Friday, September 30, 2011

Fahrenheit 451 - by Ray Bradbury - September 30

No celebration of Banned Books Week would be complete without some mention of Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel about a world in which all books are burned. This was Bridgewater, Massachusetts' One Book One Community selection for fall Fall 2008. We planned all of our events to coincide with Banned Books Week, including a reading, and discussion of information loss from author Junot Diaz; as well as a Banned Books Bonfire. We, of course, did not burn any books, but rather read banned books by the light of the flames.

There are no librarians in this book, and all the libraries in it are private, and illegal. Those who love books enough to hoard them in their homes are bound and removed when discovered, and then the firemen are brought in to destroy all their reading material. Bradbury says this work is often misinterpreted, and is not really about censorship, but rather about "how television destroys interest in reading literature". Read more here.

According to the author's introduction in this "Special Edition" created for the "Long Beach Reads One Book" program, the book was written in a library on a typewriter Bradbury rented for .10 a half hour in the early 1950s. It started out as a short story called "The Fireman". The title of the novel comes from the temperature at which paper burns. Bradbury first called the Physics department at UCLA to find out this bit of trivia, when they could not provide the answer he contacted the USC chemistry department, still no luck, finally he called the LA fire department who provided the information. Of course, had he asked a reference librarian in the first place one call would have been all he needed!

Ironic, of course, is that this book is among one of the most censored. Reasons for challenging this work include references to drunkeness, smoking cigarettes, "dirty talk" and the use of "damn" and "hell". In 1992 some students at Venado Middle School in California received copies of this book with some of these "offensive" words blacked out.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Drowning of Stephan Jones - by Betty Greene - Banned Books Week Day 6

The Drowning of Stephan JonesIn this novel, based on a true story, Bette Greene tells the story of Carla Wayland who is torn between her infatuation with the handsome homophobe, Andy Harris, and living the values taught to her by her super cool, liberal, librarian mother. Using his church beliefs as justification, Andy relentlessly harrasses a local gay couple. While out with Andy, and some other friends, Carla finds her strength when the bullying becomes homocidal.

This book has been challenged in several states for its homosexual themes, and "anti-Christian" beliefs (presumably because the murderer belongs to a fundamentalist church) and because it "codones illegal activity" (that would be homosexuality, not murder).
At least one teacher, Penny Culliton, of Mascenic, New Hampshire, was fired for using this book in the classroom. She eventually was reinstated, but the books were not.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Banned Websites Awareness Day - September 28

In conjunciton with Banned Books Week The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has designated September 28 as Banned Websites Awareness day. Internet filters, installed on many computers in schools and public libraries to filter out pornography and other materials deemed harmful to minors, can also block educational sites that prevent library users from finding information about such topics as breast cancer, or reproductive health. Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual and Transgendered (GLBT) youth sometimes discover that they cannot find positive, affirming sites on their school computers, which may have settings to block out all information regarding homosexuality or transgendered indivduals, or may only allow information about "reparative therapies" through. Because of a recent sutit by the ACLU several filtering companies have reset their "homosexuality" filters so that educational, and supportive content will be "unblocked" from internet searches. Find out more at

Filters also prevent students from learning for themselves how to evaluate information and how to find appropriate materials for their own research.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Day They Came to Arrest the Book by Nat Hentoff - September 27

So much to say about this banned book about a banned book. This novel tells the tale of  two righteous librarians at the fictitious George Mason High School where parents and students are protesting the use of Huckleberry Finn as a class assignment on grounds of racism, sexism, and homosexuality.

First published in 1982, this work definitely seems a bit dated in the 21st century. Nevertheless, as a teaching tool for free speech and censorship issues, it packs much into its 169 pages. Arguments for and against censorship in schools are offered, as well as "compromises" to outright book banning. As well, many of the reasons behind book challenges are given, some historic cases of book burning, and some titles of frequently challenged works including the ubiquitous Are You There God, It's Me Margaret by Judy Blume (see yesterday's post), and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (which I will be blogging about later this week).

In an ironic case The Day They Came to Arrest the Book itself was challenged in 1990 in Charlottesville, Virginia "because it offers an inflammatory challenge to authoritarian roles."

I learned a new word reading this book. In reference to her former principal, librarian Karen Salters calls Mr. Moore "oleaginous" - "resembling or having the properties of oil", or, "marked by an offesively ingratiating manner or quality" according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 11th edition.

Many years ago, I watched a made-for-television movie based on this book. Does anyone else remember the CBS School Break Special?

Monday, September 26, 2011

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret - by Judy Blume - September 26

"It's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers."
Judy Blume

Still holding on at number 99 on the list of 100 most challenged books of the 21st century, it is hard to imagine why this tame story of a 12-year old girl (Margaret) getting her period for the first time is so threatening. Those who have challenged it have claimed it was "sexually offensive", "amoral", and "anti-Christian." This was my absolute favorite book from about 1975 to 1977. I don't know how many times I read it before it was it was replaced with The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton as my new favorite (although I don't think that one has any libraries).

