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Children's Literary Salon in Retrospect: Censorship on February 1, 2014

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Censorship is a hot topic these days in libraries, and public librarians seem particularly interested in providing public access to a variety of books from many perspectives that are written in a variety of styles. This is a controversial topic that I was very excited to see discussed in a children’s literary salon in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building “the library with the lions.”

I know Leonard Marcus from previous salons, so I realized that he would be a valuable addition to the conversation.  Marcus is a renowned expert on children’s literature, and he is the curator of the "ABC of It" Exhibit that is showing until March 14, 2014 at the “library with the lions.”

Robie Harris is an author of many books for younger and older kids, many of which help kids explore human sexuality. Titles of her books include It’s So Amazing and It’s Not the Stork. Many of her books have been challenged in school libraries.

Joan Bertin has been the CEO of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) since 1997, which can assist authors and librarians with responding to challenges to their books.

Charlotte Voiklis is the granddaughter of Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, which have been challenged over the years. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature.

Elizabeth Levy is the Chair of PEN’s Children’s Committee on Censorship.

Bird began the panel discussion by directing a question to Bertin and Marcus. She asked them to describe the historical context in which challenges have been made to children’s books.

Marcus first discussed the different types of children’s literature that has been published in the United States in the last 100 years, which are included in “The ABC of It” exhibit. Some of the those books have been conceived from a moral and/or religious perspective. Folks who are a fan of those books tend to be most likely to make challenges to books that are not from that perspective. There are also fun books from the secular perspective that are published. In the 1920s and 1930s, a psychological way of looking at children’s books emerged. This was popular at the Bank Street College. Knowledge of child development and sexuality fueled the emergence of this literature. Books like Harris’ are often banned because some adults do not want children to have information about their sexuality.

High School Book Bans Increasing

Bertin mentioned that the trend in challenges to children’s books is that lately there have been more attacks on books in the upper grades. Fifteen years ago, most challenges involved books in elementary and middle schools. Now, most challenges are about books that are taught in high school or housed in high school libraries. Some of them are taught in Honors and Advanced Placement classes to 17- and 18-year-old college bound students. She believes that this trend is part of a larger societal movement, in which people are feeling dissociated from contemporary literature. Novels like Speak, which is about teen rape and Crank, which is about drug addiction have been challenged multiple times. Any books that contain sex, nudity, profanity, drugs, drinking, etc. have an excellent chance of being challenged, especially in conservative communities.

Bertin said that for younger kids, titles that have been banned include Buster’s Sugartime, which features a kid with two mothers, and Eloise in Paris, which contains nudity. There is now a tendency for school boards to rate books as we rate movies in states such as North Carolina and Kansas. What she knows about rating books is only the tip of the iceberg, and she really does not want to think about the iceberg. She finds this trend in school boards to be disturbing, and NCAC is working with ALA and PEN to diffuse that. The practice of rating books has been fueled by the proliferation of review web sites, such as Common Sense Media that evaluate sex, nudity, profanity, language, etc. The people who challenge books are often parents, grandparents, teachers, and school boards.

Bird asked all of the panelists if the number of challenges to books has been increasing.

Bertin stated that statistics are hard to nail down, due to the fact that organizations like the NCAC with the Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP) can only measure complaints about books that have been reported to them. KRRP saw a 50% increase in complaints in 2012 about children’s literature. This is a tremendous spike, and she wants to determine if this is a general trend, or simply an anomaly. She does not know of any systematic, peer-reviewed research that has been done to attempt to determine if book challenges for kids have increased. Challenges in schools can have a “chilling effect,” meaning that even if a challenge in not successful, teachers and schools may avoid books that have been challenged in order to avoid expensive lawsuits and/or angry parents.

Bird wants to get the authors’ perspective on challenges to their books.

The Method Behind the Madness

Harris wants to defeat challenges to her books for kids and librarians. Censorship is a reality in the lives of authors in all of the United States, not simply from conservative communities. She has been told that first graders should not see an illustration depicting breastfeeding. She went on to describe tactics that book critics will use in an attempt to ban books. Before the Internet, in 1995, she was at a Vermont Library Association conference, in which a librarian in rural Vermont reported that she had four copies of Harris’ book, It’s Perfectly Normal. All of the copies were taken out of the library and not returned; the librarian then replaced them. One of the replacement copies was returned, and the customer told the librarian that his niece got pregnant at 13 years of age. “It’s Perfectly Normal to Corrupt Children” was the title of an article that challenged the book.

Harris noted that authors can learn about challenges to their books by telephoning publishers. She will talk to the press about book challenges, but she does not contribute information to web sites that critique her books. Different authors respond or do not respond to challenges in different ways; they do what works for them. With the advent of the Internet, things can go viral and happen because of the proliferation of web sites that review and critique books. For example, one library customer checked out all of the books on sexual health from the library, including It’s So Amazing. The person sent a check to the library, and told the library that those books should not have been in the library. The librarian’s response was that he or she is not in the book selling business. The case went to a judge, and the legal fees were exorbitant. 250 books on sexual health were sent to the library, and the librarian distributed the books to other libraries in the area. Banning books takes a huge toll on city officials and librarians in terms of time and money. Unfortunately, sometimes it is deemed too expensive to fight censorship attempts.

Bird asked Voiklis to talk about why A Wrinkle in Time was challenged and how her grandmother handled the challenges.

