You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.
Another school year has begun and we’re in for a fresh round of book challenges and bannings. This essay provides an excellent overview of educational censorship, and discusses the idea of providing parental advisory ratings for books on school reading lists and library shelves. Here’s another essay on the topic of ratings.
In reviewing news of book challenges and bans, I read article after article about parents and watchdog groups showing up at school board meetings to demand the removal of books containing “violence,” “adult language,” “inappropriate material,” “anti-capitalist themes,” “anti-Christian values,” or just plain “darkness.” These sound like categories from a TV parental advisory screen, don’t they?
Change “the following program” to “this book” and you could stick this label on the cover of half the young adult and mainstream literary novels … even some nonfiction textbooks … commonly assigned in middle and high school classrooms.
I’m afraid this is exactly what a growing number of parents and conservative watchdog groups want: simple, easy-to-understand rating placards for every book in every school, even books in the children’s section of public libraries and bookstores.
Parents want book ratings for what they believe to be good reasons. Religious and conservative watchdog groups want them for a more sinister reason: to facilitate wholesale banning.
A few parents and watchdog groups, the conscientious ones, actually read the books they target. When they show up at school board meetings, they’re prepared to cite specific passages from the books they want to ban. Granted, most of those who complain merely read out-of-context excerpts handed them by someone else, and haven’t read the books in question, but somewhere along the line someone has.
What would happen if books had parental advisory ratings? Parents, school administrators, and bluenoses in general wouldn’t bother to read them. They’d go with ratings alone, and the number of challenges and bannings would balloon. In no time at all, it would be nearly impossible to find a book with an AC (adult content) rating on a school reading list or library shelf. No understanding-the-book-in-context required. No reading required. No thinking required. AC=burn the witch!
Who would review books and come up with parental advisory ratings? Would it be committees of teachers, authors, and literary critics? Are you kidding? It would be the very religious and conservative watchdog groups who want to control what your children read. A book might get a “Graphic Language” rating for a single “damn.” One mention of masturbation would doom a book, never mind a sympathetic homosexual character. History texts not promoting American exceptionalism would be branded unbalanced. And who would know what the books really contain?
I try not to overreact to school book bannings. Young folks find out about great books by word of mouth, and if they hear of a book they want to read they will read it, whether it’s banned at their school or not. What will be missing is classroom discussion guided by teachers who know the material, because teachers won’t be allowed to assign or discuss anything not on their school’s approved reading list.
Parental advisory ratings for books? I can’t think of a more destructive exercise in “dumbing down.”
Students and community members are protesting conservative attempts to sugar-coat American history textbooks in Jefferson County, Colorado. And talk about sugar-coating: one school board member wants students to be taught that America voluntarily ended slavery. The College Board opposes the teaching of false history, but the protests have so far been to no avail: the Jefferson County school board plans to go ahead with the proposed history curriculum review.
“’Hello, there, little one,’ the man greeted amicably. ‘I am the Reverend Albus Dumbledore, and this is my wife, Minerva. Welcome to Hogwarts School of Prayer and Miracles!’” It’s probably a joke, but maybe not: Grace Ann, concerned mother, is writing a fundamentalist Christian version of Harry Potter, with Barack Obama replacing Voldemort. The first link, and this one, contain screamingly funny excerpts. Please, please, be for real, Grace Ann!
A Drake University student newspaper has been pulled from circulation, but it’s not the usual story of top-down campus censorship. University students protested a front-page ad for a local pregnancy crisis center by confiscating copies of the paper and destroying them. The pregnancy crisis center in question is not a medical facility: its purpose is to prevent women from obtaining abortions. The university, and the newspaper’s student staff, calls the protest an act of vandalism and vows to continue running ads for the bogus pregnancy crisis center.
A school district in a Dallas, Texas suburb suspended seven books after parental complaints. Students in one high school class were midway through reading Garth Stein’s novel The Art of Racing in the Rain when school officials took their copies away. Parents, in challenging the seven books, objected to sex scenes, references to homosexuality, a description of a girl’s abduction, and a passage that criticized capitalism. After a backlash from alumni and other parents, six of the seven books were reinstated, but The Art of Racing in the Rain remains on the banned list. The incident prompted a New Yorker contributor to write one of the better short essays I’ve read, What Kind of Town Bans Books?
