The Final Chapter
The list of challenged literary works only grows as America marks Banned Books Week
By André Coleman 09/18/2013
In his acclaimed graphic novel “Maus,” Art Spiegelman attempts to make sense of his father’s experience in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust by depicting Nazis as cats, Jews as mice and ethnic Poles as pigs. “Maus” was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the Special Awards and Citations–Letters category in 1992 — the first graphic novel to receive the coveted award.
But last year, one person of Polish descent took exception to the graphic novel’s portrayal of Poles after discovering the book in the Pasadena Public Library and demanded that it be removed.
The library rejected the challenge, but “Maus” is just the latest critically acclaimed work that has come under fire from an outraged reader. Across the nation, people have long been petitioning to have classic novels removed from the libraries and school curricula, among them “Slaughterhouse Five,” “The Color Purple,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Go Ask Alice,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which critics have objected to mostly for their racist language or supposedly anti-Christian values, according to the American Library Association.
Rather than pull the books, however, most of these works are on display this week in libraries across the country to help celebrate Banned Books Week, beginning Sunday, a time meant to draw attention to works that have come under attack for their controversial content.
The Pasadena Public Library, for instance, is currently displaying “Maus” and dozens of other books. And Vroman’s Bookstore has several targeted books on display in the children’s section, along with information explaining why the books were challenged.
“In the library world, books are challenged all the time, mostly for making someone uncomfortable with their own view of the world,” said Pasadena Librarian Nick Smith.
“‘Maus’ was challenged over its portrayal of Polish people,” Smith said. “The challenge was made by a Polish American who is very proud of his heritage, and who had made other suggestions about adding books on Polish history for our library’s collection, so it was not out of the blue. The thing is, ‘Maus’ made him uncomfortable, so he didn’t want other people to read it. That is censorship, as opposed to parental guidance.”
Pasadena Public Library Communications Director Catherine Haskett-Hany said that during her five years at the library there have been only three challenged books: “Maus,” “The Library Policeman,” by Stephen King, which contains a violent rape scene, and the Japanese manga “Samaurai Executioner” for its violence. All three challenges failed and the books remain available.
“You cannot dictate what someone can or cannot read,” Haskett-Hany said. “It disheartens me and disappoints me that there are people trying to control what other people can read. We have books of all kinds here, as well as ebooks and audio books.”
Although no books have been banned from either Pasadena or Glendale libraries over the past five years, the same cannot be said for libraries in other parts of the country.
‘The wrong message’
Since 2000, there have been 5,099 calls nationwide for books to be removed from libraries and school curriculums, according to the Chicago-based Office for Intellectual Freedom.
All told, nearly 1,600 challenges were due to “sexually explicit” material, 1,291 challenges were brought due to offensive language, another 989 challenges were due to materials deemed unsuited to certain age groups, more than 600 books were challenged due to violent content, and 361 challenges were due to content referring to homosexuality.
In addition, 274 books were challenged due to occult or Satanic themes, 291 were called into question because of their religious stances and 119 requests for removal were made because the books were deemed anti-family. Some books were challenged for more than one reason.
Most of the challenges were made to books that were already included in school curriculums, with 1,811 parents filing complaints about reading material. Those were followed by 1,639 complaints regarding material currently available on school library shelves. Patrons at public libraries filed 1,217 challenges to books they objected to.
According to Pasadena Unified School District spokesman Adam Wolfson, no books have been banned in the PUSD in the past five years. The last and perhaps best known local challenge came in 2006 when former NAACP Pasadena Branch President Joe Brown teamed with local developer Jimmy Morris to question the decision of the Chandler School to have eighth-grade students — which included Morris’ son — read “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Set in the Deep South during the racist Jim Crow Era, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel provided a voice for supporters of civil rights and contained derogatory slang used to identity African Americans during those times.
The novel was turned into an Academy Award-winning film in 1962, starring the late actors Brock Peters and Gregory Peck. Peck starred as Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defends a black man, played by Peters, who has been wrongly charged with rape. After he takes the case, Finch is forced to defend his kids against racist attitudes in the town.
Neither Brown nor Morris wanted to remove the book from the school library. Instead, they told the Pasadena Weekly that they were concerned that using the book and its questionable language to teach young children lessons in English ran the risk of “sending the wrong message” to children at the school. At that time, there were eight African Americans in the eighth grade class.
Brown told the Weekly on Friday the issue was resolved after administrators at the affluent West Pasadena private school changed the way they were explaining and teaching the text.
“We were completely supportive of them using the material as long as it was explained properly and the children were made aware that the language was not acceptable,” Brown said. “I would never support banning the book.”
New trends in public education could lead to even more challenges of controversial books. Common Core, a new education standard which is sweeping the country, relies on classic texts as one tool to teach students in English and history classes. A suggested reading list for a Common Core class includes several challenged texts, including “Go Ask Alice,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Red Badge of Courage” and “Of Mice and Men.”
“I am concerned we are not requiring students to read enough of these texts,” PUSD Board of Education President Renatta Cooper told the Weekly. “I think back to my education and we were required to read novels. I just think one of the issues is we are reading more synopses of things. I think there is something to be said about having a body of literature that people have been exposed to. I think it provides a sense of educational cohesion. I think that education has been moved from that and now we only spend time on what is on the test. I have never had anyone come to the board with a complaint about a book.”
But that is not the case in other school districts. In August, Alabama Sen. Bill Holtzclaw called for the removal of 1970’s “The Bluest Eye” by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison from a Common Core Standards reading list because of depictions of child molestation and incest. The book is the 15th most challenged book in libraries across the country. Other books on the list include “The Kite Runner,” which was named Pasadena’s annual One City, One Story selection, John Grisham’s “A Time to Kill,” “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey
Last year the book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire was removed from shelves by the Tuscon, Ariz. school district. At that time, the district risked losing school funding for allegedly violating state law after the district voted to cut its Mexican-American Studies Program. Published in 1968 and translated into English in 1970, Freire’s book challenges traditional relationships between teachers and students, calling for “an educational environment in which students are treated as empty vessels for information but rather as active participants in the learning process.”
According to the Huffington Post, after eliminating the Mexican-American Studies class, the Tucson school board voted 3-2 to approve books for “culturally relevant courses.” Texts approved for “US History — Mexican American Culturally Relevant Viewpoint” classes now contain only works authored by non-Mexican Americans.
“It is ridiculous. It is so bigoted it defies logic,” said National Hispanic Media Coalition President Alex Nogales of the decision to drop Freire’s classic work.
“How else are we expected to know who we are and where we come from? It does not just apply to African Americans and Latinos; it applies to every group. For these right wingers to stand up and wave the flag as if they were the only patriots is the most racist thing I can think of,” Nogales said.
“When you start banning books, and where does it stop? It is just as bad as Nazis burning books they did not agree with. Now it seems like we have that same mentality here,” he said.