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... the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs
upon us . . .

Mario Cuomo,
1984 speech at Notre Dame

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Censorship, like charity, should begin at home; but unlike charity, it should end there.

Claire Booth Luce

 

 

 



• • • 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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Censors and
Children's Literature:

Are They Watch Dogs
or Mad Dogs?

by Jim Trelease

© 2001, 2007 Jim Trelease

"M"ore and more teachers are looking over their shoulders during read-aloud or SSR periods, worrying that someone in the community will take offense at some book. The frequency of such fears sometimes makes me wonder whether this is the United States or the Middle East.

In our free and constitutional society, everyone has right to protest anything — something many citizens in other countries can't boast. Protesters have a right to protest and a right to be heard. What they don't have is the right to impose their will on others outside the law. In a nation governed by "majority rules," they have only the right to persuade the majority toward their point of view.

There is a natural instinct in parents to protect their young. Since there is not always universal agreement on what hurts and what helps children, conflicts arise. A book that might be appropriate for ninth-graders might be very inappropriate for third-graders. Doesn't a parent have a right, if not an obligation, to speak out on such an occasion? And that's why districts should have clearly defined censorship policies in place, defining a board to hear the complaint, read the offending book, and make a decision on its appropriateness.

img=booksI recall two complaints given to me at seminars: A mother arguing that Gone With the Wind should not be included in a fourth-grade classroom and another who urged that Snow Falling on Cedars should not be made part of the eighth-grade core curriculum. I agreed with both parties, not from a moral standpoint but from a curriculum standpoint. Both books were written with adult audiences in mind, including a writing structure, historic perspective, and subject matter that are not within the normal range of development for children in those respective grades. By heaping those books on children at those ages, we run the risk of boring or drowning them with the book, neither of which helps us raise lifetime readers—the ultimate objective of schooling.

There is also the problem of an elementary school buying a prelabeled and prepackaged book collection for use with programs like Accelerated Reader, only to find an irate parent complaining that a certain book with predetermined fifth-grade reading level contains subject matter that is more appropriate for middle or high school students. This is explored further in "What is Inappropriate?"

What if the Potter books contained racist or anti-Catholic rhetoric? Would the response be the same?

It has been made more than obvious that exposing children to the classics before they can handle them has NOT resulted in either higher reading scores or higher sales for classics, so why would someone think these two adult novels will do that? There's more than enough room for these books in the home or the school/public library. (The eighth-grade Cedars choice smacks of secondary teachers who personally prefer reading "adult" over "young adult" literature and probably would opt to teach on the college level anyway.)

Jonathan Zimmerman, a New York University professor of education history, explored the history of censorship in the classroom in his essay, "Harry Potter and His Censors," in Education Week, Aug. 2, 2000 (use date and essay title in searching the Ed. Week archives). Though an ardent fan of the Potter series, Zimmerman cautioned against knee-jerk reactions to all censor-groups, based upon the valid claims of other groups throughout the history of the American classroom. His citations of Little Black Sambo and anti-Semitic stories in New York City textbooks as recently as the 1950s should give everyone pause for thought.

If the Potter books had included racist or anti-Catholic language, many of Potter's most ardent defenders would be switching sides. If that's not "selective" censorship, it's at least worth considering before condemning every book complaint.

Praying for Harry

Conceding Prof. Zimmerman's valid points, I must also note that a democracy like ours hatches an inordinate number of religious and political fanatics. Anything new, popular, or magical becomes the "anti-Christ," as Rev. Jerry Falwell demonstrated with his public outcry over the "Teletubbies."

Considering how ardently parents, teachers, and librarians prayed for children to turn off the TV, drop the Game Boy or XBox, discard the Walkman, unhook the cell phone, walk away from the mall, and start reading, it's perplexing that when it finally happened—and happened big time with 400- to 700-page books that were thicker than most classics, the critics didn't drop to their knees and thank the Lord for answering their prayers. Instead, they declared the devil was behind it. Strange. It reminded me of those who predicted Y2K would be Armageddon. I didn't mind them thinking that, but I'd sure object to them forcing me into their bomb shelter—which is what censors often try to do.

