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.
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.
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.)
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.
Do banned books
really contribute to
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,
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.
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.
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 unum One 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
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.
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.
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
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
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
one time too many.
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