Saturday, September 28, 2013

Should We Ban Books in School Libraries?

Here is my final installment of my Banned Books Week posting. This post is excerpted from a section of my Master’s thesis on censorship in school libraries from more than twenty years ago. My opinion has not changed. Some content has been edited and updated, but not censored.

Censorship in schools did not begin with Catcher in the Rye. In The Republic, Plato proposed to banish poets and dramatists for the making the Gods look less than God-like. He wrote that fiction had a band moral influence on the young. This ideology laid the groundwork for today’s justification for removing books from school libraries..

During the nineteenth century, Anthony Comstock, a zealous fundamentalist, penned a book entitled Traps for the Young, noting that light literature, newspapers and artistic works, including literature, were traps. He believed anyone who read “dime novels,” today’s equivalent to Young Adult, was doomed to a life of degradation and Hell.

Censors often have not read the materials which they challenge, or have only read isolated passages out of context. An example of a ludicrous dispute is the often challenged Steinbeck novel The Red Pony. In the 1980’s, the Vernon-Verona school District labeled the book as “a filthy and trashy sex novel.” If the challengers had bothered to read the book, they would learn this particular work by Steinbeck is a clean-cut tale of a boy and his horse. Because Steinbeck, who also authored East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath wrote The Red Pony the assumption is made that this, too contained questionable materials, yet this book continues to appear on banned book lists.

Censors believe book have behavioral consequences leading to premarital sex, violence, and questioning authority.  The two most often censored aspects of books are language and sex, the fear being that teenagers will emulate behavior of the characters in the book such as Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Teens hear this language every day in the hallways at school, or if they have jobs, out in the real world.

These same censors do not give students enough credit for their ability to discern when language is appropriate or not. Students know literature and real life are different. It doesn’t mean the words themselves should be emulated, and students who use an F-bomb or other curse word in class are usually punished, but colorful vocabulary is a part of life. If authors sanitized their dialogue by substituting expletives with phrases like “Oh, fudge!,” or “Drat and  Sugar” they lose credibility with their readers.  Young adult author Robin Brancato states, “…when I employ ‘bad language’ as you call it, and references to sex, it is not because I think these are needed to sell books or hold the reader’s interest, but because the body functions and the names for them, both polite and impolite, are parts of life, and I am interested in portraying life as it really is.”

Almost no literature is without sex. The Bible, beginning with Adam and Eve, is loaded with sex and sexual references, thus making it also a contested book in many libraries.

A distinction must be made between pornography and literature. Pornography is a Latin term meaning ‘writing about prostitution.’ In modern times, pornography has devolved into sub-literature comprising endless repetition, stilted dialogue and is most often anonymously written. Unlike literature, pornography’s intent is not to evoke realistic emotion or feeling; it is merely designed to titillate.

In the not too distant past librarians themselves were the primary censors. In early volumes of the American Library Journal, censorship was encourages through articles written about the dangers of certain types of books, particularly fiction. It was not until the Library Bill of Rights was adopted in 1939 that a clear cut policy was adopted.

The most ironic challenge is Fahrenheit 451, a book about book burning books. Written in the early Fifties about a futuristic world (which eerily resembles us today with our ear buds and wall sized TVs), fireman are dispatched to homes where the owners are known to have books, in effect, destroying all intellectual knowledge.

The purpose of education is to not only communicate factual information, but to teach young people to be critical thinkers who can devise their own value systems. Censorship undermines the students’ ability to discriminate.

Al school libraries have criteria for selection of new materials. Some might argue that selection is a form of censorship, yet school libraries are constrained by curricular needs and tight budgets. It becomes a problem when librarians either enforce their own narrow fields of interest, or when community or administrators question materials available through the library/media center. A library media specialist’s responsibility is not to impose his or her viewpoints on patrons. A colleague once told she weeded the Negro Almanac because the term ‘negro’ offended her. Granted the title is dated, and if one has the budget to replace this with a suitable, updated source, then go for it. But I will defend keeping a book like this on the shelf for the information and historical perspective it contains. Our culture likes to pretend the Unites States does not have an ugly past.

