This post is the first in a series on banned and challenged books marking the ALAs Banned Books Week 2011.
There are countless books that have been banned by someone or other, and countless more that have been challenged. Governments, religious leaders, librarians and school districts, as self-proclaimed arbiters of decency, all seem to think they have the right to deny us, and our children, access to literature.
Generally, the motivation for the banning or challenging of a book is that the content is thought unsuitable for the reader. Arguments are based, usually, on the preservation of the ‘innocence’ of children and young people. By protecting the young from literature that is morally corrupting, goes the argument, our children can remain children. Childhood is sacred: let it persist. It seeks to defy biology, social awareness and psychology.
There is a strong case to be made for parents to be able to censor the books their own children read; the problem comes when groups like PABBIS (Parents Against Bad Books in Schools) attempt to restrict the reading of other people’s children too. Challenges come from every point along the political spectrum – and always with the best of intentions: our children do not need to know that not all pregnancies culminate with a live birth (or that some end in termination); that racist language exists, and is used; that people have sex (and sometimes for fun, and sometimes with the same gender); that sometimes life is violent or that terrible things have been done in the name of religion. But our children do need to know. It is our duty to teach them and the onus is on us to determine when the time is right.
Book banning is an abhorrent practice, undoubtedly, but in most cases we can see why such action was taken, even if we don’t agree with the ideology behind it. Heather Has Two Mommies and And Tango Makes Three, for example, were banned by some schools for ‘normalizing’ homosexuality; Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for mentioning kissing boys and menstruation and thus acknowledging the sexuality of a young girl; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for use of racial slurs. We may not agree with the decision to ban a book, but at least most of the time we can follow the logic.
In 1952, President Eisenhower made a commencement speech at Dartmouth College which attacked McCarthyism. Among his comments was this:
Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency [my italics]. That should be the only censorship.
What follows is a selection of books that have been banned by governments and other authority groups for reasons decidedly more spurious than those mentioned above.
The Rabbits’ Wedding
Challenged in Alabama, 1958
The Rabbits’ Wedding is a sweet tale of, well, a wedding between two rabbits. It’s a childhood favourite of mine, so I might display a bias, but it really is entirely uncontroversial. Unless it’s 1958 and you’re in Alabama.
Here are the rabbits in question. Spot a problem?
It’s lovely, isn’t it? Look at the little bunnies! But wait… what’s this? Pass me my pearls that I might clutch them! One of these rabbits is white, and one of these rabbits is black! WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN!?
In America in 1958 racism was, to put it mildly, rife. Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man only four years previously, and while the civil rights movement was active, the battle was far from won and interracial marriage was still illegal in a number of states. To some The Rabbits’ Wedding was clear propaganda from the Left promoting interracial marriage. The book was condemned in the Orlando Sentinel by columnist Henry Balch. It was, he claimed, a brainwashing tool designed to corrupt the morals of youngsters, and if it succeeded the inevitable next step would be Communism. Obviously.
The cause was taken up by State Senator EO Eddins, who called for the book to be burned. Pressure was put on the Alabama library system to remove the book from its shelves.
The author of the book was dismayed:
The Rabbits’ Wedding has no political significance. I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque – and my rabbits were inspired by early Chinese paintings of black and white horses in misty landscapes.
Influential publications such as Time jumped to the defence of the picture book. ‘It seems incredible,’ they printed, ‘that any sober adult could scent in this fuzzy cotton-tale for children the overtones of Karl Marx or even of Martin Luther King’. Pressure from both sides mounted and ultimately The Rabbits’ Wedding was never banned outright, but access to it was restricted. Librarians were permitted to take the book to their local libraries only on special request.
In the case of The Rabbits’ Wedding, common sense (almost) prevailed. Other books have not been so lucky.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Banned in China, 1931-?
The Chinese Governor of Hunan Province banned the classic in 1931 because “animals should not use human language” and it was “disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level.” However, what with China being a bit sniffy about letting information out of the country, it’s almost impossible to find out more. The banning may be an urban legend, Snopes doesn’t have it, but it does have the ridiculous story of Dr Seuss being banned for references to suicide and violence.
Merriam Webster Dictionary (10th edition)
Banned in Menifee Union school district, Southern California, January 2011.
Proving that there’s no reaction quite like an over-reaction, the Menifee school district pulled the respected dictionary from the shelves of fourth- and fifth-grade (that’s age 9-12, fellow Europeans) classrooms when it was discovered that the dictionary deigned to define oral sex. The definition in the online edition appears thus:
Definition of ORAL SEX
oral stimulation of the genitals: cunnilingus, fellatio
First Known Use of ORAL SEX
Okay, I’ll admit that I tittered a little at discovering that the first known use of oral sex was 1973; firstly, it reminded me of Larkin’s poem Annus Mirabilis, and secondly, I’m pretty sure people were doing it before that. But nevertheless you’d be hard pressed to describe the definition as pornographic. In fact, it pretty much fulfils the requirement for a dictionary definition, that is, it defines the term.
