Saturday, March 31, 2007

Wilton H.S. drama students win "Courage in Theater" award

Music Theatre International has awarded the students of Ms. Bonnie Dickenson's Advanced Theater class the very first "Courage in Theater Award."Here's what it said in the press release:

To: The Advanced Theatre Students of Wilton High School,

Congratulations to each of you!MTI has determined that you collectively and individually receive the MUSIC THEATRE INTERNATIONAL COURAGE IN THEATER AWARD. This is the first such award in the 54 year history of Music Theatre International.MTI was founded by Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway Composer/LyricistFRANK LOESSER in whose honor we have established this award. Frank believed that High School productions keep theater alive in America serving to enlighten, educate as well as entertain. Although Mr. Loesser’s musicals were not about war (GUYS &DOLLS, THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS and others) he and his colleagues in the Broadway community and the company he created to serve the schools of America with theater materials, would be proud of your class’s approach to theatre as well as your passion and commitment to the production which you created.

Schools and Theater Departments with outstanding performances or those demonstrating adventuresome spirit, inventiveness and daring through their stage productions have been recognized in different ways by MTI in the past. However, we are aware that theater is not just about acting, singing, dancing and excelling in performance. It is also about positive risk taking for students, working as a community and utilizing theatre skills, to present points of view on the stage which comment on the world in which we live. In doing so, they provoke discussion, engage an audience and stimulate their colleagues/fellow students/and the audience to reflect on what they saw and heard long after they have left the theater. That, in turn, should result in healthy dialogue of differing points of view.

WILTON HIGH SCHOOL’s advanced theater students' “non-performance” of their original theater piece is unique in our experience of licensing over 500,000 high school performances in the last two decades and deserving of special recognition.MTI’s very first COURAGE IN THEATER AWARD therefore goes to the members of the advanced theater class…not for a performance or a production, but rather in recognition of your actions in having collaborated in the creation of a stage piece on a sensitive but germane subject titled: VOICES IN CONFLICT.

Music Theatre International congratulates each of you.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Voices in Conflict

Last night I spoke with Bonnie Dickinson, the teacher who created the "Voices in Conflict" project at Wilton High. All I can say is it's too bad there aren't more teachers out there with this woman's creativity and courage.She's put her job on the line in the defense of intellectual freedom - as she said to me last night, "When this all blows over and people stop writing me 40 e-mails a day offering their support, I'm still going to be at this school teaching."

I can't imagine it will be such a great atmosphere for her either. I met with four of the students from Ms. Dickinson's class today, and these kids are being seriously hassled in the hallways of enlightened Wilton High. They're being called "faggots" and told that they should be "hanged for treason" and have been brainwashed by their "liberal pig parents". Ms. Dickinson is being referred to as a FemNazi.

The irony is that the play was a collaborative effort by all the students in the class, and it is, apparently a class that is politically diverse, with conservative Republicans as well as "liberal pigs". The four students I spoke to embraced the diversity in the class, because they felt it helped them to produce a more balanced script.

What it all boils down to is that Principal Canty caved into pressure from ONE parent of ONE student. According to Ms. Dickinson, Barbara Alessi got wind of the script and said that she wanted her daughter Gabby to take the class and not only that, they would be able to provide material for the script because her son, 2nd Lt. Zach Alessi-Friedlander is currently serving in Iraq.

Unfortunately it appears that Mrs Alessi was inserting Gabby as a mole, rather than to actually attempt to contributing toward the production in a meaningful way. After a few days Gabby dropped out of the class and Mrs. Alessi was pressuring Principal Canty to silence the production.What's supremely ironic about this is that Gabby Alessi-Friedlander is self-righteously spouting on the news outlets how the play is "insulting" to currently serving troops.

But meanwhile, Gabby's brother, 2nd Lt. Zach Alessi Friedlander, wrote the following in an article about how his unit was helping two Iraqi schools that was published in the Fort Drum Blizzard last October:

"Quality education teaches students how to think critically about their own lives and illuminates the variety of opportunities available only to those with the necessary academic training.

