Sunday, November 19, 2006

An Author's Insight

I just returned from another conference (in California), and I learned about a whole new slew of challenges to my book Geography Club. And two things occurred to me. First, I really do appreciate hearing from librarians where and when my books are challenged and what the result ends up being. I know other authors do too (though I'm also aware that when an author hasn't been challenged before, it can be a tramautic thing, and librarians may not have the time to deal with the author's questions and angst).

Secondly, I am growing increasingly convinced that, at least in most of America 2006, the way to defeat book challenges is to make them as public as possible. Obviously this depends, in part, on the community in which the challenge is taking place. But I'm hearing more and more that communities, even conservative ones, are getting really frustrated by the increasing number of attacks on our freedom to read, especially by members of the religious right. My sense is that we're reaching a consensus that, yes, it's okay if parents don't want their kids reading a particular book, but that, no, it's not okay to deprive all other kids and their parents of the right to make up their own minds on each particular book.

Which is, of course, the exact position of AS IF!

Along those lines, here's an interesting editorial from my local newspaper on the decision on a controversy about a challenge to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and the decision to rule against the challenge. Their take? Right decision, but wrong strategy--because the decision was mostly made out-of-sight of the public:
The result was good. “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” stays in the eighth-grade curriculum. But the way the Puyallup School District made the decision Wednesday was not.
Apparently fearing TV cameras and reporters and perhaps “outside agitators,” the district kept the public out of a crucial committee meeting to hear complaints against the acclaimed novel.

The tactic was most certainly a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the state’s Open Meetings Act. The committee was clearly conducting public business that should have been done in the open.

The issue didn’t involve sensitive legal, business or personnel matters. The task was deciding whether the evocative but gritty Ernest Gaines novel about slavery and the civil rights era was suitable for eighth-grade students.

Instead of letting the public in on the testimony and the committee’s discussion, the district both timidly and arrogantly decided – quite a feat, that – that this was a decision that should be made behind closed doors.

It matters not a whit whether the district had the legal right to close the meeting. It sends a terrible signal to citizens when decisions about something of such fundamental public interest as the books schoolchildren read are considered too dicey to make in public.

This attitude is patronizing and offensive. Puyallup’s school board members ought to tell Superintendent Tony Apostle they want the public’s business done in public.

That said, the decision on the book itself was the right call. Some uncomfortable situations in the novel – there are no sex scenes – are nothing that today’s eighth-graders can’t handle with proper guidance. The true offense of the book for most critics is the ever-present use of the “n-word” – without which the novel could not be an accurate depiction of its subject.

All along, administrators planned to offer training for teachers in using “Miss Jane Pittman,” which is part of a multicultural reading list designed to expose students to minority perspectives.

Objections that the novel will “traumatize” students of any race are misguided. Taught properly, “Miss Jane Pittman” has enormous value in helping students understand the historical issues of slavery and racism. To understand these is to understand America at both its best and its worst.
I agree. Mark my words: there's been a sea change in this country on these book censorship issues. Much of the public is now on our side.

Gay Penguins Attacked Again!

Yup, And Tango Makes Three, that picture book about a family of gay penguins, has been targeted yet again. Here's the gist of this argument:
"Please allow us to know when our child is ready for certain introductions," said parent Lilly Del Pinto in an interview Wednesday. "Each of us knows our child best."

Del Pinto said she started reading the book to her kindergartner, who brought it home from the school library earlier in the semester. Mom was surprised by the tale that unfolded.

"When it came to the point where the zookeeper saw that the penguins were in love, I redirected (my daughter)," she said. "That was the end of the story for her."

Del Pinto said she's not against gay people nor does she want the book completely banned from the library. But when a child learns about homosexuality should be up to parents, she said.

She and a group of like-minded parents approached the Shiloh School Board on Tuesday with their concerns.

A committee of school employees and a parent suggested the book be moved to a separate shelf, requiring parent permission before checkout.

