children especially, a far more harmful lesson than any work of literature ever could: that we aren't capable of learning to think for ourselves, listen to two sides of an argument, or make considered and thought-out decisions. How are we, and again children especially, expected to make the right decisions in life if we don't have any idea what wrong choices are? How can we build strong communities if we don't know the results that weak and misguided ones bring about? How can we in fact make choices of any kind if we're not presented with all the options? A world of thinking people making informed choices, limitless ideas, and lots and lots of books is my idea of a paradise.

Authors of some banned books express the danger of censorship far better than me, and here are some comments from a few writers:

Judy Blume:

"I remember the night a woman phoned, asking if I had written Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret. When I replied that I had, she called me a Communist and slammed down the phone. I never did figure out if she equated Communism with menstruation or religion, the two major concerns in 12-year-old Margaret's life...I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children's lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don't read about it, their children won't know about it. And if they don't know about it, it won't happen...Censors don't want children exposed to ideas different from their own. If every individual with an agenda had his/her way, the shelves in the school library would be close to empty. I wish the censors could read the letters kids write:

Dear Judy,

I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am. That's why I read, to

find myself.

Elizabeth, age 13"

Robert Cormier, author of The Chocolate War and many other novels:

"I sympathize with the parents who want to have control over their own children. What their children should do, see, read. My wife and I exercised those kinds of controls. If [parents] object to their children reading The Chocolate War, I don't protest. But when they forbid other children from reading it, then I strongly object. This, in fact, is the censorship problem in its most basic concept. Telling other people what they can do, see, or read. Invading rights of individuals in a free country...I try to write realistic stories about believable people, reflecting the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. I think there is rooom in the great halls of reading for this kind of book. The hundreds of letters I receive each year from both teachers and young people are what sustain me at moments when censorship threatens my work...If a book is controversial, perhaps the best place for it is the classroom where, under the guidance of a teacher, the book can be discussed and evaluated, where each student will be free to proclaim how he or she feels about the book, and in fact, can even refuse to read the book. The point is that free choice must be involved."

Zilpha Keatley Snyder, author of The Egypt Game (Newbery Honor Book) and The Gypsy Game, The Headless Cupid, and The Witches of Worm, all Newbery Award-winning books:

"The setting of The Egypt Game is Berkeley, California, where I taught school for three years while my husband was a graduate student at University of California. All six of the main characters are loosely based on kids who were in my class at that time...To further explain the background of the story, I would have to go back to when I was in fifth and sixth grade and our teacher took us through several inspiring and fascinating studies of ancient civilizations: Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Chinese. I loved it all, and throughout my entire life, my understanding of history and literature and culture has been enhanced by facts I learned at that time...My own Egyptian period passed and I went on to other phases and games. I was a great game player and I was constantly involved in complicated scenarios based on not only Greek and Egyptian history and mythology, but also on stories from the Bible and, of course, on a multitude of beloved novels...The Egypt Game, just as the title suggests, was a game! Nothing else is ever implied in the story. And at the end, when the girls realize they have covered most of the interesting aspects of Egyptian culture, they are beginning to be on the lookout for new inspirations: "What do you know about gypsies?" And as to any connection with "occultism" or "idol worship," I am astounded and appalled. I truly fear for children whose parents are so fearful. Will they forbid their children to learn about Greek and Roman mythology, other forms of legend and folklore, and even fairy tales because of such fears? I certainly hope not. And a word about imaginative game playing in general: in my opinion a well-developed imagination is necessary not only for any kind of artistic endeavor, but also in many other career areas. Imaginative approaches to problem solving are necessary not only for a successful professional life, but also in the area of personal relationships."

Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1994

"When I wrote The Giver, it contained no so-called "bad words." It was set, after all, in a mythical, futuristic, and Utopian society. Not only was there no poverty, divorce, racism, sexism, pollution, or violence in the world of The Giver, there was also careful attention paid to language: to its fluency, precision, and power. The reaction to the book was startling...even more startling in the degree of differences in the responses...I went back and re-read the book myself. I tried to figure out whether these disparate people were, in fact, all responding to the same thing: whether there was actually a theme in the book that people found either uplifting or terrifying, or maybe both. And I discovered that it was the concept of choice. The Giver is about a world where those decision are made for them. It seems very safe and comfortable...then it got scary...because it turned out that it wasn't safe and comfy to live in a world where adhering to rigid rules is the norm. It turned out, in the book, that such a world is very, very dangerous, and that people have to learn to make their own choices. I sympathize with the fear that makes some parents not want that to be true. But I believe without a single shadow of a doubt that it is necessary for young people to learn to make choices. Learning to make right choices is the only way they will survive in an increasingly frightening world. Pretending that there are no choices to be made -- reading only books, for example, which are cheery and safe and nice -- is a prescription for disaster for the young."

Indeed, censorship causes blindness, as the slogan goes. Read! And learn more from the National Coalition Against Censorship,

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