Natan Sheransky, famous commentator on Middle Eastern politics and society, has focused particular attention on the importance of education in determining the region's future progress. He warns against "societies that restrict intellectual freedom and prevent the free exchange of ideas," favoring instead those that "unleash the creative potential of their people." "

As student James Presson said to me, "This play was important to the school. Now it's important to the nation. We're just trying to show what the troops are saying. The only reason to be against this is if you don't have respect for the troops own words. :

I'd interviewed Paul Reickhoff, Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (formerly Operation Truth) a few years back, and I contacted him today asking him if he'd be willing to speak to the Wilton HS kids (which he was). He'd just blogged about this quite eloquently over at the Huffington Post:

Anyway, my column on this will be in Tuesday's Greenwich Time, but I had to limit that to 750 words and I could write about the great kids I spoke to today for five times that. They are smart and brave and so is Ms. Dickinson. They deserve all of our support.

The Higher Power of Lucky: Susan Patron Reponds

Simon & Schuster, the publisher of The Higher Power of Lucky, has put together a little video response to the recent controversy surrounding the Newbery-winning novel. And hey, AS IF!'s own Cynthia Kadohata interviews author Susan Patron! Other AS IF! members are quoted too.

Aren't we an impressive bunch?!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Utah Tries Again to Stop GSAs

My first novel, Geography Club, is the story of a group of kids who feel like they can't start a gay-straight alliance at their school due to anti-gay prejudice. So they start a fake club with the most boring name they can think of--the "Geography Club"--in hopes that they'll be left alone.

Expect a number of "Geography Clubs" to appear in the state of Utah in the years ahead.If you recall, Utah tried to ban gay-straight alliances a few years ago. They ran into problems, however, due to the Federal Equal Access Act of 1984 which mandates that no school club can be singled out for discrimination (the law was originally passed to protect clubs of a religious nature).

So what was Utah's solution to this new wrinkle? Ban all extracurricular clubs. I kid you not. Legislators in that state decided it was better to have no clubs than to allow GLBTQ students to meet on school campuses.

As you might imagine, that didn't work out so well. So now Utah legislators are trying again:
Under the new Utah law, every club will have to complete an activity disclosure statement that itemizes what it will do, and discusses how many members it will have, and whether tryouts are required. It mandates that any student joining any club needs a parent’s signature — though most public schools in Utah require that already — and specifically bans any discussion by any club of “human sexuality.”

The law defines that term to mean “advocating or engaging in sexual activity outside of legal recognized marriage or forbidden by state law,” and “presenting or discussing information relating to the use of contraceptive devices.”
This annoys me for about sixteen different reasons, but the biggest one is this continual insistence on the part of the anti-gay folks to equate "gay" with "sex." I've sat in on dozens of GSA meetings, and I personally led one for two years, and I've literally never seen sex discussed.
And yet, "sex" is often in the eye of the beholder. I am absolutely positive that any discussion of gayness will be seen, in the minds of these folks, as a discussion of "sexual activity." (Some of these folks have very dirty minds.)
Worse, this just gives bigoted and/or fearful administrators an excuse to harass these clubs which, incidentally, have a legal right to meet, talk, and use school resources.

“This is all about gay-straight alliance clubs, and anybody who tells you different is lying,” said State Senator Scott D. McCoy, Democrat from Salt Lake City, who voted against the law.

State Senator D. Chris Buttars, a Republican from the Salt Lake City suburbs and the law’s co-sponsor, said in an interview that he saw the need for the measure after parents from a high school in Provo, Utah, protested the formation of a gay-straight club in 2005.

I'm often told by well-meaning people that there is now very little anti-gay prejudice. As evidence, they usually cite a movie or a show on television, or the fact that some gays in some states have some small approximation of the rights of heterosexuals. Things have definitely gotten better, but I know from my travel and my email, that anti-gay prejudice is still widely felt, especially by teenagers (though, interestingly, these days it seems as if more of the prejudice comes from adults than from their increasingly tolerant peers).
Still, there is an upside to all this. As anyone who works with teenagers knows, they immediately know when something is rotten in the state of Denmark. They know when someone is trying to restrict their rights, and they take understandable offense:

Gay community leaders and legal experts say the name of the law should be “Unintended Consequences.” Some gay community advocates said the effort to crack down on gay-straight clubs may have backfired and in fact strengthened Utah’s gay community.

