Excerpt from Places I Never Meant to Be: Page 4

Claudia Johnson, Florida State University professor and parent, also defended classic books by Aristophanes and Chaucer against a censor who condemned them for promoting “women’s lib and pornography.” She went on to fight other battles — in defense of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and a student performance of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

English teacher Cecilia Lacks was fired by a high school in St. Louis for permitting her creative writing students to express themselves in the language they heard and used outside of school everyday. In the court case that followed, many of her students testified on their teacher’s behalf. Though she won her case, the decision was eventually reversed and at this time Lacks is still without a job.

Colorado English teacher Alfred Wilder was fired for teaching a classic film about fascism, Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900.

And in Rib Lake, Wisconsin, guidance counselor Mike Dishnow was fired for writing critically of the Board of Education’s decision to ban my book Forever from the junior high school library. Ultimately he won a court settlement, but by then his life had been turned upside down.

And these are just a few examples.

This obsession with banning books continues as we approach the year 2000. Today it is not only Sex, Swear Words and Lack of Moral Tone — it is Evil, which, according to the censors, can be found lurking everywhere. Stories about Halloween, witches, and devils are all suspect for promoting Satanism. Romeo and Juliet is under fire for promoting suicide; Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, for promoting New Age-ism. If the censors had their way it would be good-bye to Shakespeare as well as science fiction. There’s not an ism you can think of that’s not bringing some book to the battlefield.

What I worry about most is the loss to young people. If no one speaks out for them, if they don’t speak out for themselves, all they’ll get for required reading will be the most bland books available. Instead of finding the information they need at the library, instead of finding novels that illuminate life, they will find only those materials to which nobody could possibly object.

Some people would like to rate books in schools and libraries the way they rate movies: G, PG, R, X, or even more explicitly. But according to whose standards would the books be rated? I don’t know about you but I don’t want anyone rating my books or the books my children or grandchildren choose to read. We can make our own decisions, thank you. Be wary of the censors’ code words — family friendly; family values; excellence in education. As if the rest of us don’t want excellence in education, as if we don’t have our own family values, as if libraries haven’t always been family- friendly places!

And the demands are not all coming from the religious right. No…the urge to decide not only what’s right for their kids but for all kids has caught on with others across the political spectrum. Each year Huckleberry Finn is challenged and sometimes removed from the classroom because, to some, its language, which includes racial epithets, is offensive. Better to acknowledge the language, bring it out in the open, and discuss why the book remains important than to ban it. Teachers and parents can talk with their students and children about any book considered controversial.

I gave a friend’s child one of my favorite picture books, James Marshall’s The Stupids Step Out, and was amazed when she said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t accept that book. My children are not permitted to use that word. Ever. It should be changed to ‘The Sillies Step Out.’” I may not agree, but I have to respect this woman’s right to keep that book from her child as long as she isn’t trying to keep it from other people’s children. Still, I can’t help lamenting the lack of humor in her decision. The Stupids Step Out is a very funny book. Instead of banning it from her home, I wish she could have used it as an opportunity to talk with her child about why she felt the way she did, about why she never wanted to hear her child call anyone stupid. Even very young children can understand. So many adults are exhausting themselves worrying about other people corrupting their children with books, they’re turning kids off to reading instead of turning them on.

In this age of censorship I mourn the loss of books that will never be written, I mourn the voices that will be silenced — writers’ voices, teachers’ voices, students’ voices — and all because of fear. How many have resorted to self-censorship? How many are saying to themselves, “Nope…can’t write about that. Can’t teach that book. Can’t have that book in our collection. Can’t let my student write that editorial in the school paper.”

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