In Rochester, Minnesota, a parent complained about Louise Erdritch’s novel The Painted Drum, which had been assigned to English students at a local high school. The complaint centered on sexual content the parent judged unsuitable for 10th graders. In a bit of good news, a review committee read the book and elected to keep it on the reading list.
Another good essay: Chocolate Wars, Mr. Pucker, and Being a Banned Books Test Subject. Since the subject of this essay is Robert Cormier’s novel The Chocolate War, here’s a link to my review, which includes commentary on why it continues to be a target of book banners.
YGBSM. John Green’s mega-hit YA novel The Fault in Our Stars has been banned from Riverside, California middle schools. A single parent, apparently, complained about profanity and references to sex. John Green’s reaction is blockquote-worthy:
I guess I am both happy and sad.
I am happy because apparently young people in Riverside, California will never witness or experience mortality since they won’t be reading my book, which is great for them.
But I am also sad because I was really hoping I would be able to introduce the idea that human beings die to the children of Riverside, California and thereby crush their dreams of immortality.
The graphic novel Persepolis once again came under attack, this time at a high school in Chatham, Illinois, after a single parent demanded it be removed from a 12th grade English class reading list. The school’s first reaction was to take copies from students who were reading it as an assignment, but the school board overruled administrators and Persepolis was reinstated.
Distantly related to graphic novels, cartoons continue to enrage fanatical Muslim fundamentalists mild-mannered midwestern college lecturers: Michigan Lecturer Alerts Campus Police to Drawing of Beheading, Claims He’s ‘Against Censorship, But…’
Keep on keepin’ on, librarians, our real civil libertarians!
And now, for something completely different …
Click to read the full story
But first, another visit to the dermatologist: seven new freeze blisters on my face plus a bloody spot below my eye where he cut out a divot to send for a biopsy. It’ll likely turn out to be a basal cell skin cancer and have to be cut out. More stitches, another scar. This will be number six. So far they’ve all been on my face or scalp, never anywhere else on my body, and we always check. So there’s that.
My father had several skin cancers removed during his life, and now my younger sisters are beginning to experience the same thing. Donna, like us, is fair-skinned, and she just got a call from her dermatologist: a sample they cut off the tip of her nose last week turned out to be skin cancer and she has to go in to have it cut out. Her dermatologist is sending her to a plastic surgeon, though, so she probably won’t be showing a scar. Meanwhile, I’m walking around looking like some seatbelt scofflaw who’s been through the windshield once or twice.
All this panic over Ebola. I hope my previous post didn’t sound panicky; I wasn’t so much concerned about the disease as with the human propensity to ignore or actively sabotage preventive procedures meant to keep such diseases out of the USA. Or maybe there weren’t any preventive procedures. It’s beginning to look that way, isn’t it?
Anyway, have we forgotten about AIDS? For the first few decades, AIDS had a 100% mortality rate. Compared to that, Ebola is weak tea. And how about TB? The only cure for TB, back in my mother’s day, was to go to a sanitorium and hope you got better. And contagious? I’m 67 years old and they still test me for TB every year just because my mother had it when I was four years old. There are lots of things more panic-worthy than Ebola.
Nevertheless, there’s a racist ooga-booga element to the Ebola scare, and I don’t expect the panic to die down anytime soon.
On to happier things: suddenly it’s nice outside and we can open the windows and turn off the air conditioner. Last night I actually had to close the sliding glass doors in our bedroom and living room because the air coming in was too cold. Luxury!
And here is possibly the happiest thing of all: doggie drive-thru!
Click on the images to see ‘em full sized on Flickr. And don’t say that didn’t cheer you up!
Monday Bag o’ Fried Chicken
Donna asked me to take charge of dinner tonight because she has embroidery orders to finish and pack for mailing. I don’t feel like cooking, so I rode down to Safeway and bought fried chicken, mashed potatoes & gravy, and spinach. I got enough for two dinners in case I have to “cook” again this week.
