Wednesday, February 28, 2007

BOOKS: Tobogganing Down the Slippery Slope

Here's the thing about many book banners: they're not really after people like you and me -- hedonistic, secular, pornography-lovin' humanists though we may be.

Sure, there are probably a few intrepid, right-minded souls who'd like to pluck that Stephen King novel out of your hands and pitch it onto a bonfire so that it can be enveloped in the unholy flames whence it came. But, for the most part, your average censorship zealot has given up on your immortal soul and mine. They're out to save the children. And this is exactly where and why censorship becomes such a dodgy issue. Because everyone wants to save the children, right?

Here's another thing about this breed of book banner: they're so easy to mock.

How can you not make fun of someone -- even if only in your head -- who misspells "obscene" in their scrawled Post-It note critique of a well-known children's classic? It's hard not to laugh when you envision someone angrily counting the number of times the word "fart" appears in an international bestseller. And let's face it, it's just plain funny to use the word "scrotum" in a debate.

The trick is knowing when to laugh and when to get pissed off. For me, the line in the sand (well, one of many lines in the sand) is drawn when people take it upon themselves to ban books that promote values of tolerance and acceptance.

Take, for example, the groundbreaking children's book Heather Has Two Mommies, which has been getting under conservatives' skin for almost two decades. (You can read the backstory here.) Now, this isn't a book we have in our house... yet. We'll get a copy some day. It's a good story. It isn't just about the fact that Heather's mothers are gay: it's about the fact that there are all kinds of families -- single-parent families, blended families, interracial families -- and all are equal. I simply do not get why this is a message people are against. Do they think that, by banning the book, these families will disappear? Do they think that reading about gay people will, horror of horrors, make their own kids gay? (To this charge, Heather's author, Leslea Newman, retorts, "After all, I grew up reading books that all had straight characters.")

Here's why we have to fight against book banning: because if we don't take seriously the free speech attacks against innocuous books of nursery rhymes and books about flatulent canines and books that incidentally name body parts, we give censorship advocates every reason to believe they have the right to ban books about capital-I important issues such as homosexuality and tolerance. And while the right to tell silly stories about farting dogs may not feel like a right we need to go to battle over, the right to tell stories that help people understand that it's OKAY to be different -- that, in fact, MOST OF US are different in some way -- well, that's a right that definitely needs to be protected.

Here's the real, honest, no-messing-around reason why we have to be pitbulls on the pantsleg of censorship: because you never know when and how this issue will affect you personally. And trust me, if this ever does affect you, you're going to be mighty irked with yourself for not speaking up earlier.

Here's how this issue affects me: I'm not gay (though I play a gay woman on TV! Ba-dum-bum!) but Sam's legal guardian is. And let's take a moment to follow the logic of someone who wants to ban books about gay parents:
  1. Books about gay parents are bad.
  2. Because gay people are bad.
  3. Gay parents are DEFINITELY bad.
  4. Gay people shouldn't have kids.
  5. Not even adopted kids.
Given this chain of reasoning, you see how allowing a book to be banned pushes you just over the teetering edge of that slippery slope.

So, yeah, this issue hits home for me. It's not like I really think (touch wood!) that Rusty and I are planning a visit to St. Pete any time soon. Given the fact that we rarely leave the house, we'd both have to fall in the tub simultaneously, which... well, it could happen, but we got one of those sticky tub mat thingies, so we feel pretty good about things. But say we DO suffer a fatal simultaneous tubbing accident, we want to know our wishes about Sam's guardianship will be respected. The fact that there are people out there who might, even in theory, like to overthrow my wishes makes this censorship issue more than academic for me. P.S. It also really, really, REALLY pisses me off. That sound you hear? That's my blood boiling.

It's so easy for the free speech debate to become overly academic and abstruse. I think it's important to break things down and consider -- really consider -- how this issue affects us in our day-to-day lives. So I've told my story (one of them, anyway). What's yours?

23 comments:

Anne said...

Actually, the part about the misspelling of obscene didn't amuse me that much. Probably because I've done it myself far too many times. (In fact, I almost did it just now. Thank you, spellchecker.) What really got me laughing is the paragraph that explains that the poetry is a bunch of playground rhymes and jokes that kids have made up over the years which the author collected and edited. So this woman is trying to save the children....from other children.

Hee!

Tara said...

A dog that farts is "different"? Not in my experience.

Lisa said...

What a great post, I completely agree. The idea that if you hide something from your child it will cease to exist just amazes me.

Cap'n Ganch said...

Not that I'm really advocating book banning or any such nonsense, but just to play devil's advocate for a moment, what if someone did publish a collection of actual pornography but used special illustrations and color schemes to market it as children's literature. An extreme example, I know, but are there limits we're willing to set when it comes to admitting books into school libraries? Do we necessarily rely on the judgment of the Children's Literature publishing division of Acme Publishing House to tell us what is and isn't for children?

