Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's Perfectly Normal

I suspect that many (I didn't say all) involved in the library debate simply haven't taken a close look at the challenged materials. For that reason, I'll include a few book reviews in this blog.

I'll start with It's Perfectly Normal because it's one of the toughest to deal with: there is actually some substance, however little, to the debate about this one. It's also different from many of the other books objected to by the CCLU, WBC4SL, Ginny Maziarka, etc. Unlike most of the others, this is non-fiction. And, since it is heavily illustrated, the evaluation of its alleged obscenity is somewhat different than for literature.

It's Perfectly Normal provides factual answers to the kinds of questions frequently (almost universally) asked by young people entering or experiencing puberty. It's about body parts and body functions, changing feelings, social aspects of sexuality, and the like. A lot of information is packed into 96 pages, which is one of the reasons the book has won multiple awards and is endorsed by a number of medical and child-education groups. Information on HIV, AIDS and STDs is included, as is a discussion of abstinence and postponement of sex as valid (but not the only) choices.

The book can be found in a huge number of school and public libraries throughout Wisconsin and the U.S. The American Library Association has listed this as one of the most frequently challenged books in some years, but this is more a measure of its extreme commonness than of its supposed luridness. In the vast majority of cases, the challenge has failed, and the book has remained on the shelf in the Young Adult or Children's section.

Yes the book is illustrated, with cartoon-like drawings similar to, but more explicit than, those you can see on the front cover (pictured above). The most explicit of the illustrations, selected by opponents of the book, can be found at this link, which I've copied from the WISSUP blog:


The pictures shown at that link are taken out of context, but are otherwise accurate.

As can be expected with anything having to do with information about sex for young people, parents vary in their perception of this book. Some are grateful for such a resource either to give to their children to read or to read together with them. Some would prefer not to give their children the information in this book, and others find the material objectionable. Private opinion and public policy are not the same thing, however.

Is it pornographic? That's a matter of individual opinion. Pornographic is not a technical or legal term, so anybody can call anything pornographic. It's Perfectly Normal is pornographic if you think any depiction of nudity, even a cartoon drawing meant to communicate medical facts, is pornographic. It's pornographic if you think factual, medical information about sex and sexuality is pornographic. But calling something pornographic, at least in so imprecise a sense, is no basis for censorship, nor especially useful in any other way.

Is it obscene? That's a much easier question to answer, since the term obscene has technical and legal definitions. To meet the definition of obscene, the book would have to be patently offensive, prurient, and without serious value. Some might consider It's Perfectly Normal to be patently offensive, since that is very much in the eye of the beholder. Some might try to call it prurient, but it just doesn't qualify, since by definition a simple and frank interest in sex and sexuality is not prurient. Of course the book has serious value, since it provides accurate and useful information that young people entering puberty both want and need. Since the book meets at most one out of the three tests for obscenity, it is not obscene in any legally actionable sense.

Would a warning label help? No. A parent who doesn't pay attention to the phrase "Sex and Sexual Health" right there on the front cover isn't going to notice some other kind of label. Would moving the book out of the Young Adult section help? No, since that does nothing to restrict anybody's access to anything unless you also have physical restraints controlling which patrons can go to which parts of the library.

If it isn't legally obscene and there's nothing to be gained from labeling or reclassification, what's the real issue here? Let's be honest. It's not the medical information or the cartoonish drawings that upset those who object to It's Perfectly Normal. The problem with this book is that it mentions sex and sexuality without attaching shame, fire or brimstone. Worse, it mentions the fact that homosexual people and homosexual relationships exist, without adding a note of condemnation. Those who want to restrict access to this book aren't worried about depictions of sex or information about sex. They're really not even trying to control what their own children learn about the real world, since they can manage that by basic parental supervision.
The only thing that's left is that they're trying to control the perspective on the world that is open to other people's children. Culture war. That's politics.

It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, written by Robbie Harris and published by Candlewick Press.