Are You There God? has one library scene, which was just as I remembered it. Margaret and and her classmate Laura Danker (with the big you-know-whats!) stay after school to do some research in the library. Laura tells Margaret that she can't copy "straight out of the World Book word for word....You're supposed to read it and then write it in your own words. Mr. Benedict will know if you've copied." Of course Laura is absolutely correct. It is uncalled for that Margaret comes back with a nasty accusation about Laura, Moose Freed, and Evan Wheeler and what they allegedly do behind the A&P. Margaret immediately feels awful, and tries to apologize, but Laura will have none of it. Can't say as I blame her. One thing I didn't remember about this part though, is that the librarian has one line in the midst of it all. Can you guess what it is?

"Girls-let's be more quiet." Sigh.

Sightings: Tom Perrotta's satire The Abstinence Teacher includes a passage about book challenges at a middleschool library in which Are You There God? It's Me Margaret is targeted.

Judy Blume talks about banned books in honor or Banned Books Week.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Harry Potter - For Banned Books Week - September 25

I have read all of the "Harry Potter" books at least two times, but I re-read my very favorite, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, in honor of Banned Books Week. For reasons such as the use of witchcraft and occult, anti-family bias, and lack of consequences for disobedient behavior the "Harry Potter" series tops the list of Most Challenged Books of the 21st century.

Although the librarian, Madam Pince, is but a bit player the among the band of celebates who educates young wizards and witches at the Hogwarts School she has caused much chagrin among those of us who practice the hallowed profession of librarianship, considering all we have done to promote Rowling's books. The only interaction Harry has with the school librarian occurs when she finds him in the "restricted" section of the library, and in tone we can only assume is nasty, she asks:

"What are you looking for, boy?"
"Nothing" said Harry.
Madam Pince...brandished a feather duster at him.
"You'd better get out, then, Go on - out!
 According to The Mary Sue blog, J.K. Rowling explains "that she was unable to present a kind librarian in Harry Potter because otherwise all the mysteries would have been solved in a couple of days." Uh huh. Nice save, J.K.

While that was the only time Harry Potter spoke to the librarian in this book, Harry and his friends, Ron and Hermionie, actually spend quite a bit of time in the library doing research and  homework. Even Hagrid resorts to good ol' library books when he needs to find out more about the care and feeding of dragons. All this is done without benefit of Google. They really could have found out all about Nicholas Flamel in a jiffy if they could have searched him on the net. Of course there was no Google when the first Harry Potter book was published, but today there are over 600,000 hits for our alchemist friend Nick - many of which have nothing to do with the Harry Potter books. Turns out Flamel was a real guy. Who knew?

While "The Sorcerer's Stone" is my favorite HP book, my favorite passage appears in book five: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Fans will recall that Professor Delores Umbridge takes over Hogwarts and immediately begins posting new "Educational Decrees." Decree number 23 forbids students from reading The Quibbler magazine under penalty of expulsion. Wise Hermione finds the whole thing funny and when Harry asks her what she's so happy about she explains: "Oh, Harry don't you see?....If she could have done one thing to make absolutely sure that every single person in this school will read your interview, it was banning it!" Right on, Hermione!

I must also take this opportunity to put in a good word about the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History at Regis College. As I posted previously, the Museum currently has exhibits featuring Harry Potter Stamps, and banned books stamps (where Harry Potter is also found)! We learned a lot of Harry Potter trivia through reading the displays, and talking to the exhibitor himself, Van Siegling, who was walking about with his magic wand. There were stamps not only with images of HP characters, but with plants, animals, and other magical creatures mentioned in the books. My Spanish teacher self must also mention that the Museum is also exhibiting stamps in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. So many reasons to go!

For a good read about the zealots who would ban Harry Potter I recommend "Harry Potter and the Ministry of Fire" from Forbes magazine.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Banned Books Week Starts Today

Each year the American Library Association, in conjunction with the American Booksellers Association, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and other organziations, sponsors Banned BooksWeek in order to celebrate our freedom to read and to bring awareness to the hundreds of attempts to censor or remove books from schools and libraries each year.

I have been doing displays and educational programs surrounding Banned Books Week for last ten years or so, and I am always reminded of an important lesson I learned back in library school: there is something to offend everyone; and everyone is offended by something. Religious works, children's picture books, biographies, novels, and textbooks have all been targets of censors. No library can maintain a collection without some materials that some population will find offensive. Indeed, we librarians would not be doing our jobs if we did not collect materials that explored a variety of viewpoints, however offensive some of those may seem even to us!

In honor of Banned Books Week I will post everyday through October 1 with commentary on banned books that features libraries or librarians. First up will be Harry Potter on September 25. In the meantime see my Banned Books Week websites

And watch the Read Out on the Banned Books Week YouTube Channel.Banned Books Week 2011

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Some of us just can't be helped...

Are you a Literature Abuser?

The Leftovers - by Tom Perrotta

A rapture-like event, which "disappears" people from all over the world without explanation, leaves questions for all those left behind. Why weren't they chosen? Why were they left to grieve? What is the meaning of life? Where do I go now? Some find answers by creating or joining new religions, others try to pick up the pieces and find a "new normal" with what is left.