I guess I can see where some parents are coming from, though I don't always agree with them, when it comes to putting certain books in school libraries where most parents don't have the supervision they would have if the book were in a standard library. Because while these authors have the right to have their works published, it seems parents have an equal right to monitor what their children are reading.

My mom was somewhat disconcerted when she found out she had inadvertently suggested I read Clan of the Cave Bear in third grade. She had pointed the book out to me at the local library, telling me how the characters in it spoke in clicks and grunts, not thinking I would actually be interested in reading a book thicker than my forearm. But I guess I somehow checked it out and was immediately shown the mysteries of menstruation, sex, and child birth. It had no real lasting impact on me, but I can understand her desire to hold that book off a few years until I was able to comprehend what I was reading. She never would've banned it from me, but she definitely knew better than I did at what age I should be turning those pages.

Do I know what I'm saying? Not really. Maybe just empathizing with the critics without necessarily (though on rare occasion, sometimes) condoning them? Do I get kicked out of the club now?

tuckova said...

If I can survive Barbie and Her Sugar Coated Unicorn of Glitter existing in a library, then people can be asked to leave Walter on the shelves, too. They don't have to READ it, any more than I'm going to read the Barbie books, and they can talk about how much they hate it, but I wish they would leave it on the shelf and I wish libraries could stock it without fear of reprisals.

Andi said...

Lovely post and I'm with you all the way. I've heard comments suggesting that book banning and censorship aren't legitimate concerns in this day and age, but apparently the folks who say that haven't kept up with the ALA Most Banned/Challenged list and whatnot. Censorship is alive and well (especially if you live in America *clears throat suggestively*), and quite frankly, it blows.

Best,
Andi
Estella's Revenge

doris day said...

you rock. i totally agree.

Lisa Jean said...

Very well thought out post. Too bad those who would ban books wouldn't be swayed by it. As a retired public librarian I dealt often with people who wanted books removed for various reasons. My favorite was someone wanting Fran Dresher's autobiography removed because she said fuck. You have to shake your head and say 'just don't read it' and maybe assure the banner that very few other people will be reading the FD book either. But I digress. My point is, people who want books banned, for whatever reason, can't be swayed by logical arguement. We just have to hope that our lines of defense, librarians, teachers, bloggers, are strong and willing to fight for the freedom to read.

*steps off soapbox*

stephanie said...

"Do we necessarily rely on the judgment of the Children's Literature publishing division of Acme Publishing House to tell us what is and isn't for children?"

No, cap'n ganch. There are these people called "librarians" and they are pretty sharp cookies. I would hazard a guess and say most, if not all, children's librarians would be able to recognize gussied-up porn like you suggest.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the wonderful, though provoking, true, and well expressed post. As a person who reads and knows when to stop reading when a book contains something I don't like/agree with, I applaud your stand, and stand with. I am an aunt who tries to instill the love and importance of reading in my nieces and nephews, I read what I buy for them to read, I answer questions when they have them, I explain that people are people and everyone is different and special. Thank you.

Carey

Doppelganger said...

Heh. You're still part of the club, Cap'n. Devil's advocate or no, you do raise some good points, and it's not the first time I've heard these points expressed, but I think Stephanie responded in the same vein as me when she pointed out that that's what librarians are for: to act as informed stewards, as well as taking on the onerous task of dealing with the cranky public.

I think the problem is that, when the issue of book banning comes up, it's always presented in such a black-and-white way: either leave the book in an unmediated setting in the library or pull it off the shelves completely. It seems liken there should be a middle ground. I know that, when I was a precocious kid, there were certain books the librarian just wouldn't let me check out because I was too young. Fair enough. There's also the option of requiring children to have a signed parental consent form before they can check out a book. These seem like fine options to me in that it hands control back to parents, which, fair enough, parents want.

But the fact is that there are some parents who don't just want to control what their kids read. They want to control what everyone else's kids read. They want books removed not just from their school library, but from EVERY school library. They want books taken off the curriculum not just for the year their child is in a particular grade, but for every group of children who later enter that grade. They don't just forbid their child from taking out a book, they steal the book or deface it. And I call total, utter bullshit on all of this.

While I'm ranting thusly, though, I should commend you on your kindness in referring to these people as "critics," when they seem like the furthest thing from critics. To me, a critic is someone who (a) actually reads a text in its entirety before evaluating it, and (b) is able to conduct said reading in an informed, judicious way. Or maybe I'm just describing a GOOD critic.

