Conservatives Come After Black Athlete Books In School Libraries

When discussing public schools and education in our country, nothing other than child safety and better pay for teachers rises higher than my interest in stopping the banning of books from classrooms and libraries. The fever about this issue seems to ebb and flow, depending on the need for book banners to deflect from some other embarrassing issue in their partisan tent, or to create a culture war atmosphere designed to roil the base. Since book banning has always been scorned and ridiculed throughout history, it does beg the question as to why conservatives seem so hell-bent on picking up the torch.

I read what can only be called an alarming story about the 20th largest school district in the nation, that being Duval County Florida.  It was there that three children’s books that narrate the lives of Black sports personalities—heroes, in fact for many–were pulled from the school library shelves.  We know the books tell the stories of these men who fought through racism to reach great heights in their profession. 

The books are:

The entire school system should not be made to suffer the loss of these books because some white parents cannot accept how racism absolutely did pervade almost every aspect of our society. That these three sports figures did find ways to be resolute and determined to rise and stand atop their peers should be applauded.  If it makes some students recalibrate their thinking about history and racism and come to realize their parents might be the ones who need some books to read, all the better.

This absurdity is the result of Potomac Fever that has made Governor Ron DeSantis forget the needs of his constituents as he covets the votes of the harshest conservative elements in early primary states. Creating a battle over censorship of books about racism and LGBTQ issues will only warm him to right-wing activists heading into 2024.  With Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay Law” and the flawed history instruction about racism there is no doubt as to the reasons people around the country must be engaged so to stop this activity locally.  (Wherever one might live.)

During the 2022 midterm elections, I became aware of (yet another needlessly contentious) school board election about books and racism. I repeat, in 2022. At the heart of the matter were two books at the Greenville High School in Michigan that some parents found to be ‘beyond the pale’. They were Looking for Alaska and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, books that one might not read in Sunday school, but knowing schools are an arena of education for broadening minds and knowledge allows these critically acclaimed books to be totally appropriate.

Looking for Alaska, published in 2005 by author John Green, is an award-winning young adult novel that focuses on themes of meaning, grief, hope, and youth-adult relationships. Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is a New York Times bestselling book published in 2012 by author Jesse Andrews, and is described as being about an awkward teen, his friend, and a girl with terminal cancer.  Both books remain on the shelves and that decision then pitted book banners against actual educators in the November election. This blogger was heartened to learn after the balloting that the educators prevailed.

When I write about doggedly fighting at the local level to stop the book banners perhaps no more incentive as to why pushing back against the madness is doable than what occurred in Boise, Idaho. High school student Shiva Rajbhandari was elected to the school board and defeated an incumbent who steadfastly refused to reject an endorsement from a local right-wing extremist group that pushed to censor local libraries. Most times all that is required to stop a book banner is for one person to stand up and clearly state what needs to be heard about the freedom to read a book of one’s choice.

For several years, I worked with the local literacy council.  My student for most of that time was a wonderful woman from Iran who wanted to read with more comprehension and be able to talk about the headlines of the day. I grew up in a home where books were emphasized at every turn and given as gifts at the holidays.  My Dad was from the depression era and only attended school through the 8th grade, but every Friday night drove me to the small local public library for books to last a week.  He knew the power of a book.  We all must feel the same as he did when raising me.

As book-banning stories percolate around the nation, but mostly in red states, I was struck by an antidote to the madness which landed in my email recently.  It makes for a perfect ending to this post.

Let Kids Read…Whatever They Find Interesting

I read a column this week in the Los Angeles Times that again called our attention to banned books. The column also raised a memory from my childhood that strikes at the heart of this issue.

David Ulin composed a tightly written and fast read about the place we find ourselves with the latest pushes for banning books in places all over the nation. We might like to believe that such behavior is located only in red counties and conservative states. But that would be very much mistaken.

In 2018 the Monona Grove School District in Dane County was considering whether it should continue teaching To Kill a Mockingbird after a parent complained that the racially charged language in the novel is inappropriate.  That would suggest some in our area have no more ability to digest and discuss thought-provoking books than people we now argue with about banning James Baldwin. In the end, the school board continued the use of the book in the classroom.

That episode crossed my mind as I read Ulin’s opinion article.