Sex, Violence and Cursing

Voiklis said that people have accused Wrinkle of containing sadism, pornography, and obscenity. Her grandmother wrote many other books, some of which have also been challenged. There are more recent books facing challenges that are more on people’s minds these days. L’Engle did not believe that people need to protect children from information that they already have. Storytellers look at the broken world, and they search for truth. Authors work out of their own needs and concerns. Because of censorship of her books, L’Engle did practice some self-censorship. However, people still found reasons to object to her writings. One of L’Engle’s books contained a made-up expletive “zuggie,” which caused someone to object to the book. If a made-up word can be considered profanity, any word may cause an objection.

Bird mentioned that The Pigman by Paul Zindel used symbols to designate expletives; it was then banned for containing bad language.     

Bird asked how often young people’s books are banned.

Levy started writing books in the 1970s, such as My Life as a Fifth Grade Comedian. To her, the book Lizzie Lies a Lot is simply full of characters who are simply displaying normal human behavior. The character Lizzie spent the entire book dealing with the hurt feelings that were caused by her actions. In terms of authors being affected by book challenges, their position in the community is not threatened in the same manner in which librarians’ careers are when they retain a book is their libraries that is challenged. She had to struggle with PEN in order to create a children’s book committee that could include as one of its functions responses to book challenges.

Levy mentioned And Tango Makes Three, a picture book that is based on two penguins who actually lived in the Central Park Zoo. They incubated a penguin egg together, then raised the chick. It is one of the most banned books in America.

I have actually read And Tango Makes Three, and it is one of the cutest books ever.

There are rules that are used to designate books as appropriate for customers of certain ages, but kids can develop at different paces.

Award for Librarians for Defeat Book Challenges

Bird said that this conversation on censorship was timely, since ALA has recently created the Lemony Snicket Prize for Nobel Librarians Who Have Faced Adversity, which is basically for librarians who have successfully responded to book bans in their libraries.

Bird asked the panelists where they see book censorship moving in the future, although she recognized that no one is a soothsayer.

Harris mentioned that sometimes people will approach her after she speaks at schools. They will ask her to remove references to things that they consider offensive, such as abortion, homosexuality and transgenderism. They promise to buy books for entire school districts if she simply abides by their wishes. She sees that the United States has become more liberal in terms of sexuality; now same-sex marriages are legal in more states. The fact that challengers to books have become even less tolerant towards content in books that they find offensive seems incongruent to her.

Marcus stated that he met many religious fundamentalist homeschoolers at a conference in De Moine, Iowa in 2013. He heard a librarian relate a story about such a family that visited the library and refused to allow the kids to speak to anyone in an attempt to maintain religious purity. He thinks that there is a fracture in our culture, and people are feeling increasingly disconnected. People will always have different viewpoints, and some parents excessively fear selecting not exactly the correct book for their children.

Voiklis said that it is easy and a shortcut to rate books like the Common Sense Media web site does. Censorship leads to a narrowing of books that are available for viewing.

Book Reviewing and Censorship

Bertin related that some book reviewers simply skim through books to count the number of bad words. That is how some book reviewers may view the purpose of their jobs.

Bird pointed out that quantitative reviewing is much easier to accomplish that qualitative reviewing.

Levy mentioned that sometimes when authors come to an upper class school, school personnel will request that the speaker omit mention to certain books that he or she has written. One book was called satanic because the character fed a dragon chicken liver in it.

Bertin said that certain content in the last century has been problematic, such as sex, violence and profanity. Censorship has been advocated by a very small percentage of people. Parents definitely have a right to choose which content they approve of for their children. She fears that education will become very fractured. Teachers will have a hard time using their curricula if they cannot select their own materials. Kids have rights too. She is concerned that education may become a free-for-all in which everyone can choose what they wish to learn. However, society cannot continue on successfully if there is not a shared body of knowledge that is passed on to succeeding generations.

Harris agreed that we live in a democracy. Parental choice is fine, but parents should not prevent kids who are not theirs from seeing certain materials. We should keep our voices out there and resist people who are trying to prevent us from viewing certain literature. There is a community of supporters of anti-censorship, such as NCAC, library exhibits, etc.

Audience Question

Bird opened the floor for an audience question.

A librarian in an elementary school said that he has several of Harris’ books in his collection, all of which are being challenged because they contain “too much information.”

Harris recommended that the librarian contact her. She is familiar with working with librarians to devise strategies to deal with book challenges.

Bertin suggested that the librarian write a letter to deal with the challenges, since the books in question are housed in the school library but not on any required reading list.

Harris mentioned that kids take in information that they want to take in and that they are ready for. They glaze over things that do not interest them. She is not worried about kids being overwhelmed with unnecessary information; on the contrary, she is highly concerned about kids not getting information that they need in time for difficult decisions that they must make. She is happy to communicate with librarians who are facing challenges to any of her books.

That was one of the best audience question-and-answer sessions that I have ever heard at a kid lit salon.

All of the panelists gave thorough, thoughtful answers to the questions that were posed to them about censorship. This was a group of erudite, talents professionals in the field of children’s literature. I was happy to hear them champion the efforts of librarians to protect and provide access to a variety of useful and helpful materials to the public and in our schools, public and private.

Upcoming Children’s Literary Salons:
Saturday, March 1 at 2 p.m.
Photography and Children's Books
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, South Court Auditorium

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