As the countdown clock ticked away the waning days of summer, school and library boards around the country were besieged with demands to limit access to an ever-expanding list of books. September and most of October went by in a foggy Groundhog Day slow-mo repeat as I twiddled my thumbs and watched the news while state after state placed severe and restrictive limitations on libraries.
“What” is taught and “how” it is taught has taken on a-hair-on-fire urgency. Since 2019, book banning efforts have risen by 40% and, according to the American Library Association’s lists of banned books, a growing percentage of the targeted books are those written for the youngest readers.
“And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson has led the pack of frequently challenged books since it was published in 2005. This is a primary-level, nonfiction picture book about penguins. It’s the story of Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo who developed a close bond. During nesting season, zookeepers noticed that the two penguins were attempting to hatch a rock. Zoo personnel replaced the rock with an abandoned egg. The pair successfully incubated the egg and assumed care for Tango, their baby chick.
Since Roy and Silo are both male and Tango is not, concerns arose about the penguin book promoting acceptance of non-traditional families for penguins and humans both.
Even more interesting than the fact that a book has been banned, is figuring out why. In some instances, the bias that prompted the challenge is easy to identify, others not so much. Curiosity aroused by this book-banning activity birthed a review of easy-reader picture books that have been loved by children for generations.
One such book is the 1947 publication “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown, which was banned from the New York Public Library shelves for 25 years. The reason? It was overly sentimental and had no moral lesson. However, in 1972 it was also banned because the back cover photo of Clement Hurd, the illustrator, included a cigarette. This pro-smoking subliminal messaging was eliminated in 2005 when Hurd’s son gave permission to have his father’s photo digitally altered.
Dr. Seuss’s books are often targeted for themes that encourage general mischief. The 2014 challenge against “Hop on Pop” (1963) was more specific: It “incites violence against fathers.”
The original complaint included a plea to allow fathers to sue libraries and librarians for injuries suffered by male parents who may have been hopped upon.
“Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” and all other books written by Bill Martin Jr. were on the chopping block until someone realized that the complainant had confused Bill Martin. Jr. with Bill Martin, author of “Ethical Marxism: the Categorical Imperative of Liberation.” That challenge was withdrawn.
In the read-aloud or catch-the-film category, both “Alice in Wonderland” (1865) and “The Wizard of Oz” (1947) were banned. In 1900, Alice exposed children to offensive language, sexual fantasy, and diminished respect for authority figures. Sixty years later it was banned again when sensibilities were trampled by that hookah-smoking caterpillar. Dorothy and Toto were banished from shelves upon publication in 1947. The pesky Wizard and those witches used magic, Dorothy promoted socialist values, and uppity females challenged authority.
Normally, to remove a book from circulation a formal written complaint is filed with a governing board, but there is another type of censorship witnessed by a school librarian (not in the Peninsula School District).
It was check-out time and the third graders were queueing up with their selections when there was a ruckus. One of the boys was wailing in pain, and the girl next in line was howling in righteous indignation. Her explanation was that she had told him he could not check out his chosen book. He had responded negatively to her directive, so she was forced to wield the power of the written word. She whacked him upside the head with her chosen books. Her goal was to save him from going to hell. Somehow she had gotten the idea that Harry Potter and his ilk pave the path to eternal damnation, so she felt justified in her efforts to protect him from that dire fate.
Although I never fielded a formal complaint in my years riding herd in the education rodeo (by which I mean “teaching”), book banning is a sensitive issue with me because my personal kid-book collection was subjected to what I consider heavy-handed censorship.
Developing an agenda to inculcate my students with subversive ideas is beyond my capabilities, so I was taken aback when I realized that one parent was systematically confiscating my books. Folklore and legends (Norse, Greek and Native American) were the first to disappear. The blasphemous content included animals that talked, mystical creatures who romped through the pages, and main characters who were small “g” gods. She instructed her son, an avid reader, to “borrow” all the books in the offending category. She may have had other themes in mind but I intervened before she had collected enough books to ignite a newsworthy bonfire.
The formal censorship process may be accepted practice, but in my book, direct censorship is not just unacceptable, it is also extremely rude. Assault is rude. Theft is rude. Stifling a child’s freedom to explore ideas is rude. Be courteous, and respect their right to read.
One can no more predict what a child will get out of a book than what they will dream that night. And that is because those two things come from the same place and that is the heart, where love rules and inspiration is born.
Award-winning columnist Carolyn Wiley lives quietly, for the most part, in Longbranch.
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