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Do banned books
really contribute to
bloated prisons?

"I"

n so many book protests or bannings, the implication is that the books will corrupt not only the souls of children but the fabric of American society as well. If such were true, we'd be able to trace a pattern between reading "trashy" children's books and criminal behavior. Our prisons would be populated by the grown-up readers of banned books, right?

In fact, the opposite is true. In all the interviews I have read or heard with convicted felons and serial killers, I have yet to find even one who reports his criminal behavior was influenced by a children's book. With 85 percent of juvenile inmates experiencing literacy problems, the majority of inmates would struggle to read any children's novels, never mind "trashy" ones.

It's ironic that while religious extremists expend so much energy in book bannings, America's largest Christian publisher, Zondervan Publishing House, publishes an excellent guide to teenage literature for Christian families (Read for Your Life by Gladys Hunt and Barbara Hampton) that includes praise for some of the same books others are protesting: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson; The Goats by Brock Cole; A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck; The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper; and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.
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"A"s noted earlier, I'm an advocate for parent involvement in what is viewed and read by their children. Where I draw the line is in their imposing their own family's views or restrictions on other people's  children. Instead of declaring this idea or that book as un-American or unchristian, we might remember the meaning of E pluribus unumOne out of many. We are one nation out of many beliefs, many cultures, religions, philosophies, theories, colors, languages, dialects, and books. It is our diversity that strengthens us.

Diversity, on the other hand, has never been among the trademarks of extremists, here or anywhere. Recent experiences in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan are living testimonials to narrow-mindedness.
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   In the end, school districts and libraries must make a distinction between "watchdogs" and "mad dogs," while reconciling two very diverse camps: those who see certain children's books are dire threats to the soul of childhood and those who see censorship behind every book protest. Somewhere between the two extremes rests the American way.

"T"he furor over the Potter books is not dissimilar to one in J. K. Rowling's adopted Scottish homeland in 1847 when Sir James Young Simpson dared to introduce pain-killing anesthetics to the maternity ward. Church leaders immediately accused him of circumventing God's will ("If God imposes pain in childbirth, who is man to nullify it?"). Today, of course, Simpson's practices are commonly used in both Christian and secular hospitals throughout the world.

   The Potter books quickly topped the list of most protested books compiled annually by American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom with 472 complaints about the books' focus on wizardry and magic. Nonetheless few community boards found any merit for banning the works. Indeed, evangelical Christian radio talk show host Charles Colson gave the books a very "positive" review, calling them "enormously inventive," and assured parent-listeners that Harry's magic is "mechanical as opposed to occultic." Struggling with good and evil forces, Harry and his friends do not "make contact with a supernatural world."

   Like the majority of people, I believe the Potter books are written in broad-stroke farce/fun. They won't turn children into the devil's disciples but will go a long way toward turning them into rabid readers. If we wrote textbooks like this, students would be volunteering for homework.

Furthermore, if we were to ban "witch" books, the first to go would be, sadly, the Christian allegory The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. (As a former resident of Massachusetts for 50 years and in the spirit of full disclosure I must concede a bias—we gave up searching for witches in Massachusetts 250 years ago and still ended up with a crime rate considerably lower than those states where they continue to chase them daily.)

It's only a short hop from thinking Harry Potter is doing the devil's work to thinking that Harry's poor dead parents were really Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Too crazy a leap? Within a day of the mass killings at Virginia Tech, one of the most popular radio talk show hosts in America (Michael Savage) was suggesting the 23-year-old Korean shooter had been brainwashed in Korea (prior to coming to the U.S. as an 8-year-old) and turned into an Al Qaeda operative ("Talk Radio Tries for Humor and Political Advantage," by Jacques Steinberg, The New York Times, April 20, 2007, p. A17). There are no limits to the strange lands paranoia can take the human species, especially if they've watched "The Manchurian Candidate" one time too many.

• Censor subject index    • NEXT— The Vatican on Harry Potter

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