I’m making myself sound like someone who dreads having to make dinner, and that’s not true at all. I have a cooking blog, and when I’m inspired I do very well in the kitchen or on the grill. I just don’t feel like cooking today.
Speaking of embroidery, I made over Donna’s Embroidery Dreams website using a WordPress blog format. It’s now much nicer than it was before, and I added a gallery of photos as well.
It occurred to me this morning that bombing Syria may be as much about poking Putin in the eye as it is about going after Islamic State. I don’t hear much about it in the news these days, but remember when Putin vetoed our attempts to get the UN to censure Assad? Surely it rankles Obama to be helpless in the face of Putin’s adventurism in Crimea and Ukraine. Perhaps the calculation is that Putin will be similarly helpless in the face of our actions in Syria. Oh, yeah, Islamic State is evil and all … but when it comes to great affairs of state, never rule out simple spite.
As for renewed war in the Middle East, ain’t nothing to be done about it. We thirst for war. By “we” I mean mankind, not just the USA. But just speaking of the USA, we’ve been at war with one nation or another, in one region or another, against one terrorist group or another, almost the entirety of my life, and I’ve been around since 1946. Of course I’m counting the Cold War, which was real as hell for those of us who fought it, and if in fact hitting back at Putin is one of our reasons for bombing Syria, a war that isn’t over after all.
I haven’t done much exercising over the last three weeks, so it felt great to get out on my bicycle Sunday morning and scout trail for two upcoming hashes. One trail will be for hashers on foot and the other will be for hashers on bicycles, but I scouted both on two wheels in order to finish my explorations in one morning. Tomorrow morning I’ll get back in the swing with Anytime Fitness, which I like to hit on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s cool enough in the evenings now to start doing our Monday walks in downtown Tucson again, but so far the rest of my walking group doesn’t seem interested. Nor do they seem interested in resuming our Saturday morning bicycle rides. I think it has fallen to me to motivate them. I know, everyone is busy, but we need to carve out time for exercise.
Fried chicken. I’ve got dibs on the breast and both wings!
Wednesday to Wednesday, September 17 to 24, 2014. Here’s the itinerary:
- Day 1: Tucson AZ to Las Vegas NV
- Day 2: Chillin’ in Vegas
- Day 3: Las Vegas NV to Moab UT
- Day 4: Moab UT to Ouray CO
- Day 5: SW CO (Ouray/Silverton/Durango)
- Day 6: Ouray CO to Cedar City UT
- Day 7: Cedar City UT to Las Vegas NV
- Day 8: Las Vegas NV to Tucson AZ
I had three objectives for this mini-Gypsy tour: to explore the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, to visit my friends Bruce & Tamara in Ouray, to spend a few days on the road with my son Gregory. Objectives achieved and then some, especially the third, the time I got to spend with Greg, a great riding companion.
As you can see from a previous entry, the weather forecasters feared Hurricane Odile would be a repeat of Hurricane Norbert and warned of huge and potentially road-closing rains on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. Based on that forecast I decided to trailer my motorcycle to Las Vegas and start the riding portion of the trip from there. The first and last days of the trip, then, were on four wheels (six if you count the trailer).
Leaving Tucson on a rainy Wednesday morning
I didn’t really need to leave Tucson until Thursday. Greg and I weren’t scheduled to ride out of Las Vegas until Friday, but since Donna was taking off on a separate trip Wednesday, I figured we might as well both clear out and leave the house to Polly, who came over from Ajo to house-sit. Because I left a day early, I had Thursday free in Las Vegas and was able to help Greg pick up his rental BMW and set it up for the trip.
When I left Tucson Wednesday morning, it was overcast and beginning to rain. The rain was steady as I drove west across town and then north toward Phoenix, but hardly the torrent I’d been warned to expect. Halfway to Phoenix the skies cleared. Hurricane Odile was real enough (just ask the folks in Cabo San Lucas), but it fizzled out by the time it got to southern Arizona.
Still, I’m glad the weather folks over-anticipated the threat and scared me into taking the trailer. Greg needed a jacket, cold weather and rain gear, and a good helmet, all of which I had but wouldn’t have been able to stow on the Goldwing. With the car, I had all the room in the world. The downside was a last-minute wiring repair job to the trailer, plus some wholly unexpected repairs before beginning the homebound trip a week later (which I’ll get to presently).
As I mentioned, Greg’s a fine riding companion. He was happy to take the lead leaving and re-entering the freeway chaos of Las Vegas, and was a good wingman the rest of the way, following me through rain and clouds, right there behind me on wet and gravely roads. I hope he waits until my grandson is a little older, but some day he needs another motorcycle of his own.
Okay, enough babbling. Here are some photos. The rest are in a Flickr album and you can click here to see the lot.
Outward bound from Las Vegas
Greg in Cedar City, Utah
Back road from Utah to Colorado
With our host Bruce in Ouray
Million Dollar Hwy, Red Mtn in background
Our Million Dollar Hwy guide, John
Molas Pass between Silverton & Durango
At Bruce & Tamara’s in Ouray
Lunch at Handlebars, Silverton
Happy dogs in Silverton
Greg, Tamara, Bruce, me
Homeward bound, Nothing AZ
Overall, Greg and I were incredibly lucky. We rode through some rain in Utah and had to negotiate some tight hairpin turns on a freshly-graveled mountain pass between Utah and Colorado, but otherwise? Things couldn’t have been better. We had the roads to ourselves and riding conditions were ideal. Our hosts in Ouray were fabulously accommodating, our hotels in Moab and Cedar City were first-rate, gas stations magically appeared when our gauges hit empty, truckus no kill us, coppus no catch us, amen.
Oh, that other trailer trouble … when I went to put the motorcycle back on the trailer for the return drive to Tucson, this is what I found. If you don’t immediately see it, look at the three o’clock position on the tire.
Trailer tire trouble!
That was a heart-stopper. Both trailer tires looked good before I left, but they obviously were not. The bubble probably started during my drive from Tucson to Las Vegas the week before. A trailer tire blowout with an 800+ pound motorcycle strapped on top would have been ugly indeed, and I don’t want to know how close I came to disaster!
Okay, one more. This is the season the aspens begin to turn color in the mountains, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t share a bit of that with you. Eat your hearts out, non-motorcyclists!
You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.
This post will go out on the first day of Banned Books Week, September 21-27, in honor of those who fight to protect our right to read and write.
YCRT! Banned Books Week Editorial
Every year conservative pundits line up to tell us Banned Books Week is a hoax, claiming books aren’t banned in the USA. In the years I’ve been writing these YCRT! posts, more than one reader has called me a liar for saying books are banned. Here’s my response:
I find I have to explain my use of the word “banned” every now and again. My position is this: any time people try to keep other people from reading a book, they’re trying to ban it.
Not a week goes by in this country without parents in one state or another showing up at school board meetings to demand certain books be removed from reading lists and libraries. Not a week goes by without some school board caving to parental pressure and pulling controversial books from the shelves.
Whether or not the same books are available on-line or in local bookstores, the intent of parents and school administrators who take these actions is to keep others from reading the books in question. That is the very definition of banning.
We no longer ban books at the national level, but we used to. Henry Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer, for example, was banned in the USA from its publication in 1934 until the Supreme Court overruled the ban in 1964. Even during the days when books were literally banned in the USA, though, conservatives advanced the argument that such books weren’t really banned, because you could always hop on an ocean liner, go to Paris, and buy copies there. Conservatives today are merely recycling the same argument: you can still buy Captain Underpants and Heather Has Two Mommies at Barnes & Noble, so what’s the problem?
The problem is people who disapprove of books trying to keep other people from reading them. They may no longer be able to ban books nationwide, but they’ll do whatever they can to get the books they hate removed from local school libraries and reading lists. Sometimes they’ll even try to prevent fellow adults from reading books they disapprove of, targeting public libraries and commercial book stores.
There’s only one verb for that. That verb is ban. There’s only one adjective for books that have been removed from school libraries and reading lists. That adjective is banned.
But fine, if you don’t value my opinion, here’s what Merriam-Webster says about the word “ban”:
… to prohibit especially by legal means (ban discrimination); also: to prohibit the use, performance, or distribution of (ban a book) (ban a pesticide)
And under examples, they include this:
The school banned that book for many years.
Yes, Virginia, books are banned in the USA, and they’re banned all the time. When people quit trying to prevent me or my children from reading books they don’t like, I’ll quit using the word, but not until then.
This is horrific: a Maryland middle school teacher was given an involuntary “emergency medical evaluation,” suspended, then barred from setting foot in any other public school. What did he do? He wrote a science fiction novel. Under a pen name. Set 900 years in the future. Containing a school shooting scene. A word from another science fiction novel springs to mind: thoughtcrime.
As reported in a previous YCRT! post, pastors in Austin, Texas are trying to ban 75 books from public libraries, saying the books in question have occult or demonic themes and will corrupt young readers. Local citizens are fighting back, along with First Amendment supporters around the country, and Austin’s head librarian is standing firm: the books remain. In a baffling compromise, however, Austin libraries will not observe Banned Books Week this year. Sure, that’ll get the pastors off your back!
In another YCRT! post, I asked this question:
What if book banners, after challenging books on school and public library shelves and being defeated, start demanding balance as compensation? One Chick tract for every YA novel, one copy of The Turner Diaries for every copy of To Kill a Mockingbird? Hey, you read it here first!
Just such a demand is being made by the Illinois Family Institute, which previously tried, and failed, to have books taking a neutral view on the nature and morality of homosexuality removed from public libraries. Now they propose adding explicitly anti-homosexual-themed books, some little more than religious tracts, to library shelves to provide “balance.”
Qualified good news: Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, banned last year by the West Ada School District in Idaho, has been reinstated, albeit with restrictions more appropriate to the handling of AIDS-infected biological waste: if it is assigned alternate choices must be offered, students must have signed parental permission to read it, and teachers are not allowed to read from it out loud in class.
YCRT! Arizona Update
In Arizona, the two leading elected officials behind Tucson Unified School District’s notorious 2012 book banning and sudden cancellation of Mexican-American studies classes, Attorney General Tom Horne and Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, have been ousted in primary elections (though both are still serving until the end of their respective terms in office).
Horne had been Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction before being elected attorney general. When he held his previous office he came out against Mexican-American studies and related textbooks, calling such teaching civilizational war. He went on to characterize Mexican-American and Native American history as being something other than “Greco-Roman” and thus not part of Western civilization. At one time he announced his intention to fire public school teachers with Mexican accents.
Huppenthal implemented his predecessor’s policies, forcing Tucson schools to cancel its Mexican-American studies program and impound all related textbooks and study materials. At his direction, in January 2012, TUSD officials walked into MAS classes in mid-session, confiscated books (literally crating them in cardboard boxes marked “banned books”), and sent bewildered students to study hall to kill time until TUSD could figure out what to replace the MAS classes with.
Apart from that, Huppenthal apparently spent his time in office shilling for private charter schools, editing his Wikipedia entry, and posting what he thought were anonymous sock-puppet comments to political blogs, including these gems:
“The Mexican American Studies classes use the exact same technique that Hitler used in his rise to power. Take an historical example of injustice, cast it in racial terms and fan the flames of resentment. This technique is the exact technique of Mexican American studies. Complete with fueling resentment of stolen land. In Hitler’s case it was the Sudetanland. In the Mexican American studies case, it is Aztlan.”
“We all need to stomp out balkanization. No spanish radio stations, no spanish billboards, no spanish tv stations, no spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English.”
“I don’t mind them selling Mexican food as long as the menus are mostly in English. And, I’m not being humorous or racist. A lot is at stake here.”
Charming, no? Good riddance to them both.
Update (9/25/14): Reference the story about the Maryland teacher who was suspended after writing a science fiction story under a pen name, see the comment below for additional information that throws an entirely different light on the story.