Teenage leaders at some gay-straight clubs got politically involved and testified at the Capitol. One of the State Legislature’s three openly gay members successfully pushed through amendments that could limit the law’s effect and even perhaps increase visibility of gay-straight clubs in the 14 Utah public high schools that now have them, by requiring that all clubs get equal treatment on bulletin boards and in school newspapers.

In other words, students in Utah high schools are getting a great education in social justice, political activism, and the importance of intellectual freedom. And you can bet that that's not what these anti-gay Utah legislators wanted at all.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Howell, Michigan, Books not "Obscene"

Last week, we cheered the announcement by U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Murphy III and Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox that there is no merit in the complaints made in Howell, Michigan, that recently-challenged books by Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, and others are "obscene," and that teachers are not, in fact, distributing "pornography to minors" by assigning them in class.

Why are we at AS IF! making such a big deal about this? Because this was a very big deal.

This was not just another book being challenged. Book challenges are a fair expression of freedom of speech; everyone has a right to make them, and every school and library should have a process in place to consider them.

But in this case, people need to understand: for having assigned classic books by acclaimed authors, these English teachers were being reported to the FBI, accused of distributing "pornography" to kids. If this travesty had been allowed to continue, these educational profressionals would have had to hire lawyers; their characters would have been brutally and maliciously attacked, they're careers would have been threatened, and they may very well have faced prison time. It's possible they would have had to register as "sex offenders" for the rest of their lives!

It's not hyperbole to say that this is like something out of 1984--it really IS something from 1984! There is literally criminalizing books, and education. And don't tell me if the FBI had investigated and a precedent had been created, even if they hadn't actually pressed charges, it wouldn't have had a HUGE chilling effect on what books can be taught in classrooms, and on the very nature of education in the US. The very notion of academic independence and intellectual freedom was at stake.

Had this been allowed to continue, this would not have been the America I know, the land of the free.

The National Coalition Against Censorship has released a press release supporting the decision not to consider throwing English teachers into jail for teaching classic literature:
We are pleased to see that the U.S. Attorney, Attorney General, and County Prosecutor have made the right decision in this case and deferred to the school officials, who had undertaken an appropriate and thoughtful review of the educational value of these books,” NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin said. She added, however, that “the case demonstrates the need to educate more parents about how the First Amendment applies in public schools.” ABFFE President Chris Finan added that U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Murphy III had taken the case too far on March 1st when he sent Fyke’s letter to the FBI for investigation. "It is disturbing that it has taken the U.S. Attorney so long to conclude that he has no jurisdiction in this case,” he said. “It should never have been referred to the FBI in the first place."

While expressing satisfaction in the outcome of the Michigan case, Bertin and Finan noted that there has been a rash of censorship incidents in recent weeks involving books used in public schools. Parents have challenged Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk in Missouri Valley, Iowa and Carolyn Mackler’s Vegan Virgin Valentine, Eddie de Oliveira’s Lucky, Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes, Robert Cormier’s Beyond the Chocolate War, and Kevin Henkes’ Newbery Honor-winning Olive’s Ocean in Duval County, FL. In addition, school librarians have hesitated to purchase this year’s Newbery award-winning book, The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, for their school collections because the word, “scrotum,” appears on the book’s opening page.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Over-the-top row over "obscene" children's books

This column of mine was printed in Tuesday's Greenwich (CT) Time.,0,5162719.column?coll=green-opinion-columnists

March 6, 2007

As an author and columnist, my life revolves around the correct word choice. So I was completely confounded by the kerfuffle over the use of one particular word in this year's Newbery Medal winner.