The house where I was raised had an open shelf rule. This meant my brother and I were allowed to read anything, no matter how inappropriate or beyond our years. We never had to ask.

I spent hours of my childhood perusing the volumes on my father’s bookcases at will, trial and error. Histories, thrillers, science fiction, books on politics and culture — all of it was available to me.

I keep thinking about this as more and more school districts participate in what is shaping up to look like an open war against reading. According to “Banned in the USA,” a report issued by the writers’ organization PEN America in April, nearly 1,600 individual books were banned in 26 states between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022.

Among the titles challenged or removed are Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” Elizabeth Acevedo’s “The Poet X,” Roxane Gay’s “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” and Robin Benway’s “Far From the Tree.” All are works of abiding literary merit that address issues of identity and race and family — in other words, exactly the kinds of books students should be reading now.

Although the challenging of books and curriculum is hardly new in the United States, what we’re facing now is somewhat different. Of the current bans, PEN notes, “41% (644 individual bans) are tied to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books in schools.” It is not parents or even school boards driving many of these challenges. It is the power of the state.

I have a visceral reaction when the topic of banning books is raised. To place constraints on an individual as to what can be read and learned and what ideas can be entertained is just unacceptable. Books are a gateway to new concepts and allow for a higher level of reasoning.

My memory of attempted censorship took place when I was in grade school, the 6th grade.

“Do your parents know you are reading this book?”

That question from Mrs. Tunks, a schoolteacher of mine, was as close as book censorship ever came my way.  I still recall the stair steps in the old schoolhouse where she pointed at my copy of The Throne Of Saturn by Allen Drury, and while looking at it sounded her prudish alarm, though for what reason I could never understand. 

Other than the fact the book was 600 pages, and ‘kids’ were not supposed to read anything other than the Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys series–which I blew through in the 4th grade, provides no real explanation for her remark. 

The fact my parents encouraged me to read, as it kept me interested in all sorts of things, did not seem to settle her skeptical mind as to why that book would intrigue me.  A space adventure between the United States and the Soviet Union was high drama for my 6th-grade mind, and I guess for lots of adult readers as well, or it would never have been published.  I finished that book and kept Allen Drury as a writer I have long enjoyed into my adult years.

And when the book was finished dad drove me to our little local library to get another one to read. Those drives were a Friday evening ritual.

Today the hard copy edition of that book sets on my shelf as not only a reminder of a good read but also to underscore a long-held belief of mine.  No one should be censoring reading material for inquisitive minds.

Let young people be exposed to books and ideas!

First Banned Book In America

Banned books get some attention here at Caffeinated Politics.  I think it important to make people aware that some books are banned and challenged.  Even in 2019. Such moves are preposterous.

But it was the item I found this morning in my email, concerning a published work from centuries ago, which makes for this post.  It deals with Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan.  It becomes the first banned book in America.

Apparently, Thomas Morton didn’t get the memo. The English businessman arrived in Massachusetts in 1624 with the Puritans, but he wasn’t exactly on board with the strict, insular, and pious society they had hoped to build for themselves. “He was very much a dandy and a playboy,” says William Heath, a retired professor from Mount Saint Mary’s University who has published extensively on the Puritans. Looking back, Morton and his neighbors were bound to butt heads sooner or later.

Heath is careful to stress that the book is not a literary masterwork, but he acknowledges that it has its moments. Knol says she was particularly struck by the nicknames Morton threw at his Puritan foes, whom he called “cruell Schismaticks.” It’s hard to know who got it worse between Standish and John Endecott, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (Plymouth’s neighbor to the north): Endecott is known in the book as “Captaine Littleworth,” Standish as “Captaine Shrimp.” Even more radical than his belittling appellations were Morton’s subversive policy ideas, which went so far as to recommend “demartialising” the colonies. Unsurprisingly, the Puritans were appalled. Bradford, Plymouth’s governor, called New English Canaan “an infamous and scurrilous book against many god and chief men of the country, full of lies and slanders and fraught with profane calumnies against their names and persons and the ways of God.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Books Targeted For Censorship In Dane County School District

Here we go again.

Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are now the latest to come under the scolding eye of teachers and school administrators after the Wisconsin author’s name was removed from a national children’s award due to racist stereotypes in her books.

In late June, the American Library Association’s Association for Library Service to Children changed the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. In explaining the decision, the group stated that Wilder’s work about homesteading settlers moving West “includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness.”