Superintendent Jennifer Filyaw rejected the proposal. She said the School Board will look at general library policies, but "Tango" will likely remain on the shelf.
There is a patina of logic to this idea that "parents should be the ones to decide when and how a child learns about homosexuality." But upon closer inspection, the idea of patently absurd. Yes, parents have every right to teach their kids their own views on homosexuality. But to require that the rest of the world never say anything about the topic--that no resources whatsoever be available for gay families and their supporters? How would that work exactly? And why stop at homosexuality? Why couldn't parents argue that they should be the ones to first expose their kids to all "controversial" ideas--which really means all ideas that anyone anywhere might find controversial? That means no evolution, no Harry Potter, no sex ed of any kind, and, yes, no talk of religion or any religious holiday. And if that's the case, why have schools at all? Why not just have all parents teach their own kids?

Another point. When a book is placed on "restricted access" in a library, that means that circulation will inevitably decline, regardless of what the subject matter of the book is. Which means there is less incentive to buy related materials. Which is what this debate is really all about: suppress and censor any positive or even neutral portrayal of homosexuality.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Anatomy of a Book Banning

Here at AS IF!, we obviously believe strongly freedom, choice, and open access when it comes to book challenges. That said, sometimes books do get pulled from libraries, classrooms, and reading lists. When that happens, the result is always better when the issues in question are debated as part of an existing, written policy, and when the debate is done in the open with ample opportunity for the public to contribute.

Here's an interesting case study out of Massachusettes involving the book So Far From the Bamboo Grove:
The Dover-Sherborn Regional School Committee is grappling with whether to ban an award-winning book from sixth-grade classes after complaints from some parents that the book is racist and sexually explicit.

A review committee that included the middle school librarian and two English teachers unanimously voted to recommend removing "So Far from the Bamboo Grove" from the curriculum after 13 parents complained. Superintendent of Schools Perry Davis backed the recommendation.


Dover-Sherborn middle school students have read the book as part of a unit on stories of survival and have me t with the author. The book is used by numerous other school districts in the state.


Scott Walker, who has been teaching sixth-grade English for five years, told the School Committee that both the book -- which he said has been taught "effectively and tastefully" for 13 years -- and the author are prized by students.

"She is a gift our youngsters hold onto far beyond their time in our classroom," he said, adding that older students come back to the middle school to see her during her visits.

Frederick Randall, the middle school headmaster who was also on the book review committee, said the panel had struggled with its recommendation.

"I won't represent it as being an easy process on any of us," he said. "As a committee, we did the best we could with it, to remain objective."

But he said there simply wasn't enough time in school to explore the issues raised by the book.


Monday, November 13, 2006

AS IF! Salutes Librarians

I just returned from Denver, Colorado, where I gave the keynote address at the conference of the Colorado Association of Libraries. While speaking to over 400 librarians, I had an agenda that was two-fold:

(1) to go beyond the usual "censorship is bad" rhetoric, and to specifically thank and salute, on behalf of all the AS IF! authors, the unheralded librarians who put their careers on the line to fight these battles in their own communities.

(2) to avoid looking like a blithering idiot.

I think I succeeded in #1. Let's hope I succeeded in #2 as well.

Thanks, Colorado. I had a terrific time.

THE BLUEST EYE Under Attack in New York State

Tony Morrison's The Bluest Eye is being challenged in New York state.
Callejo said a petition submitted to the board on Thursday was signed by more than 20 people and focused on 16 pages in the book that contain sexually explicit passages. The novel, an Oprah's Book Club selection, currently is on the Red Hook school district's 11th-grade reading list.


"If I were to try to summarize for the (parents), I think they felt it was too strong of language and content for this age group," McLaughlin said. "I think they felt there were three parts of it that were too graphic in their mind. ... I've read the book, and it's very powerful."

Said Callejo: "The problem that the parents had - and they were using the term 'inappropriate' - is that it's basically given to 16- and 17-year-olds, where their maturity levels are different," he said.
All I can say is does Oprah know about this?