Some parents complained that the definition was inappropriate for fourth- and fifth-graders, but others were more reasonable.”You have to draw the line somewhere.” Said one, “What are they going to do next, pull encyclopaedias because they list parts of the human anatomy like the penis and vagina?”
The ban was quickly overturned, with parents allowed to determine whether their children would have access to the dictionary, and another, presumably less lascivious dictionary made available for children of parents who deemed Merriam-Webster inappropriate.
Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl
Banned in Lebanon, 1947-present; Culpeper County schools, Virgina, Jan – Oct 2010
When Anne Frank wrote her diary, Israel did not exist. It’s unlikely she penned the book as propaganda. Indeed, it’s unlikely she ever expected her diaries to be published at all. Nevertheless, Lebanon added to the book to its enormous list of cultural artefacts banned in the state. Schindler’s Ark; the music of violinist Yehudi Menuhin; Lady Gaga’s Born This Way; The Da Vinci Code; Persepolis: all of these are officially banned.
The diary, which some maintain is a hoax, documents the time the German Jew Frank spent hiding in annexed rooms with her family between 6th July 1942 and 4 August 1944 when the Frank and Pels families (who had joined them in hiding) were arrested by the Grüne Polizei. Frank died of Typhus in 1945 while detained at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Not only is the book itself banned, but excerpts have been censored from textbooks used in a private English-language school after what Project Aladdin called an ‘intimidation campaign’ from Hizbullah.
Such censorship is politically motivated; the centuries old Israeli-Lebanese conflict rages on and many things perceived to be a threat to state security or Israeli propaganda, but as of 2008 the practice is thought to be under review.
The diary is very much the work of a thirteen-year-old and alongside the details of her restricted life in the annex are the normal wonderings of a pubescent girl. Frank writes of her first kiss, her relationship with her mother and sister and her religious beliefs. It is because of this that the book was removed from classrooms in Culpeper County in early 2010, with parents citing homosexual themes and sexually explicit content, specifically the following lines in which Frank describes her vagina:
There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!
By October a public outcry ensured that the book was returned to classrooms, as long as parents consented to their children reading the diaries.
Captain Underpants (series)
Banned in Naugatuck, Connecticut, 2001-??
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: kids like poo and wee and pants and willies. They are hilarious. It’s not surprising, then, that a series of books with characters named Dr Diaper, the Wicked Wedgie Woman and Professor Poopypants is beloved by children worldwide.
Critics of the books complain that the books encourage practical jokes, poor spelling (due to the misspelled words in comic strips the characters create) and a disrespectful attitude to authority.
The Captain Underpants series is replete with juvenile humour, practical joking and silliness. This is not, however, the only complaint. Sara Berman of the New York Sun says,
[P]erhaps the most incongruous of all the criticisms, is that Captain Underpants creates what one Marge Simpson might say is a dangerous amount of laughter. Believe it or not, people are mad at the books for making kids laugh. They argue that this giddiness causes belligerence in students, a sense of rebellion and insolence brought on by the cheek and childishness of the books. What the faculty and administrators of many schools who challenge the books are saying is that, because the kids enjoy them so much, because they instantly connect with the protagonists, the situations they are in, and are swept away in the humor and fun of the adventures, the children start to sense some inner freedom.
“The children start to sense some inner freedom”. This is what censorship and book banning is about: political and intellectual freedom. Those who seek to ban books see them as a threat to the status quo. The status quo might not be brilliant, but it’s better than the unknown.
Captain Underpants contains naughtiness. There’s no getting away from it. For young readers, this is the root of the delight the book engenders. What the think-of-the-children brigade don’t seem to get is that the naughtiness is only so delightful because children know it’s proscribed behaviour. Are children influenced by their literature? Of course they are, but it takes more than a simple chapter book to turn a child into a tearaway.
And finally, as they say, here is the ALA’s ten most farfetched reasons to ban a book (a couple of which we have already encountered today).
- “Encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.” (A Light in the Attic, by Shel Silverstien)
- “It caused a wave of rapes.” (Arabian Nights, or Thousand and One Nights, anonymous)
- “If there is a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it?” (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown)
- “Tarzan was ‘living in sin’ with Jane.” (Tarzan, by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
- “It is a real ‘downer.’” (Diary of Anne Frank, by Anne Frank)
- “The basket carried by Little Red Riding Hood contained a bottle of wine, which condones the use of alcohol.” (Little Red Riding Hood, by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm K. Grimm)
- “One bunny is white and the other is black and this ‘brainwashes’ readers into accepting miscegenation.” (The Rabbits Wedding, by Garth Williams)
- “It is a religious book and public funds should not be used to purchase religious books.” (Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, by Walter A. Elwell, ed.)
- “A female dog is called a bitch.” (My Friend Flicka, by Mary O’Hara)
- “An unofficial version of the story of Noah’s Ark will confuse children.” (Many Waters, by Madeleine C. L’Engle)
TreasuryIslands is celebrating all week. Check back tomorrow for more of our contribution to Banned Books Week 2011.