Jersey City State College, Jersey City, New Jersey
WHAT JOHNNY CAN'T READ
Censorship in American Libraries
Among my happiest memories are of rainy summer days tuck-ed up under the eaves of our family's rustic lake cottage, a gentle patter overhead, reading a book. The Hardy Boys. Black Beauty. Treasure Island. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Anything by Rudyard Kipling. The Encyclopedia Britannica Junior's illustrated volume on anatomy and The Catcher in the Rye. I was allowed to read what I liked. It helped me to learn who I was and where I fit into the world.
Today many of the books I loved as a child have been banned in school libraries across the country. Black Beauty has been removed from the shelves because it depicts cruelty to animals. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned because it contains the word "nigger." Most frequently, books are challenged because they contain curse words or violence, sex, homosexuality, the occult, or rebellious children.
Banning books has become commonplace in the 1990s. From 1991 to 1994 the number of formal demands for the removal of books from public and school libraries has increased by more than 50 percent. There were as many as 4,500 instances of book challenges last year, and 42 percent of the complainants were successful in having the offending books banned (ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom Data Bank).
We're not talking soft porn, racist drek and subversive witchcraft propaganda. Among the most-banned books are some of the best-loved modern classics. In addition to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a list of the ten most-challenged titles for 1994 compiled by the American Library Association includes Forever by Judy Blume, the Newbery Award-winning Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, Scary Stories To Tell in the Dark, More Scary Stories, and Scary Stories 3 by Alvin Schwartz, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (ALA).
At the head of the list was Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite, about a day in the life of a boy whose divorced father is in a monogamous homosexual relationship. One challenger in Mesa, Arizona, said the book "is vile, sick and goes against every law and constitution." The passion evident in this parent's complaint typifies the language of formal book challenges filed with schools and public libraries all over the country.
But by far the most common type of censorship involves books quietly disappearing from libraries. Sometimes a parent who objects to a book but doesn't want to go through a formal challenge just slips it off the shelf. Frequently a librarian who may fear for her job removes a book that has become controversial. Because of the nature of "stealth censorship," it is difficult to document and impossible to quantify.
These quiet book bannings affect every aspect of the book world. Librarians, who buy at least half of hardcover literary trade books published for children and young adults, have ever-tightening budgets and face a constricted job market. Under pressure from administrators not to land their schools in the midst of controversy, many librarians have become increasingly cautious about the kind of books they order.
Publishers, who have been cutting their lists because of economic pressures, respond by rejecting many manuscripts that contain problematic language and stories on tough subjects like sexual abuse. And authors censor themselves, weeding out curse words and steering away from difficult areas, regardless of feelings that such omissions affect the credibility of their work.
It is surprising how limited the thinking of teachers and even librarians can be about censorship. Many well-meaning professionals have inadvertently made innovative strides in the banning of books. The high school librarian in one town in Florida told me, "We don't have a problem with censorship here." She said she had avoided controversy by "putting bright pink slips in every book we think is controversial" to warn parents to scrutinize the book before their child reads it.
Parents who insist books they disapprove of should be unavailable to all children are not necessarily acting on their own. Political-religious group such as the Christian Coalition and Citizens for Excellence in Education have circulated lists of books with the aim of removing them from libraries (People for the American Way).
Many parents confuse a book's subject matter with the notion that the author or publisher advocates a particular moral agenda and have come to regard books as enemies. For example, a book that contains profanity may be seen as one that encourages kids to use bad language. Or a book that portrays a rebellious child is seen as urging children toward anti-family behavior.
With few exceptions, literature's best, most important books are believable and compelling because they do contain material that readers may find troubling. Take Katherine Paterson's National Book Award winner, The Great Gilly Hopkins, which was banned in school libraries in Albemarle County, Virginia, because it contains curse words and "takes God's name in vain." The book is about a tough-talking, angry foster child who is redeemed by love. The parent who filed the complaint listed the profanities in the book without reading it. The school board convened a panel of educators, who reviewed the book and twice recommended it be kept on the shelves. The school superintendent ordered it removed anyway.
In an open letter to the Albemarle County School Board, Katherine Paterson wrote, "Though Gilly's mouth is a very mild one compared to that of many lost children, if she had said `fiddlesticks' when frustrated, readers could not have believed in her andÉlove would give them no hope."
One fifth-grade reader (whose teacher described him as `the Gilly of my class') wrote in a book report of The Great Gilly Hopkins, "This book is a miracle." There is little doubt that if Mrs. Paterson's Gilly hadn't cussed like a trooper that lost boy would have been denied his miracle.
One librarian at a conference on children's literature in Virginia this summer speculated as to why parents react so forcefully to books they perceive as offensive. "They feel helpless sending their children into a world that seems increasingly plagued with hazards over which they have no control," she said. "They see the books available to their children as an area where they can have control."
Parents' attempts to protect their children from books that offend are misguided. For one thing, librarians say the primary effect of keeping kids from reading a book is that they want to read it above all others. Children are tough and discriminating. They hear language far worse than Gilly Hopkins' in the halls at school. Kids have eyes finely tuned for the subtle and are more capable of grasping complexity than most adults give them credit for. I read Black Beauty before I was twelve and learned a lot about compassion from it. I thought the Hardy Boys were sexist before I knew the word. And I knew Rudyard Kipling for a racist without having to be told by a well-meaning adult.
Like Katherine Paterson's fifth-grade fan, it was miracles I was after, the momentary magic of transcendence that fired my soul. Each book has its own gifts to offer, but the freedom to choose which to read teaches some of life's most important lessons -- trusting yourself, knowing what you believe in, tolerance -- all of which are more difficult to learn once you get beyond childhood.
Suzanne Fisher Staples is a novelist who writes for young adults and lives in Florida. Among her novels is Newbery Award winning Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind.