tagReviews & EssaysCelebrate Freedom!

Celebrate Freedom!

bysophia jane©

Thanks to Softouch911, again, for being a fantastic editor and friend!


My grandmother had a bookmark when I was growing up that said: "Celebrate freedom. Read a banned book." The irony never escaped me; while we have free press, we also have people who exercise their freedoms by protesting, and banning, the words of others.

My grandmother celebrated her freedom by reading whatever she chose, whether it was banned or not. In turn, I have done the same, often seeking out the works that have been banned just to see what the fuss is about. My son, unknowingly, follows in my footsteps. He reads what interests him, having never been taught that some books are "banned" from him.

I was blessed to be part of a family of readers. My grandmother often said that books were her companions, that the library saved her from her abusive family. No matter how terrible her home life, she could escape into the world of books. As a child, I was the same way, often reading at least one book a day. In fact, my parents once grounded me from my books as punishment; lucky for me, they left a loophole and allowed me to read theirs. Stephen King and John Saul were my best friends that summer. It's no surprise that my own home is full of books, that my seven year old has read all about Harry Potter, that there are often books lying around for my one year old to "read." And it's also no surprise that I've finally decided what to do with my life, once my kids are in school: I'm going to be a librarian.

But what of those banned books? It's easy to ignore the idea that it happens; it's easy to think that we're free to run to Barnes and Noble to find whatever book we're looking for. Sure it's hard to find porn in stores, but most of us Literotica readers just accept that without much protest. We know pornography is controversial and often hidden in back rooms or, for some of us, only available on the internet.

If you look at a list of "banned" or "challenged" books, though, you won't find pornography. What you'll find is a long and varied list inspired by ignorance. Most of these books have been banned, challenged or censored because they challenge society's norms. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is one of the more prominent cases of this kind of banning. Herbert Foerstel in his book Banned in the USA, explains the appeal of the book:

Huck was happy to live as a pariah, rejecting what he considered unjust and immoral laws. Even today, Huck and Jim are an affront to polite society. In Born to Trouble, Justin Kaplan wrote, "They [Huck and Jim] are simply too good for us, too truthful, too loyal, too passionate and, in a profounder sense than the one we feel easy with, too moral" (190).

In its early years, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned because of its portrayal of an interracial friendship. More recently The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been protested for racist language, specifically the use of the word "nigger". In 1998 the Pennsylvania NAACP petitioned that the book be removed from required reading lists in the schools, though they didn't ban the books from the libraries.

Celebrated poets are challenged, too. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been targeted because "the censors have complained of sexually explicit scenes, foul language and irreverent religious descriptions" (Foerstel 194). Yet writer Opal Moore says, "It is an affirmation; it promises that life, if we have the courage to live it, will be worth the struggle" (Foerstel 194). Evidently this is not a lesson that our book-banning friends want us to learn!

If you think that these books are only banned or challenged in other places, far away from your reality, you're wrong. I'll point you toward one of my favorite banning incidents (favorite in its irony): the removal of The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma in 1997, where yours truly graduated from high school three years earlier. In case you haven't read The Chocolate War, a quick summary from Foerstel in Banned in the USA:
Like so many of the heroes of banned young adult novels, [main character] Jerry Renault bucks the system, making decisions for himself in an attempt to gain control over his life. Jerry did not set out to be rebellious, but the repressive control of the school over the students' lives causes him to refuse to participate in the annual chocolate sale. For this act of rebellion, he receives personal punishment on the football field, telephone threats, the silent treatment from the student body, and a final brutal beating on stage before the entire school. This assault by the Vigils is perpetrated with the encouragement of the assistant headmaster who supports 'school spirit' over individuality (201).

The reason Broken Arrow removed The Chocolate War from its middle school media centers was that the book was said to be "the antithesis of the district's character development curriculum" (Foerstel 201). I have to wonder how standing up against total conformity and brutality is against character development. Perhaps the Broken Arrow schools, like Cormier's headmaster, have no regard for the individual?

Children's books aren't safe either; in fact it seems that kids' books are quite offensive to our censoring friends. In Naugatuck, CT the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey created a controversy. A Connecticut Post article quotes Alice Carolan, the Naugatuck Superintendent of schools, as saying, "These Captain Underpants books are clearly inappropriate for an elementary school library. All of their humor comes from the bathroom and bodily functions. There's a fine line between censorship and selection. It comes down to what you think. I call this selection, you might consider it censorship." Am I the only one who thinks that there are worse things to worry about than bathroom humor? Am I the only one who sees actively removing books from the library and making public statements against the books as a bit more than book selection?

Then there are the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine which are being banned and challenged for being too scary. Lisa Clinton, a Florida mom who tried to get the books removed from her child's school said in a Shawnee News Star article in 1997, "The Goosebumps series goes beyond being scary -- it is filled with violence, fear, cruelty, revenge and murder." I wonder if she actually read any of the books. They're more silly than scary, at least in my opinion.

Of course, the most famous of the banned kids' books is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. They've been protested because, among other things, they "have a serious tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil. They're trying to disguise things as fun and easy that are really evil." according to a South Carolina protester, Elizabeth Mounce (Foerstel 183). If you know the books, you might agree that it sounds like the Dursleys were doing the protesting. A California mom said of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, "It was a horrible book. It talked about death and killing. It talks about drinking animal blood. That is witchcraft and as a religion it doesn't belong in school" (Foerstel 183). I am curious if this mom read any of the book or if she just randomly plucked passages out of it to support her opinion. I don't recall any of the Harry Potter books being "about" death and killing, nor about drinking animal blood. Unfortunately it is all too easy for the book banners to take small plot points out of context and make them into grand problems that will ruin the minds of children. Personally, I'm proud to say that my seven year old has read all of the Harry Potter books (as have I, twice), all of the Captain Underpants books, and about half of the Goosebumps books (he has more, but they bore him!) And despite the influence of these seemingly evil books, he is a great kid, behaves well, and is not out committing any horrible crimes against authority.

What about you? Have you celebrated your freedom to read what you please? Have you read a banned book? Have you checked your schools and local stores to make sure you still have the freedom to read? Have you looked around and made sure that free speech still exists in your community? Don't be fooled by the constitutional "guarantee." There are plenty who will protest books they fear; if we don't fight, they'll win, and the books that make us think and feel will all end up in a bonfire. As my grandmother did, as I do, as my son does: celebrate freedom. Read a banned book.


Works Cited:

Brown, Marcia Gail. "Captain Underpants Sirs Controversy in Naugatuck." Connecticut Post. 10 Feb. 2000. 16 May 2005. www.yourct.com/news/824.

Foerstel, Herbert N. Banned in the USA: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. Westport, CT. 2002.

"'Goosebumps' 'Huck Finn' on List of Banned Books." Shawnee News Star. 26 Feb 1997. 17 May 2005. http://www.news-star.com/stories/092697/lfe_bannedbooks.html

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