There are no easy answers for the question of censorship. I consider myself open minded, but, I too have limits. I will not intentionally stock an item on my shelves which encourages or instructs a students on how to kill himself.  Nor will I add blatantly graphic works such as Madonna’s Sex book or Fifty Shades of Gray.  However, there are materials in my library which offend my intellect: the schlocky, badly written vampire romances or the ever popular, badly written child abuse memoir, The Lost Boy. Kids love them, and it’s not my place to judge what students choose to read. My goal is that students read, period. Once the seeds for story are planted, perhaps kids will gravitate towards higher quality literature. In any case, they will have the freedom of choice.

Happy Reading and Writing.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Failure Is a Good Option

A friend of mine recently posted a cartoon which represents America’s schoolchildren as the Trophy generation where everyone wins! Failure is not an option is a popular mantra among educators. Here‘s the thing:not everyone is good at everything.

This same principle applies to writing. Anyone with a third grade education has the ability to write. He or she can form sentences, and pen a basic paragraph.. Pretty much anyone who is literate is capable of writing a letter, a Facebook post or tweet (albeit tons of these are misspelled and grammatically incorrect}, but not everyone should be a writer.

The digital era has allowed the masses unlimited possibilities to splay one’s opinions (case in point this blog) or to share their Wretched American Novels and market them on Amazon. Granted, many so called “authors” have become successful, selling their uncorrected first drafts online. Fifty Shades of Gray, an abysmal series of soft core porn novel, made E. L. James a millionaire, but James is not an author. She is someone who put words on a page and sold gazillions of books. For those of us who pay attention to our craft, such successes represent a horror story.

Call me a word snob, but real writers pay attention to the craft. They carefully construct syntax and suffer over using the correct word. Real writers don’t share their writings until they believe the words are right. And I’m not talking about “literary writers, the Virginia Woolfs and Cormac McCarthys; many bestselling authors, such as J.K. Rowling, Carl Hiassen and Elmore Leonard suffer over their syntax.  Even the prolific Stephen King pays attention to his craft. When you read one of these authors’s novels you are not reading first draft materials using an sixth grade vocabulary. I’m not a Dan Brown fan because his sentences give me hives, but even Brown researches his works and takes time to structure a readable, accurate story which engages people in meaningful dialogue about religious history.

I’m also not talking about Pulp fiction and romance. Beach reads. Well crafted stories, entertaining, good for one read, fairly easy to forget. When I was an undergrad, my advisor told me to read trashy novels because I was too absorbed in academic reading and he feared I would grow to hate reading. Every Sunday I read a Harlequin romance. (One of my roommates had scads of them in our apartment.)I don't remember any of them, but each book took me out of myself for awhile. And I can guarantee the words flowed well enough because even as a lowly undergrad I was a syntax snob.

My bone of contention is schlock like Fifty Shades of Gray dilutes the credibility of the book market by letting ‘fast food writing’ become the norm. Yes, we should “give the people what they want,” but don’t readers want more than trash? I worry that our national IQ is dipping to an all time low because this sort of book gets a trophy. This makes it more difficult for the real writers to get their stories published because the market is flooded with cheese, and movie and marketing deals for such debris make piles of money for the ever struggling publishing companies in movie deals

Am I jealous of E.L James? Hell yes. I wish I had her bank account, but I don’t envy her credibility as a “writer”. In fact, I feel sorry for her. What motivation does James have to write something well-crafted? And if she ever writes serious fiction, can critics take her seriously? I want my books to sell, yet I also want my stories to be appreciated for their well developed characters, plausible, memorable plots, well placed diction, and elegant syntax.  If I am ever to win an award for my work, I hope it is for something I am not embarrassed having out there.

If you want to write, write, and don’t be afraid to founder. Fail, and fail again. Real writing comes from learning from your failures..
Happy writing.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Political Correctness or Weeding?

 Another piece from my archive of censorship essays from early in my career.

Moe. L Is it Political Correctness or Weeding? The Book Report March/April 1993

An incident I heard about recently set me to questioning if the motive for removal of a book [in the school’s library] was weeding or censorship. The book in question was published in the early 1970’s when some “research” purported to show blacks were inferior in intelligence to whites. One chapter of the book presented this idea as fact.

