Book banning efforts bring on title fights

by Stevenson Swanson

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

3 October 2007

Haki R. Madhubuti, founder of the Third World Press, reads parts from Richard Wright's "Native Son" at the 26th annual celebration of Banned Books Week in Chicago, Illinois, September 29, 2007. (Milbert O. Brown/Chicago Tribune/MCT) 

NEW YORK—The story seemed like a surefire hit for children. A pair of penguins take care of an egg that isn’t theirs and then raise the baby penguin, after it hatches, as their own.

How heartwarming. And who doesn’t love penguins?

Plenty of parents, it turns out, when both penguin parents are male.

That plot twist earned “And Tango Makes Three” the distinction of being the most-challenged book of 2006, according to the Chicago-based American Library Association, which compiles an annual list of titles that have been the subject of efforts to have them removed from public and school libraries.

“Tango,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, and other controversial titles from the 2006 list, such as two by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Cecily von Ziegesar’s popular “Gossip Girl” series, will be the center of attention in the coming week at readings and other literary events nationwide as part of Banned Books Week, organized by the library association and other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union.

Last year, the number of challenges—ranging from written complaints to full-blown hearings—jumped to 546, more than 30 percent higher than in 2005. Such annual fluctuations are not unusual, according to Judith Krug, head of the library association’s office for intellectual freedom.

And, despite the higher number of challenges, the vast majority of efforts to ban specific books came up short: only 29 titles were removed from library shelves last year. Among the titles that disappeared from some libraries were “Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse, Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and “Forever” by Judy Blume.

But even one removal is one too many for Krug.

“You’re taking choice away,” she said. “If it’s removed, no one in that library or school has the opportunity to read that book.”

Organizers of efforts to have books removed from public libraries or reading lists in schools say that their efforts are aimed at keeping graphic material, such as obscene language or sex scenes, out of the hands of young children.

The library association has been “very successful in spreading their message that anything goes,” said Dan Kleinman, who runs the Web site SafeLibraries.org, which calls for greater parental say in the books used in schools and available to children at libraries. Banned Books Week is “propaganda to convince parents to allow school boards and libraries to continue making inappropriate material available,” he said.

Kleinman cited the decision by the school board in the southwest Chicago suburb of Oak Lawn to keep a book on a summer reading list for eighth-graders despite its use of profanity and description of adolescent sexual desires. The board issued an apology for not notifying parents of the contents of the novel, “Fat Kid Rules the World.”

Challenges involving books aimed at children or young adults make up “at least 75” of every 100 efforts to have a title removed, Krug said.

“Absolutely, parents should have the right to decide whether their children should have access to a book, but that right ends where my nose begins,” said Krug, meaning that other parents might think that same book was appropriate for their children.

Objections to books come from all points on the political spectrum, she said. If the issue is homosexuality, the challenge is likely to come from religious conservatives, but if the issue is racism, the complaint is more likely to come from the left, “because they’re concerned about eliminating `isms,’” Krug said.

In past years, Mark Twain’s use of an offensive term for blacks landed “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” on the most-challenged list. Twain is missing from the newest list.

So is Harry Potter. The Potter series, which concluded this year with the seventh book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” tops the list of most-challenged titles from 2000 to 2006, but no new Potter book was published in 2006. Objections have been raised to various titles in the series because of their frequent violence and because some opponents maintain that author J.K. Rowling’s stories about her young wizard hero promote Satanism.

One of the most common themes running through the titles of this year’s top 10 challenged books is homosexuality, cited as grounds for objection in four books, starting with “And Tango Makes Three.”

Simon and Schuster, the book’s publisher, described “Tango” as intended for 4- to 8-year-olds, but parents in many communities, included Shiloh in Downstate Illinois, have complained that that is too young for a story about a same-sex couple, whether two-legged or two-winged.

“The huge majority of parents would avoid this book if they knew it was brainwashing their children to support and experiment with homosexual behavior,” said Randy Thomasson, president of the California-based Campaign for Children and Families.

The library association refused to disclose how many challenges have been mounted against “Tango,” citing the association’s confidentiality policy. But despite the challenges, the book was not removed from any library last year.

Parnell, a playwright and TV writer, and Richardson, a psychiatrist, got the idea for their book after reading a newspaper story about the Central Park Zoo penguins.

“We felt that there was an opportunity in this story to talk about different kinds of families,” said Parnell, noting that the book recently won an award voted on by fifth-graders at three Manhattan schools. “I don’t think any child at that age is thinking about it in terms of the practice of sex as much as about love and trying to be a family.”

To Thomasson, the inclusion of “Tango” in public library collections is further proof that libraries are “very different from 30 years ago.”

“Parents can no longer trust libraries to protect their children’s innocence or uphold appropriate standards,” he said. “Voters should demand that books with harmful content be removed from school and city libraries.”

To Krug, the way to avoid conflicts is for a library’s governing board to set clear standards for what it will acquire, but including books that deal with all manner of subjects is one of the most important functions of a library.

“Libraries are one place in the community where everyone is represented on the shelves,” she said. “That’s one of our roles.”



A look at some of the books that the American Library Association says faced the most challenges in 2006:

“And Tango Makes Three,” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson. A Central Park Zoo zookeeper watches as two male penguins care for a rock as if it were an egg. He gives them a fertilized penguin egg, and the chick that hatches is named Tango. Opponents say the story promotes homosexuality and is inappropriate for 4- to 8-year-olds, the book’s intended audience.

“Beloved,” by Toni Morrison. This 1987 novel won the Pulitzer Prize. But it has been frequently challenged on the grounds that its story of a Civil War-era slave contains too much profanity, graphic sexual references and violence to be suitable even for high school students.

“The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier. This story of a boy’s refusal to sell chocolate bars for a school fundraiser has appeared frequently on the most-challenged list since it was published in 1974 because it includes obscenity, violence and strong sexual content. Two weeks ago, parents of students at a school on Chicago’s Southwest Side protested its inclusion on required reading lists for seventh graders, but the principal refused to remove it.

The “Gossip Girl” series by Cecily von Ziegesar. Described as “Sex and the City” for teenage girls, these racy novels depict rich New York City girls who engage in casual sex, take drugs and get drunk. A 12th Gossip Girl book is due out in October.

The “Scary Stories” series by Alvin Schwartz. These books were challenged for being unsuitable for the target 9-and-older age group because of references to the occult and Satanism and for violent and insensitive content. The 25-year-old series, a regular on the challenged list, includes a story about a butcher who kills his wife, grinds her up and sells her as “special sausage.”

For more information about books challenged in 2006, go to the American Library Association Web site.

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