And tuckova, this:

If I can survive Barbie and Her Sugar Coated Unicorn of Glitter existing in a library, then people can be asked to leave Walter on the shelves, too.

made me laugh out loud. Ha! Apparently a farting dog is beyond people's ability to fathom, but a peroxide blonde who permanently walks on tiptoes isn't.

Doppelganger said...

Oh, and I can't believe I forgot to mention this in my comment, but I used to work as a children's book editor. We may not have been Acme Publishing, but we were pretty rigorous in our evaluation of what was appropriate fare for kids. And we DID actually once receive an unsolicited manuscript of pedophilia in the guise of poetry on our slushpile. After much ethical fretting, we forwarded the manuscript and the writers name and coordinates to the authorities in his region. It was a weird, creepy experience. Deep down, I think the guy was looking for help when he sent the MS to us. But I digress.

Jane said...

Rock on, Doppelganger.

Not only is your post fantastic but so is this from your last comment: "But the fact is that there are some parents who don't just want to control what their kids read. They want to control what everyone else's kids read. They want books removed not just from their school library, but from EVERY school library. They want books taken off the curriculum not just for the year their child is in a particular grade, but for every group of children who later enter that grade. They don't just forbid their child from taking out a book, they steal the book or deface it. And I call total, utter bullshit on all of this."

Really, really brilliant.

Anonymous said...

After reading your blog and the linked article, my husband and I went to powells.com and bought a copy of the same book and sent it to the librarian. They won't be without the book for long!

aroara said...

I've only been reading you for a couple of months. This post is amazing. You know it, we know it. I just wanted to be a part of the Thank You Parade. Thank you so much for your words.

tuckova said...

I wish that the ALA would be more clear about what "challenging" and/or "banning" is exactly, because I think there's a difference between a parent protesting a book's existence on the library shelf and a parent wishing that a book wouldn't be part of the classroom curriculum. I think the first bunch are ridiculous; the second bunch often deserve some consideration.
The horrible thing about the "Higher Power of Lucky" is that it wasn't that parents protested it, but that librarians didn't even want to order it for fear of reprisals.

Sandy D. said...

And (how timely!) today Susan Patron (the author of The Higher Power of Lucky) has a wonderful column in today's LA Times: 'Scrotum' as a children's literary tool.

You might have to register to read it, but it's worth it. What is really funny is that Patron is a children's library collections manager.

Sandy D. said...

The ALA actually has a very clear description of challenges vs. bans here: http://www.ala.org/ala/oif/bannedbooksweek/challengedbanned/challengedbanned.htm

Sandy D. said...

oops, try this:

Challenged and Banned Books

trophycase said...

Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law:

(I'm just helping you to see what you're up against.)

There's The First Letter of Paul to The Corinthians 5:13 and 6:9

And The Acts of The Apostles 19:19

Lisa Jean is right, logic isn't going to work with these people (who currently happen to hold the Prime Minister's office...)

Read The Second Letter of Paul to Timothy2:14-17

schoolgirl said...

Just when I think it's a fascist world, there's the internet to make me feel better.
I just found out that my high school librarian threw out all the Steven King books. A classmate asked where they were and she simply said, "They're gone."
What next? What gives her the right to do that? Should I bring it up with the school board?
And to think this is the 21st century.

Doppelganger said...

Anonymous, the fact that you sent that book to the library has, all by itself, justified two years of book blogging for me.

schoolgirl, I would TOTALLY take that issue up with your school administration. I'd also request that this librarian be made to report on any other books she's "disappeared" from the shelves.

Very well thought out post. Too bad those who would ban books wouldn't be swayed by it.

Lisa Jean, this is where you're (understandably) deceived by my otherwise mild-mannered, placating demeanour. I have no desire to beat my head against a wall reasoning with the unreasonable. I simply want the rest of us to OUTNUMBER them -- visibly, loudly, and unrelentingly.

Quillhill said...

I can't say I agree with Cap'n. Parents should take responsibility of their own children and keep them away from anything they don't feel is proper. Books aren't any different from television or movies or radio or newspapers (and tabloids!)--when was the last time you heard of someone trying to get their local newspaper banned because it contained stories about people doing drugs, and stealing, and rapists, and war? Just to play devil's advocate: don't pronographers have rights, too? If one is a pornographer, pornography is perfectly acceptable to them, and probably something they would want their children to read. A picture of a woman being double-teamed is arguably less offensive than a picture of a metropolitan discotheque strewn with debris and recognisable body parts.

I think Anonymous had a wonderful idea: everyone should purchase and donate to their library a currently banned book.

And schoolgirl should start sneaking those Stephen King books back into the library. Can you imagine the librarian's reaction when, after having removed and destroyed all the King books, someone walks up with another and wants to check it out? Ha!