The word in question appears on the first page of Susan Patron's "The Higher Power of Lucky," when the 10-year-old protagonist, Lucky, an orphaned girl living in a tiny desert town in the Eastern Sierras, eavesdrops on an AA meeting and hears a recovering alcoholic speaking about his lowest moment. It came "when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning," and then fell out of his car "when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum." Lucky doesn't know what scrotum means; to her it sounds like "something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much."

The use of the "s" word prompted howls of outrage from a certain subsection of librarians. "Scrotum-gate" as the affair has become known amongst the children's book cognoscenti, spilled over from the pages of Publishers Weekly into the national papers.A New York Times article made the curious statement that "Authors of children's books sometimes sneak in a single touchy word or paragraph, leaving librarians to choose whether to ban an entire book over one offending phrase."

Puh-leeze. I just finished a novel with a bulimic protagonist, and I agonized over the use of every word that might be deemed offensive. But as an author of books for young people, it's my job to try to convey essential truths through fiction -- and kids can spot a fake from a mile away.Joni Richards Bodart observed in her article "Books that Help, Books that Heal": "Teens ... want a chance to experience reality vicariously before meeting it head on, and they know the safety of having those experiences through books ... [they] have little patience with unrealistic characters or situations, conversations or emotions."

Ms. Patron, a highly-respected veteran of the Los Angeles Public Library system, is bemused by the controversy her use of medical terminology provoked: "Somehow there's a perception in America that you can put your kids in front of the TV, let them play certain kinds of games and expose them to absolutely atrocious levels of violence and language. But somehow the book is sacred."

Meanwhile, down in Dade County, Florida, parents are "booknapping" titles they find offensive. As parent Dalila Rodriguez explained, "If you take it out and don't return it, no kid can read it. It's not censoring; it's protecting our children from lies." Last June, the Miami-Dade School Board voted to ban the book "Vamos a Cuba" from district libraries, a decision that's being challenged by the ACLU. Of the 48 copies of "Vamos a Cuba" owned and contained in the school district's libraries, 17 are lost or overdue.

But, as Alice in Wonderland would say: "Curiouser and Curiouser." Last week, U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Murphy III in Michigan referred allegations that Howell Public Schools teachers violated pornography laws by assigning books by Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Wright in 11th and 12th grade English classes to the FBI for investigation. He did so after receiving a letter from Vicki Fyke of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education, who filed the complaint after she failed to persuade the Howell District School Board to remove the books.

Interestingly, Murphy was appointed as U.S. attorney by President George W. Bush in 2005 (he gave $2,000 to Bush's 2004 campaign) and has been nominated for a seat on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"It is absolutely bizarre that a high official in the Justice Department would take such a step," said Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "Under the law, the books cannot be found obscene if they have literary merit, which in this case cannot reasonably be questioned." Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said Murphy abdicated his responsibility to protect free speech. "We are told that Murphy 'routinely' refers all obscenity complaints to the FBI. But he has a duty to reject frivolous claims to ensure that there is no chilling effect on books that are protected by the First Amendment...This is not the kind of judgment we expect from a man who has been nominated for a seat on one of our highest courts."

It is, indeed, chilling. What's next? Book burnings?

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Prosecutor Rules on Howell Book Flap

No laws have been broken. The books are not obscene:

"After reading the books in question it is clear that the explicit passages illustrated a larger literary, artistic or political message and were not included solely to appeal to the prurient interests of minors," [County Prosecutor David Morse] wrote. "Whether these materials are appropriate for minors is a decision to be made by the school board, but I find they are not in violation of the criminal laws."

