Jezebel.com has a post up today about a mother’s failed attempt at book banning in her child’s school library at Thiesen Middle School in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. She attempted to have the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series removed, as well as Get Well Soon by Julie Halpern, What My Mother Doesn’t Know and One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies, both by Sonya Sones.
I found it to be particularly interesting because I’m currently in an honors course on banned books. Just last week, we began discussion on Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Our preliminary discussion of the book included reference to its role in the Supreme Court case, Island Trees School District v. Pico. A teacher in the school district decided to teach Slaughterhouse-Five. One of the girls in his class told her mother that the book had some objectionable content, one thing led to another, and soon a janitor was made to burn copies of the book in the school furnace. The decision was challenged by many of the students, and a few of them (including Pico) took the school district to court. Ultimately, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'”
Now, I’m no lawyer, but it seems like what this mother was doing was in direct violation of that ruling. What makes the whole thing even more confusing is that this parent decided that she should dictate what every one of her child’s classmates could check out from their school library despite the fact that the school has this helpful little system in place:
“The Fond du Lac School District offers a book screening process available through Alexandria library software. The feature allows parents/guardians to place restrictions on materials that their child can check out from school libraries. To utilize the feature, parents need to contact the library media specialist at their child’s school.
When a student checks out a book, library automation system alerts the media specialist or secretary if a parent/guardian has requested a restriction of materials.”
This just takes an element of book banning that I’ve always found to be baffling to the extreme. Why should one parent, or even a handful of parents, have the right to decide what every student in a single classroom or school, or even every person who walks into the public library, can read? Do they not trust their own children enough that they could simply say, “I know that you could check that book out from the library, but I’d rather you didn’t. You see, it has these things in it that I think are just a bit too mature for you,” and hope that the kid would comply? Do they not spend enough time with their kids or know them well enough that they’re aware of what they read? My mom always was. While her insistence on insuring that I wasn’t reading anything she thought inappropriate was a bit tiresome to me, I’m glad that she cared enough to develop a rapport about what I was reading. For the most part, she trusted me enough to make my own decisions in the end (though she did initially bar me from reading Harry Potter, which was unbearable), and I don’t think I ever read anything that had a lasting negative impact on me.
Which leads me to what I found most interesting about the Jezebel article. The author presented an aspect of book banning that I hadn’t fully considered before:
“If parents insist on thoroughly sanitizing the books their kids have access to, kids will probably respond by reading less, and by turning to media over which their parents have less control. And really, efforts to ban books from school libraries have come to seem almost depressingly quaint. I wish kids were sneaking into the library, of all places, to get their hands on edgy s**t that would freak their parents out. The reality is that kids can get shocking material much more easily on the Internet, and books are so uncool in comparison (with, I suppose, a few vampiric exceptions) that parents who think the printed word will destroy their children’s innocence are looking in the wrong place.”
Back in my pre-teen and teenage years (oh so long ago, you know), I wouldn’t say that I was really getting my hands on any “shocking material” on the Internet, and it was more difficult for me to be allowed to see a PG-13 film than it was for me to find a book that perhaps approached PG-13 territory. My response to the sanitization of all the other media that I took in was to turn to books, where I could perhaps get slightly edgier fare (by my standards and experience back then, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series was the edgiest thing I’d ever read). But I can see where kids today might have the opposite reaction. Their parents see a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and something clicks in their brain and they remember all the cursing in it, so they throw a fit. The kid responds by shelving the book and going to his bedroom, getting online and watching old episodes of South Park, while his parents are none the wiser. If he can get that stuff on the Internet – stuff that makes Holden Caulfield’s sailor’s mouth seem tame in comparison – then why would he even bother with books?
Parents need to respect the intelligence of their children. If they see that their kid is one of the special ones who has developed a love of reading, then they should ignite it, not put it out. Even if they feel the need to pluck certain books out of the innocent hands of their children (I’ll admit that a 12-year old probably doesn’t need to be reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, though I’d love to meet the 12-year old who tries), they should provide a suitable alternative. Those parents who go one step further and attempt to put out that fire in kids who are not their own are something I can’t comprehend. “Monsters” might be a good term. I was oddly touched by the plea one student at Thiesen Middle School gave to the school board in defense of One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. “It’s really what happens in school, making fun of and problems and issues. It’s really what happens in school, it’s life.” It’s so sincere, and this little 13-year old girl has clearly connected with this book on a personal level. That’s the gateway to being a life-long reader. Clearly this book provided her with some sort of mirror of her own school experience, and it seems like she needed it. Hopefully, if her impassioned (for a 13-year old) defense of the book is any indicator, this incident will only make this young lady feel an even deeper connection with literature.
Finally, it all makes me wonder how many of these parents actually read the books that they complain about. In the Island Trees School District case, one of the parents who had a hand in the book banning later read Slaughterhouse-Five and retracted their previous opinion on its supposed “objectionable content.” It seems that if more people did this before crying wolf, we’d probably have fewer and fewer cases of attempted book banning.