Well color the Association as purists with no ability to analyze and sift though the long and winding narrative of American history.  That self-imposed narrowing of awareness about the nation only creates an educational wasteland.

Right?

Well, not so fast says Rainey Briggs, director of elementary education for the Middleton-Cross Plains School District.  He emailed teachers with the following note.  “Please take a few minutes to read this article and if you still have any of Laura’s books let’s pull them and have conversations as teams to break down the offensiveness that resides and remove!,” he wrote, including a link to a Washington Post article about the controversy.

Not the first time do I come to the defense of the printed word by great authors such as Mark Twain, or important people such as Laura Ingalls Wilder.  While it is true that several passages in Wilder’s books show characters expressing bias toward Native Americans and African Americans, it is also true that a large segment of the nation at one time spoke in such tones.

Those words and the tone in which they were used is part of the history we need to know.  Literature is one way to convey for students (of all ages), through a most entertaining means, the stories from the past.  Then in a classroom setting teachers can draw out through discussion the lessons to be learned.    Creating sterile and controversy-free classrooms undermines the learning process and misses a foundation of education.  It is not only important to know facts, but it is essential that students know how to think.

Racism was, and remains a real and troubling part of our society.  To attempt to whitewash it from a text takes away the one thing that we need more than anything else.  That being a protracted and highly engaged conversation about racism.  And that discussion should start in our classrooms.

There is nothing wrong with reading the Wilder books and taking it as a piece of literature from a certain period of time and then talking about it.  To attempt to water it down or distort the story and message in any way is simply not a way to educate young minds for the world in which they will need to live.

“To Kill A Mockingbird” Is Under Attack

Earth to Biloxi–This is 2017!
To Kill a Mockingbird is being removed from a junior-high reading list in a Mississippi school district.  According to the Biloxi Sun Herald, school administrators pulled the classic novel from the 8th-grade curriculum because of complaints that some of the book’s language “makes people uncomfortable.”
Meanwhile on the playground it often sounds like sailors on leave.
And so it goes.

Top Ten Most Challenged Books Of 2016–Read One And Tick Off a Censor During Banned Books Week

Once again we are called to be aware of those who would try to censor what we read.  To stand alongside all those who abhor such censorship, and call it out during Banned Book Week which runs through Sept. 30th, I post the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2016.  When I was a teenager–believe it or not–the books that were attempted to be censored around the nation included such grand reads as the following.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  • And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
  • The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
  • Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Out of 323 challenges reported to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom these are the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2016.

  1. This One Summerwritten by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
    This young adult graphic novel, winner of both a Printz and a Caldecott Honor Award, was restricted, relocated, and banned because it includes LGBT characters, drug use, and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes.
  1. Dramawritten and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier
    Parents, librarians, and administrators banned this Stonewall Honor Award-winning graphic novel for young adults because it includes LGBT characters, was deemed sexually explicit, and was considered to have an offensive political viewpoint.
  1. Georgewritten by Alex Gino
    Despite winning a Stonewall Award and a Lambda Literary Award, administrators removed this children’s novel because it includes a transgender child, and the “sexuality was not appropriate at elementary levels.”
  1. I Am Jazzwritten by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
    This children’s picture book memoir was challenged and removed because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints.
  1. Two Boys Kissingwritten by David Levithan
    Included on the National Book Award longlist and designated a Stonewall Honor Book, this young adult novel was challenged because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content.
  1. Looking for Alaskawritten by John Green
    This 2006 Printz Award winner is a young adult novel that was challenged and restricted for a sexually explicit scene that may lead a student to “sexual experimentation.”
  1. Big Hard Sex Criminalswritten by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky
    Considered to be sexually explicit by library staff and administrators, this compilation of adult comic books by two prolific award-winning artists was banned and challenged.
  1. Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unreadwritten by Chuck Palahniuk
    This collection of adult short stories, which received positive reviews from Newsweek and the New York Times, was challenged for profanity, sexual explicitness, and being “disgusting and all around offensive.”
  1. Little Bill(series) written by Bill Cosby and illustrated by Varnette P. Honeywood
    This children’s book series was challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author.
  1. Eleanor & Parkwritten by Rainbow Rowell
    One of seven New York Times Notable Children’s Books and a Printz Honor recipient, this young adult novel was challenged for offensive language.