It's up to the school board, which has already decided.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

NCAC Press Release on FBI Investigation of Teachers

For further information, contact:

Joan Bertin, National Coalition Against Censorship, (212) 807-6222, ext. 15

Chris Finan, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, (212) 587-4025, ext. 15

For Immediate Release

Free Speech Groups Condemn FBI Investigation of Literary Works

NEW YORK, NY, March 1, 2007 -- The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) today condemned the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan for asking the Federal Bureau of Investigation to investigate a complaint that books used in the public schools of Howell, Michigan, are obscene. The complaint was filed by a woman who was unsuccessful in persuading the Howell Board of Education to remove several books that she dislikes, including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

“It is absolutely bizarre that a high official in the Justice Department would take such a step. Under the law, the books cannot be found obscene if they have literary merit, which in this case cannot reasonably be questioned,” NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin said. ABFFE President Chris Finan said that U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Murphy III had abdicated his responsibility to protect free speech. “We are told that Murphy ‘routinely’ refers all obscenity complaints to the FBI. But he has a duty to reject frivolous claims to ensure that there is no chilling effect on books that are protected by the First Amendment,” Finan said. He added that Murphy has been nominated to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals. “This is not the kind of judgment we expect from a man who has been nominated for a seat on one of our highest courts,” Finan said.

The challenged books are used in 11th grade English class in Howell and many other schools around the country. On February 12, the Howell Board of Education voted 5-2 to retain the books challenged by the Livingston Organization for Values in Education (LOVE), a group of parents and other community members that charged that the books are inappropriate for minors because they contain sexual themes and profanity. When the LOVE challenge failed, one of its members, Vicki Fyke, filed a complaint with the Livingston County prosecutor, the Attorney General of Michigan and the U.S. Attorney alleging that the Morison, Wright and Vonnegut books are legally obscene and also violate the laws against child pornography and child sexual abuse. (The Bluest Eye describes the rape of a child.) LOVE also asked for a ruling on the legality of Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, another book used in the Howell schools.

Newspapers in the Detroit area confirmed today that Murphy had referred the books to the FBI. “Absolutely. We’re looking into it,” Gina Bilaya, a spokesman for Murphy’s office, told the Daily Press & Argus. “We do it with all complaints,” she said. The local prosecutor and the Michigan Attorney General are also reported to be conducting investigations.

In early February, ABFFE and NCAC joined a number of free speech advocates in sending a letter to the school board opposing the censorship of the books targeted by LOVE. A copy of the letter is online at

Founded in 1974, NCAC is an alliance of 50 national non-profit organizations, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups. ABFFE is the bookseller's voice in the fight against censorship. It was founded in 1990 by the American Booksellers Association.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Here We Go Again: Classic Books Are "Pornography," Teachers Reported to the FBI

Last week, we learned that some book critics take to stealing books they don't like from libraries. Today comes news out of Michigan that a group of social conservatives doesn't like the fact that local high school teachers have assigned students to read books by acclaimed authors like Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Kurt Vonnegut, as well as "The Freedom Writers Diary" by Erin Gruwell.

Their response? Report the schools to the FBI for violating "pornography" laws.
In a press release, Fyke called Morrison's book "The Bluest Eye" a "graphic child rape book" and said LOVE [the conservative activist group] is "encouraged that so far, both the U.S. attorney and the county prosecuting attorney are taking seriously our attempt to protect students from exposure to obscene material that is harmful to minors."
The problem?
However, in order to be legally defined as pornography, a book must be found to appeal only to readers' prurient interest in sex, and have no literary or educational value.
Even more disturbing to me, this matter is being taken "seriously" by recent Bush appointee U.S. Attorney Stephen J. Murphy III, who has, in fact, referred the matter to the FBI.

I've said before that I hate hyperbole, that the way to win debates is through reason and logic, not emotion and name-calling.

The problem is, these people seem to profoundly and deeply hate and fear literature, education, and even teenagers themselves. Accusing teachers of violating pornography laws for assigning these classic books? I refuse to dignify these absurd accusations by taking them seriously. It's an insult to all authors, teachers, and students when we are forced us to defend against charges such as these.

So I'm revising my opinion. Yes, I still believe in reason and logic when discussing these issues with people of intelligence and good will. But that does not include these folks, people like Vicki Fyke of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education (or LOVE). These people, frankly, need to have their heads examined. And they should be excluded from these debates until they can conduct themselves with some manner of intelligence, respect, and restraint. We as a society need to clearly and firmly say to them: we reject out-of-hand your small-minded zealotry.

A reminder: these are my personal opinions. I am not speaking for all the members of AS IF!