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You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people
to stop reading them.

— Ray Bradbury

 



• • • Censorship Page Index • • •
  1. Entry page
  2. Religion, Harry Potter, and the Taliban
  3. The Vatican weighs in on Harry Potter
  4. 'Forbidden fruit' concept in censorship
  5. Banning 'Bridge to Terabithia'
  6. Censoring Red Riding Hood's grandma
  7. Censoring Thomas Merton, Judy Blume, and even Bill Martin Jr.
  1. The Great Textbook War
  2. Saving us from 'Private Ryan'
  3. Censorship and hysteria: McCarthyism, Walter Cronkite, and a smear victim
  4. Who Picks the Censors?
  5. Test and textbook censors
  6. Capt. Underpants and Junie B. Jones
  7. When is it 'inappropriate'?

 

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By Jim Trelease

© 2001, 2007 Jim Trelease / updated: 7/11/13

THE TERABITHIA THREAT

"A"lthough I'm a strong First Amendment advocate, I confess to "censoring" everything I read—newspapers, books, billboards, junk mail, what I read to myself, and what I read aloud. Another word for it would be "editing." If I'm bored with something I'm reading for pleasure, I usually skip over it, as most people do. In other words, I edit-out what bores or offends me.

If there is something in the text that will detract from the book's impact or disturb the class or child, skip it or change it. You're running the program, not the person who wrote the book. The author has no idea what the problems are in your classroom or home. I am not suggesting, as one author-friend feared, that you rewrite the book to the tastes of the reader. Reason is called for, not revisionism. The business of plodding along word-for-word, never missing a line, said Clifton Fadiman, one of the founders of the Great Books movement with Mortimer Adler, is "chronic reverence," something that may be good manners, but also a "confounded waste of time."

praying hands in churchcover of Bridge to Terabithia

Insignificant editing is a long way, however, from the extremes to which some would take us. Typical is the annual ranting over Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia. Still on The New York Times Children's Best Seller list 20 years after it was published, Terabithia is listed as one of the most frequently contested book in America by religious extremists.

Traditionally read in fourth through sixth grades, this Newbery Award-winner describes the beautiful friendship between a 10-year-old boy and girl and the subsequent accidental drowning of the girl. The author is the daughter of two Christian missionaries to China and married to a Christian minister. The book is widely regarded as one of the most poignant books on childhood friendship and grief published in the last quarter century.

Nonetheless, extremists have pressured to have it banned because of: 1) The use of several four-letter words ("hell" and "damn"); and 2) one of the children professes to her Christian friends that, impressed as she is with the story of Christ, she is a "nonbeliever."

The offending two words are not strewn throughout the text. They are uttered in a non-profane, almost solemn manner by a father after the death of his son's best friend. Nor are they earthshaking. Normal people don't expect the characters in children's books to behave like sadists or serial killers but they also don't expect them to behave like saints either. If everyone in children's books must act like Mother Theresa, we're going to have to stop reading those Old Testament stories to children.

As for the objections to Terabithia because of the young girl's agnosticism, what law says we must all wear the same spiritual uniform? We Christians can't even agree whether Christ's mother was a virgin, whether he had brothers and sisters, or whether the communion host is real, symbolic or "hocus pocus." If we're going to eliminate nonbelievers or doubters from books, will we start by erasing the disciple Thomas?

Red Riding Hood, the "Boozer"

image showng wine bottle in basket of Little Red Riding Hoodimage showng wine bottle in basket of Little Red Riding Hoodspacer

Thomas the Doubter, in turn, brings us to Red Riding Hood and her grandmother's bottle of wine. It seems that when the late Trina Schart Hyman was illustrating her 1984 Caldecott-winner, Little Red Riding Hood (Holiday House), one of the items she tucked into Red's basket of goodies was a bottle of wine. Since most grandmothers then and now drink an occasional glass of wine, this was no big deal but certainly authentic to the time period of the tale. (If it were meant to be a contemporary tale, Red would have taken the bus or her mother would have driven her across town, right?)

onetheless, within a year of its publication, a brouhaha ensued when a few vocal groups of parents wanted the book banned because of the wine, that its very presence in the basket constituted a bad example or threat to the temperance of childhood.

After hearing the complaints, most districts chose to keep the book in their library collections, a few decided to remove it.

The purpose of "hearings" is to determine if a discernible threat exists to children, a threat that should be proven rationally, not just vocally. How this small, easily overlooked bottle in the basket would constitute a threat to sobriety is, to say the least, a "stretch." Since nearly all the other Red Riding Hood books in the 20th century did not include the wine bottle, but teenage drinking and drunkenness had been common community complaints for at least a half century, it's a logical conclusion that decades of adolescent intemperance could not be linked to Red Riding Hood. (Mark Twain would have had a field day with such antics. Imagine: Huck Finn's drunken father was home reading Little Red Riding Hood.)

If the presence of wine in literature constitutes a threat to sobriety, then a major overhaul of the New Testament would have to accompany the banning of Little Red Riding Hood. Without wishing to sound irreverent but certainly true to the absurdity of the censors, under the updated revisions, I assume Jesus would be turning water into "lemonade" at the wedding feast in Cana, and St. Paul's advice to Timothy would be to "use a little Dr. Pepper for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities."

The Great Textbook War

In the midst of the culture wars of the late '60s and '70s, the first great textbook war broke out in West Virginia when the local conservatives of Kanawha County declared war on the local progressives over their new textbooks, a war that included boycotts, bullets, and bomb threats. Trey Kay won a 2010 Peabody Award for his radio documentary on that 1974 battle. Many parallels can be drawn between the fears of those West Virginia parents and the fears of today’s Texas state textbook committee. It’s worth noting that in the intervening quarter century, the grand fears of the West Virginia families and churches never materialized and the state’s education still ranks in the bottom 15 in the nation. One of the most telling moments and quotes comes from a West Virginia parent who declares during the broadcast, “If I have been successful as a parent, nothing my children can read in school will hurt them.” That in itself is worth hours of debate. Listen to The Great Textbook War at: http://www.wvpubcast.org/newsarticle.aspx?id=11860 (58 mins.)

BACK    • Censor subject index     • NEXT: The camel's nose in the book

 

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