THE CENSORSHIP CONNECTION
Nancy McCracken, Editor
Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
Norma Fox Mazer
Herewith, a short dialogue containing many direct quotes and with additional notes.
School Official: Hello, this is X. We invited you to our school.
Author: [enthusiastic] Yes, that's great! I've been thinking about it and wanting to talk to you.
SO: This is our first attempt at bringing a live author here. We thought you would be a good choice because we know your books are appealing to the kids. Also, many of us loved your books and thought they were excellent literature.
Au: [flattered] Thank you!
SO: Now, unfortunately, I have to say there is an issue currently happening in our district. We are involved in a censorship issue.
AU: I would be glad to do anything I could--
SO: A teacher was reading to her class, and there was some language in a book that the teacher read--not your book, I should say--and some parents heard about it and decided that this book should be taken off the shelves.
AU: [alarmed] So you're in a fight!
SO: It is a very big issue. It has been the number one issue at all the Board meetings, and it hasn't died. It was discussed in our Teacher-as-Reader Group that we didn't want to make the situation worse. It was discussed that some teachers thought some of your books had issues that they felt were not appropriate.
AU: [wistful] I thought my books were appropriate. I thought you said they were appealing.
SO: It was discussed that one way to deal with it was we wouldn't talk about certain books of yours and you wouldn't, either.
AU: Not talk about my books? But I'm coming to your school to talk about my books.
SO: Then we discussed how most Young Adult authors are writing about more realistic issues and that if we ever want to have an author come to our school, we should think about that.
AU: [confused] If you ever have an author at your school? I'm coming. I've had the date on my calendar for a year now.
SO: Since many of your books deal with sensitive subjects, our teachers feel that encouraging our students, especially our sixth graders, to read them is not a good idea.
AU: Uh. . . I thought the point of my visit was to encourage the kids to read.
SOP: You have some very realistic dialogue.
AU: Yes. I try for that. Thank you.
SO: Some of the scenes are not appropriate for little children--
AU: I know. I don't write for little children. My readers are teens.
SO: --and it would be best if they didn't read these books.
AU: Yes, they can wait until they're older.
SO: And if a parent reads one of your books and finds language, it could add fuel to the fire of controversy going on.
AU: If they find language? But language is what I use. Words are my tools, my--
SO: We want to be able to go on giving our kids books to read in the future. We want them to be excited about reading.
AU: [happy] Wonderful, we want the same thing, to get kids reading, to read widely, to think about what they're reading--
SO: Without this crazy battle going on, I assure you, your visit would be so welcome. Maybe when this all blows over and dies down, we can invite you back.
AU: [slowly getting it] Invite me back?
SO: We have determined that the best thing for the school at this point in time is not to continue with preparations for a visit.
AU: [getting it] Let me understand. You're afraid that a parent might find something at some point in some of my books that they might not like, and therefore--
SO: I am sorry for any inconvenience.
AU: [really getting it] You're canceling my visit.
SO: The decision has been made. I regret it.
AU: You understand that this is censorship? Silent censorship. Censorship before the fact.
SO: We are not censors. No! No, this is nothing like that. We are just doing what is appropriate to the situation. We do not want to add fuel to the fire. We don't believe in censorship. We abhor censorship. I am sorry, I apologize. Many of us didn't want to see this happen . . . but it has happened.
Last spring, a school appearance I was to make in Illinois was canceled, with appropriate modernity, via e-mail. The reason given was fear of "adding fuel to the fire" of a fight over a book in the district. Many, if not most, of the words I put into the dialogue above are verbatim from my communications with the people involved.
My initial reaction to being censored this way was amazement. I suppose I think of myself - and, therefore, of my books - as, well, likable, and certainly as non-confrontational, flexible, and open. Willing and eager for connection, communication, and dialogue. Like the other writers I know, I pour a lot of energy, self, love, respect, and thought into my stories. I'm not out to be controversial, only to tell a good story as truthfully and interestingly as I can, and it always takes me by surprise when someone uses the C word in connection with one of my books.
It was upsetting and frustrating that people who should be guardians of the word and the book had, in effect, joined hands with the censors. Nobody had said anything, and yet my visit was canceled out of fear of what might possibly be said or thought. I wrote them a long letter. "...you have as good as said," I wrote, "that the way to deal with censors is to placate and give in to them. Not to bring anything into the open, but to sidestep and hope they won't catch you at it. The censors might not know it yet, but you've handed them the keys to the house. If they had been in the room with you, guiding your hand, they could not have more efficiently set your policy for author visits."