  1. Non-Censor, I am always amused by the pornography claims.

    The porno- part of the word meant prostitute in Greek, while the -graphy part meant write. Pornography thus means writing about prostitutes and, by extension, material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal.

    If Ginny Maziarka and her cohorts find this book pornographic, it must cause them sexual arousal, which only goes to show that they may not have experienced enough to write home about yet.

    After my long time on Earth, "how it all works" comes a little short of arousing for me. How about you?

  2. CNN story: "Caldwell-Stone, who monitored the dispute, said moving any young-adult book to the adult section would have been a form of censorship, even if teens were free to check them out." Brookfield, Waukesha, and Oshkosh libraries all shelve _Perks_ in Adult Fiction. Does this mean they are censoring books? Why do you think they choose to shelve it that way?

  3. I'm not sure I agree with Caldwell-Stone's position, but it might be interesting to hear a detailed explanation.

    If teens can still find a book, read it in the library, or check it out, then I doubt that merely shelving it in the adult section amounts to censorship. It's just a pointless waste of time and energy that accomplishes nothing.

    I suppose you could argue that it's censorship in the sense that a teen browsing the Young Adult shelves just wouldn't find the book. That's a bit weak. But if you couple that shelving choice with some kind of physical access limitations in the library, or limit the ability to find the book in the online catalog or in book lists, then you've clearly gone over the edge into censorship.

    Perks, Perfectly Normal and similar books are shelved in Young Adult sections in most libraries because that's their audience. The books are of comaratively little interest to grown ups.

  4. Understood. But why do you think some libraries are shelving _Perks_ in their Adult sections? Is it because they don't want to expose themselves in the same way West Bend has? Would this also be why most libraries in SE Wis do not have gay-themed book lists for YA? In fact West Bend is the only library in Wash Co with such a list and no libraries in Waukesha Co have one.

  5. I wish I knew the answers to your questions, but I don't.

    The shelving choice in the libraries you mention does raise in my mind a suspicion that either the library staff were TRYING to censor the stuff, or they were just trying to avoid an argument. I say that because those books are usually classified as YA and libraries usually follow general practice, so not following the pack was probably a conscious choice.

    Sad if it was just to avoid an argument. It shows how the public debate can induce a kind of auto-censorship. Insidious, that.

    Did the shelving choices in those libraries actually rise to being censorship? You'd have to have a lot more information to answer that question, in my view.

    Ditto the Gay lists. Maybe the other libraries didn't see any community interest or didn't have anybody on staff who felt they knew enough to put it together. Or maybe they were, again, afraid of controversy.
    I wish I knew.

    I've been mulling over whether I think just reshelving (and nothing else) amounts to censorship, and it occured to my that I may not know the way a lot of people go about using the library. I'm dreadfully academic, do everything by computer, and rarely just browse book stacks. It might be that others, especially teens, spend more time just browsing shelves?

  6. Kind of late to comment on this (and Non-Censor has commented on this in other posts), but whether or not it is censorship when a book is moved is determined by the intention behind the move. In the case in West Bend, the group that wants the books moved is suggesting the change because they do not approve of the content of the material and feel it is "inappropriate." (Mind you, the books do not meet the obscenity test.) They don't want to move books to widen the audience for the material; they want them moved so the YA audience will have less access (because they will be out of the realm of the section that serves them.)

    Obviously, different libraries have different criteria for cataloging books. Most examine review resources and how other libraries categorize them. Works the same in bookstores. When a librarian or cataloger puts a book in the general section instead of YA because that's where the book should be according to that library's cataloging policies/determinations based on reviews/research, that's not censorship. If he/she does so because he/she objects to the content and wants to limit access by the YA crowd, that would be censorship.

    Locally, many bloggers have said "it's not censorship because the YA patrons and/or their parents can still check out the books." Doesn't matter. If you are removing the books from a section with the intention of restricting access (even if it's not completely restricted), it's censorship.