A student who was offended by the chapter asked the librarian to remove the book. The librarian refused. Later, after a phone call from a parent, the principal took the book from the shelf and presumably destroyed it.

We all know that removing books in this manner amounts to censorship. Yet, given the date of the publication and inaccurate contents, I have asked myself, would I have weeded this item before it became an object of a challenge?

One could justify keeping the book for historical purposes as an example of ideas representative of the early 1970s. In this case I would have to verify authorship and authenticity. I believe in freedom of information, yet I also feel the information in the school library should be current and accurate.

What would I have done? I don’t know. I didn't see the book, but this incident has given me a push for writing a selection, weeding and reconsideration policy. With such a policy, a challenged book at least has a chance for due process.

Author’s note. Since this piece appeared two decades ago, I have experienced numerous challenges.  In no case was a book permanently removed from the shelves. Some were moved to closed reserve, and others labeled not appropriate for certain age levels books with false information are weeded before they come under question.

Read a banned book/

 Happy Reading and Writing.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Who's Afraid of A Banned Book?

In preparation of Banned Books week(September 22-28)  I am recycling some pieces I wrote early in my career as a Library/Media Specialist concerning censorship. Some things never change. As you read this and wonder about the archaic book references, please keep in mind this article is twenty years old.

The essay originally appeared in :
Moe. L. Who’s Afraid of Judy Blume? The Book Report March/April 1993

Funny thing about fiction: it’s the form of writing most often challenged by censors, yet it’s not true. The author made it up. It’s a lie. Never happened. So why are censors so afraid of it? Because in a way, fiction is true. Not true in the sense the story actually transpired. It could have happened, or parts of the story have occurred, such as the case in historical novels. Overall, the story came out of the writer’s vivid imagination. So why is it considered dangerous? Because good fiction is believable.

Fiction lets you crawl into someone else’s head, exploring their life experiences. Take the nocel Are You There God, It’s me Margaret? Along with Margaret, the reader feels the anguish of being different because unlike her friends, she has yet to develop breasts and her family doesn’t have a religion.

Through Scout’s eyes, To Kill a Mockingbird lets you be prejudiced and judgmental only to, after a sequence of events, make you change your mind about Boo Radley.

Fiction demonstrates that friends will come in strange, even ugly packages, such as in Theodore Taylor’s The Weirdo. Initially a friend may be an adversary like Mars Bar in Maniac Magee, and later become your best ally.

Historical fiction teaches facts and dates, but the lesson doesn’t stop there. In Empire of the Sun, you hear the roar of the Japanese bombers and the screams of people seeking shelter. You are hungry along with Jim in the prison camp as he subsists on one potato a day, and you understand how three years of imprisonment can numb you to the point where you don’t recognize your own parents. A good novel can also take you back in time, letting you live as Alexander the Great’s eunuch in Mary Renault’s Persian Boy.

You can explore another culture, as in Light In the Forest, a beautifully crafted novel where a white boy raised by Indians must choose between two cultures that hate each other and decide for himself his own identity and allegiance. Through good writing you can also learn to forgive, as Lee Botts forgave his parents for not being idea in Dear Mr. Henshaw.

Racism and prejudice are rooted in ignorance. That naiveté can be erased through understanding what makes another person tick. Fiction makes you see the humor, diversity and irony of life.

I’ve heard it said that you never fully understand another person’s culture until you speak his language. Through fiction, you not only speak another man’s tongue, you wear his clothes, eat his food and share his dreams. Through novels and short stories your horizons expand beyond the travelogue version of life.

Why is fiction so scary? Because good fiction is powerful. It can disturb your security, open your eyes to another viewpoint, and change your mind. Fiction also reminds us that we are flawed. Those imperfections make stories interesting.

Censors who challenge fiction are trying to protect you from viewpoints and ideas  that may disturb, upset or change you. Some novels will have bad language or rotten characters. Robert Cormier’s work is often challenged because he doesn’t supply happy endings. Life isn’t always fair or pretty. Good fiction is like real life.

As librarians it is our job to provide all viewpoints so that everyone’s story can be told.
Read a Banned Book. Follow this link for a list.

Happy Reading!