The first encounter I had with the censorship of books in school libraries came 25 years ago, when I was editor of the newspaper in Lamar, Missouri, population 4,000.
The book in question was one that has been at the top of banned book lists for the past half-century, The Catcher in the Rye.
The chronicle of Holden Caulfield’s coming of age was included in a list of books that Lamar High School students could read for their English classes. As is usually the case when the fires of censorship spread through a school or community, the controversy began with a parent seeing four-letter words in a book, and then not bothering to read the book to see the context because “I don’t read any book that has words like that in it and neither will my child.”
One particular board member, a professional in the community, led the opposition forces.
The high school library was packed with parents, most opposing Catcher in the Rye, but a hardy few supporting the book. After they had all been heard from, the board voted unanimously to remove the book from the reading list, but to allow the librarian to keep it behind the counter where those who wished to read it could check it out, as long as it was not being used for classroom purposes.
Who knows how many times that scenario plays out in communities across the nation? Sometimes it is language, sometimes it may be sex, or it may even be violence. But somehow there are always people (many of whom are watching far worse on network and cable television) who want to play morals chairman for the rest of the community. In most cases, the media never becomes aware of the situation.
And it is not just books like Catcher in the Rye. The lists of books that concerned parents want removed from school library bookshelves includes classics such as Huckleberry Finn, which has almost been totally sacrificed at the altar of political correctness and the Harry Potter books, which, of course, convince children that they can conduct spells and play games in mid-air.
I can’t say that it is an isolated incident, for most assuredly that would be incorrect, but another book-banning incident took place this last week in Stockton, Missouri, about 40 miles from Lamar.
This time the book in question is of a more recent vintage. The Stockton R-2 Board of Education voted unanimously to remove the 2007 winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, from the library entirely.
The saga began, as usual, with a parent complaint about the book, which contains some strong language and brief sexual content. According to the community newspaper, The Cedar County Republican, the school superintendent appointed a committee, which included the high school principal, English teachers, a board member, two parents, and a young adult, to study the book and make recommendations.
The panel recommended that the book be removed from the classroom reading list, but be kept in the library.
The board rejected that view. From the Cedar County Republican article:
The board was presented with this assessment by the committee during the meeting. After a pause, board member Rod Tucker spoke up against the book, “I brought my kids here to protect them as much as I could from city atmosphere,” he said. “I vote we remove the book from the school.” After a quick motion and second by Dean Pate, the banning of the book was unanimously passed.
“I thought the content was inappropriate,” school board member and committee member Shipley said. “I can only speak for myself, but I assume others on the board had heard enough about it from other people to want to pull it out of the school. I encourage people to read it and judge for themselves if they think it’s appropriate.”
The English teachers were upset that some of the board members cast their negative votes without ever bothering to read the book.
Veteran English teacher Kim Chism Jasper was one of those who was upset by the decision:
“This book is a National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature, and it is taught in many schools throughout the country, often at the ninth-grade level,” Jasper said. “It has been challenged in many places, but that is not unusual for books that promote discussion. In fact many books — including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Macbeth,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “Little House in the Big Woods” and the Bible — have been challenged. The book focuses on a 14-year-old who has hopes and dreams of leaving the poverty of his reservation and making something of his life. Education and reading open the door to those dreams. In light of that, denying access to reading material is ironic. I hope people in the community will read this book. And, of course, I hope people who believe in the students’ right to read will contact board members.”
Mrs. Jasper should not expect the board to change its decision. That rarely happens. In a day and age when we English teachers have a hard enough time getting students to read, it is a sin to remove the kind of literature that could actually turn them into lifelong readers and improve their chances of success in high school, college, and life.
Still, my expectation is that many Stockton High School students will find a way to get their hands on The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian.
After all, when the Lamar R-1 Board of Education voted a quarter of a century ago to remove Catcher in the Rye from the classroom and put it behind the library counter, the first student to check out the book was the son of the school board member who led the opposition against it.