 

Lets Say It Again, “Huckleberry Finn” Should Not Be Censored, ‘Nigger’ Helps Us Understand Racism

Hat Tip To Solly

Two classic American novels have been temporarily banned from a Virginia school district after a parent raised concerns about the use of a racial slur.   The use of the book’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird were suspended from Accomack County Public Schools after a parent raised concerns about their use of the N-word.

“There’s so much racial slurs and defensive wording in there that you can’t get past that,” one mother said during last month’s school board meeting. “Right now, we are a nation divided as it is.”  A review committee consisting of the principal, the library media specialist, the classroom teacher, a parent and/or student, and the complaint will evaluate the matter.  Combined, the two books use the N-word more than 250 times and some parents say the use of the racial slur is unacceptable.

Well hold on Nelly!

I deplore the word ‘nigger’.

I deplore the word ‘faggot’.

I do not want either used in common every-day conversation, and can say I have no friends that do use such language.

But there comes a time when the  word ‘nigger’ conveys the tone and message required, such as in the book Huckleberry Finn that many of us read as youngsters in conjunction with Tom Sawyer.  At least I did.  In fact, Huckleberry Finn was a classroom text for me and my school peers.

I mention all this as Huckleberry Finn that was penned in 1884 is now being published without the word ‘nigger’.  In its place will be the more sterile word ‘slave’.  I find this censorship highly troubling.  To add salt to this wound is also the removal of the word “injun”.  Again, not  a word we want used today, but one that puts the reader into the times of which the author has constructed in his book.  (Let us not forget, it IS his book.)

I think it asinine to touch the words penned by Mark Twain.  I have enough problems when some in Hollywood condone colorizing old films.  But when someone remakes the words of a classic read I want to scream.

Racism was, and remains a real and troubling part of our society.  To attempt to whitewash it from a text takes away the one thing that we need more than anything else.  That being a protracted and highly engaged conversation about racism.  University scholar Alan Gribben is responsible for the censoring of Huckleberry Finn in what he describes as an attempt to get the book back in the hands of high school literature courses.

While I applaud the desire to have youth read Huckleberry Finn, I throw-up over Gribben’s means to achieve it.  To not address racism in the manner it was presented in the book by Twain removes a great teaching moment for the folks who will read it.

Even after the many decades of work and public policy aimed to construct our society to be more equal we are still limited from a real dialogue on racism.  If we can not get over the mere usage of the word ‘nigger’ in a text as highly praised as Huckleberry Finn how can we move to a higher  level of awareness in our communities or legislatures when confronting racism?

As for the parents in Virginia I suggest instead of stamping out books that might offend someone they instead find a more complete definition of what education means and ponder that for a while.

And so it goes.

10 Most Challenged Books Highlighted During Banned Books Week

This is the week that occurs each fall when the American Library Association sponsors events to alert all of us at the attempts made by some to not allow certain books to be read as they shock, offend and generally make Americans uncomfortable.   It never fails to amaze me how others would try to stop certain books from being read by others as they do not meet some standard.  How anyone thinks they have–or should have–such power is simply mind-numbing.

The list of challenged books this year according to the association which came under attack include popular children’s books such as The Hunger Games”, the “Captain Underpants” series, and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”.

Here is the list of the top 10 “most challenged” books in 2013. The list was complied by the American Library Association, which defines a challenge as a formal written request to remove a book from the shelves of public and school libraries. Few if any books were pulled from shelves and all of the books are still readily available.

• “Captain Underpants” (series) by Dav Pilkey. Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group, violence.

• “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence.

• “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie. Reasons: Drugs, alcohol and smoking, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.

• “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James. Reasons: Nudity, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.

• “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. Reasons: Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group.

• “A Bad Boy Can Be Good for A Girl” by Tanya Lee Stone. Reasons: Drugs, alcohol and smoking, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit.

• “Looking for Alaska” by John Green. Reasons: Drugs, alcohol and smoking, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.

• “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky. Reasons: drugs, alcohol and smoking, homosexuality, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group.

• “Bless Me Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya. Reasons: Occult, Satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit.

• “Bone” (series), by Jeff Smith. Reasons: Political viewpoint, racism, violence.