Unlike what we find in Perrota's The Abstinence Teacherwhich has a librarian as one of the characters, and some action within the library, references to libraries in The Leftovers are few, and always just a thought, rather than a place of action. Seventeen-year old Jill, thinks about going to the library in order to skim a book she should have read for class, but decides against it. When she is late coming home her father guesses that she must be in the library. Nora Durst, who lost her husband and two young children in the "Sudden Departure" comtemplates donating her entire collection of SpongeBob Square Pants DVDs to the library. We do not find out if she actually follows through. Library as metaphor is used in describing Nora's ex-boyfriend "...a charasmatic philosophy major whose library pallor and pudgy waistline...didn't detract in the least from his brainy appeal." To which I ask: how could anyone think that a library pallor would detract from one's appeal? For that matter, why would a pudgy waistline?

This is the third of Perrotta's "suburban" novels I've read. The other two made me feel smug. As a town-center dweller, I know I am not like those cookie-cutter people who live in the suburban boxes. This book, though, made me uneasy. Several sub-cultures emerge from the remains of the Sudden Departure, each with its own set of rules, and here I a recognized myself as just another archtype, different from the suburbanites to be sure, but the same as the rest of my neighbors who also run errands on foot, and shop at the Farmer's Market.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Two worthwhile things to have in your wallet

Kari Haynes learned to drive by making good use of her library card - not by checking out books on how to drive, but by using her learner's permit to visit all 32 branches of the Great River Regional Library in New York state.  She checked out at least one book per branch, and at the end of the summer took her driving test, and earned her license.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Help - by Kathryn Stockett

In Jackson, Mississippi, during the height of the civil rights movement, three women tell their stories in this bestselling novel. Aibileen and Minny, black women working as domestics for white families; and Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan a young white woman who returns from college to find that Constantine, the housekeeper who helped raise her, has "gone to Chicago" without so much as a good-bye. Skeeter's mother is evasive when Skeeter demands to know why Constantine left and how she can reach her. Unable to picture the life her two best friends lead of marriage, family, and bridge, and complaining about "the help" Skeeter sets out to make a difference in the world by writing a book detailing the lives of the black women who work for white families in Jackson. Assisted by Aibileen and Minny she gathers stories from 13 different women, telling the good and the bad (including the "Terrible, Awful" thing that got Minny fired from her last job - something which turned out to be even worse than I'd imagined). The stories are published under pseudonyms and set in a ficticious town called "Niceville".

Most of the discussion about libraries in this work surrounds segregation, and the fact that Skeeter checks out books from the "white" library (a place she describes as smelling "like grade school - boredom, paste, Lysoled vomit") for Aibileen because Aibileen has to wait so long to get them from the "colored" library. But Skeeter also finds something at the white library she does not expect: a booklet entitled "A Compilation of Jim Crow Laws of the South" detailing various state segregation laws. A comment she writes about this work is discovered by her friend Hilly, and marks the beginning of the end of their friendship.
The Ole Miss library is where Skeeter finds out about a job at Harper & Row publishers, and although is not nearly qualified enough, applies anyway. This inquiry, and its follow-up is what starts her on her way to writing her book.

There was also a bit about banned books, one of my passions, in this work. Skeeter receives a copy of The Catcher in the Rye through the mail. She "always order[s] the banned books from a black market dealer in California, figuring if the State of  Mississippi banned them, they must be good." The pseudonym she gives to her own family in the book she writes is "the Millers...after Henry Miller, [her] favorite banned author."

Three copies of Skeeter's completed work are ordered for the Jackson, Mississippi "white" library, but a long waiting list soon grows, and the bookstores sell out, when rumors begin about a new, inflammatory book, that might just be about Jackson!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Dragon House - by John Shors

Shors' novel tells the story a young woman, Iris, who travels to Vietnam to open a center for homeless children, in order to fulfill her deceased father's wishes. The center, of course, needs a library to be complete, and the Tam Tran Center for Street Children does indeed have one. It is only mentioned twice, first only as a dream for the Center "...though a library hadn't been in her father's original design, Iris felt she must build one. How could children learn without rows of wonderful books." And, finally, in the last chapter of the book, when the Center is opened...
In the far corner, a pair of tall bookshelves comprised her library. She'd gathered almost five hundred books, many purchased by the sale of her signed first-edition novels. Several publishing companies where Iris had friends had also made donations. The books were new and written in either Vietnamese or English. The children had opened them with what Iris believed to be awe.  
Dragon House is Bridgewater, Massachusetts One Book One Community Read for fall 2011. Learn more at

Book-themed postage stamps at the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History

On September 17, 2011 The Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History will open two exhibits of interest to bibliophiles. The "Harry Potter on Stamps" exhibit features stamps from France, Great Britain, the Republic of Taiwan, and the Isle of Man with characters and objects from the Harry Potter series of books and films. The other exhibit, opening just in time for Banned Books Week, features stamps with images of banned or challenged books. A panel discussion about banned books is planned for October 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Watch this blog during Banned Books Week to learn about banned books featuring librarians! Also see my Banned Books Week webpage.