I don't know of any other writers who've been involved in incidents like this one, but a few years ago another writer, Betty Miles, and I were asked to visit an elementary school in an upstate New York town, and we canceled. The school had never had visiting writers and they were especially enthusiastic and happy about our visit, because it was in the nature of a gift both from us and the writers' organization which was sponsoring the visit. Shortly before the appearance, however, the teacher-contact asked Betty not to bring, speak about, or so much as mention a certain one of her books. This was a story for middle grade kids and took on questions of censorship and freedom to read called Maudie and Me and the Dirty Book. Was it the words "dirty book" in the title that alarmed the teacher? She spoke about the "conservative community" and her fears of parent reaction. Betty refused to have amnesia about her own work and withdrew from the visit. To support her, I also withdrew. How could we pretend her book didn't exist? We would have been censoring ourselves. Silent censorship, for sure.
It's all around us. The books put away under the desk or behind glass or withdrawn from circulation without comment. Once a teacher whispered to me, "I love your book Up in Seth's Room, but I'd never let my kids read it. The parents here are too conservative." There it was again - fear of what might be said. Fear of parents. Fear of what might come. Pre-censorship. Slippery, sneaky, silent stuff. How do you get a handle on this silent censorship? How do you even know it's happening. I wouldn't have if the teacher hadn't blurted it out.
What about teachers who are fearful of using potentially censorable books? Let's begin with the words "potentially censorable." A big mouthful of words. A huge blanket phrase, big enough to cover work ranging from Mark Twain to Bruce Coville to Nancy Gardner to Judy Blume. Sometimes I think everything is potentially censorable. Standards of language and behavior vary from person to person, from family to family. And how can you speak of "community standards?" Is there such a thing as a homogenized one-standard community in a country with the gorgeous diversity of ours? No one, not Solomon, not the Supreme Court, not a rocket scientist or a truck driver could possibly, fairly, decently, and honestly lay down a single standard to which we could all adhere without protest. Not possible. We are a nation, happily enough, of many religions, races, and nationalities. We are an opinionated people, who like nothing more than to disagree and argue and try to convince others that we are right. We don't throw people in jail for their opinions. We have editorial pages and elections. We have the Bill of Rights and watchdog organizations. You're allowed to find something funny that strikes me as vulgar, while I'm allowed to be fascinated by things that might upset you.
"Potentially censorable." The easy way out is to avoid anything that might cause trouble. Not a very good move. You'd have to weed and throw and discard until you had nothing left but the sweetest, nicest, blandest, dullest books in your collection. And then you'd probably overlook something someone would object to anyway. And even if you could discard and disregard everything "potentially censorable," is this the example we want for our kids? Is this the way to teach them to respect and use their minds? Would it convey to them anything except our fear? Would it show them that we respect them? Would they respect us for blanding down their world?
Yes, teachers feel vulnerable and they want to keep their jobs. But the fact is, it's usually a small group, a vocal minority who try to lead the rest of us around by a rope of fear. Aren't the big guns in this battle preparedness, honesty, openness, and discussion? Talk! Talk, talk, talk. Talk to the kids, talk with them, listen to them, ask them. How do they feel about this book, that author? Were they upset by a book they read? Do they feel they shouldn't have read it? Are they too young for it? Did they understand the story, the language, the point of view? Did they agree, disagree, or were they indifferent? Would they recommend this book to someone else, or would they like to censor it themselves? If nothing else, let's get the kids thinking about the meaning of censorship.
I believe deeply and firmly that people should read what they want to read. I think they should be allowed and encouraged to express their opinions on this reading. How about drawing parents into this process? Some teachers invite parents in for discussion of books their children will be reading in class. Is that opening a can of worms, or is not doing it really putting your head in the sand and hoping no one notices? Let's not forget that all dictatorships and tyrannies feed on mind control, burn and ban books, declare writers and poets and journalists enemies and dangerous people. In other countries, writers live dangerous lives. They are harassed, imprisoned, executed. We live in a democracy and this should be praised and understood, and taken entirely seriously.
Still, I have to say that despite the seriousness of this topic, most of the censorship incidents I've been involved in have had their amusing side. And why shouldn't we laugh when we can? I did, when the police chief in a small Vermont town arrested my novel Saturday the Twelfth of October and mug shot the cover and each offending page with its offending words. [Penis snot menstruation ]
My disinvitation to the Illinois school also made me laugh when it occurred to me that it came about because of a magic belief in the Principle of Avoidance. We all know this principle. We've all practiced it at some time or other. It's the if-you-can't-see-it-then-it's-not-there thing. Whenever I'm tempted toward it, I remember our cat Teddy trying to escape being shut in the cellar for the night. The minute we called him ["Oooh, Teddy Teddy daarling ."] he'd dash into the dining room and shove his head under one of the chairs, oblivious to the fact that his lovely orange-colored behind was sticking up into the air like a flag. Teddy was such an easy target. Poor old guy, he always ended in the cellar. If only the censors were as easily caught.
Author of Up in Seth's Room, Dear Bill, Remember Me? And Other Stories and many other esteemed YA works, Norma Fox Mazer has spoken at a number of ALAN Workshops.
Copyright 1997, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Mazer, Norma Fox. (1997). Shhhh! The ALAN Review, Volume 24, Number 2, 46-48.