Monday, December 28, 2009

TTYL by Lauren Myracle

A bestseller, Lauren Myracle's TTYL is a peek into the friendship between three 15-to-16-year-old girls in a typical 10th-grade milieu.  The book is written as a series of IMs. That is, it is made up of Instant Messaging "chats" via computer (the title refers to the chat room abbreviation for "Talk To You Later").  The reader is eavesdropping on private conversations between the three main characters.

TTYL is written to appeal rather narrowly to young women near the age of 16; readers any significant distance from that demographic will find the book rather light and fluffy.  The book is part of a series including TTFN ("Ta Ta For Now) and l8r g8r ("later, gator").  My review of TTYL will have to stand for the whole series, because I am NOT reading the others.

The book contains occasional strong language and some references to (but no outright descriptions of) sexual activity.  Some alcohol use occurs, but no smoking or drug use.  Actions have consequences, as when drinking leads to public embarrassment.  One character, through naivete, gets herself into a potentially sexual situation, but her friends intervene in a way to prevent anything from happening.

Frankly, the material some might find objectionable is quite light in TTYL compared to that found in many other books marketed to the around-10th-grade age-group. Few parents who have actually read the book will object to their 15-year-old reading it.

In spite of its age-appropriateness, TTYL is frequently challenged.  It appears on the American Library Association's list of Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2008 and Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2007, for rather unlikely reasons listed as "offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group".  A superintendent actually removed the book from a middle school library in the Round Rock (Texas) school district, in spite of a review committee's recommendation that the book be retained.

It is clear that most book challengers never read the books they challenge.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Two and a Half Million Dollars in Jeopardy Due to Possible Fraud?

SafeLibraries proclaims today: 

Two and a Half Million Dollars in Jeopardy Due to Possible Fraud 

at the Brooklyn Public Library. He believes that the library has taken government funds that make the library subject to the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA), but is violating the terms of the act by allowing adult patrons to view pornography on library computers.  

If I may present my non-lawyer's opinion in opposition to his non-lawyer's opinion, SafeLibraries is here again showing that he doesn't understand what the CIPA law says, nor the related US v. ALA Supreme Court decision that upheld that act. The act does require that libraries accepting certain government funds implement internet filters on all library computers. But both the act and the decision require that adult patrons be able to deactivate those filters on demand. This is necessary to keep the filter requirement constitutional, since even highly accurate filters will sooner or later block an adult from accessing material he or she has a legal right to access. SafeLibraries seems either unable or unwilling to acknowledge this, even though he quotes part of the Supreme Court decision that explicitly requires the bypass option:

Concerns over filtering software's tendency to erroneously "overblock" access to constitutionally protected speech that falls outside the categories software users intend to block are dispelled by the ease with which patrons may have the filtering software disabled.
In his post, SafeLibraries acknowledges that the pornography in question is legal (neither of us has reviewed New York state laws on the matter).  He also acknowledges that the viewers are adults, not minors.  There is, then, no basis at all for his claim that the library has committed some kind of fraud, has violated the CIPA, or has violated any other kind of law.  There is no basis at all for his assertion that "the library needs to comply with the law or return the money."

I agree with SafeLibraries that the library could probably do more to limit the upset caused to some patrons when other patrons visibly access pornography on computers inside the library.  Privacy screens and policies restricting the use of library computers could both work in that direction.  These would be voluntary, however, and not required by law.  But SafeLibraries prefers legal restrictions to common-sense policies.

What is most disturbing about SafeLibraries' post is his unfounded claim that "legal pornography may be excluded legally."  It is true that in some states the law restricts the access of minors to some kinds of pornography that are legal for adults.  But that is not the question in this case, which is about adult access.  If the material in question is legal for adults, and is being accessed by adults, who, by law, have the right to bypass the CIPA-required filters, what is the legal issue here?  I invite SafeLibraries to post a comment explaining that here.

This is a clear example of why censors cannot be trusted.  The CIPA was designed to protect children from pornographic materials, and while the practicality of that law is dubious, it's goals are laudable.  But SafeLibraries, and others, want to take this law places it was never intended to go.  They want to use a law designed to protect children to restrict the legal activities of adults.  They want to use a law designed to protect children to restrict the Free Speech of adults.  You can never give them an inch, for they will surely take a mile.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More on the Robert B. Downs Intelletcual Freedom Award

An article appearing today in the School Library Journal continues earlier coverage of the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award granted to the West Bend Community Memorial Library for resisting  this year's censorship attempts.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Non Sequitur on Censorship

The Non Sequitur Cartoon of 15 Dec 2009 is worth printing out and tacking on the refrigerator door. It's a scream.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Perks of Being a Wallflower

I avoided reviewing The Perks of Being a Wallflower for quite some time.  Based on the descriptions circulated on the internet by the would-be censors, this book is supposed to be unspeakably filthy, and I just didn't want to deal with it.  They claim it contains foul language, sex, molestation, drug use, rape, violence, bestiality, suicide, homosexuality, etc. etc.

And it's all true.  Well...... sort of.

Stephen Chbosky's book is a gritty and real-world look at the lives of 15-to-17-year-olds.  The book is a series of intimate letters written by a young man who is struggling to understand both himself and the society around him.  In addition to the usual awkwardness of the teenage years, Charlie has some specific emotional problems that make it harder for him to understand himself and others.  Identifying and resolving some of those issues is a central theme of the book.

While many parents are in frank denial about this, the teenage world in the book is quite real.  It involves school, cliques, dating, preparing for college, and the like.  It also includes parties, sex, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.  The teenage characters live in a world of choices that is at times overwhelming, and they don't always make the right decisions.  While the book leads the reader to understand, even to sympathize, nothing in the book glorifies those mistakes: actions have their consequences.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is no more lurid or raw than scores of other books aimed at the 15-and-over age group.  It's treatment by censors would make it seem that this book is unusually or especially objectionable, but that is simply not the case. This is one more in a long list of examples in which one parent describes what he or she found objectionable, and then ignores any and all literary value, reducing the book to just the objectionable details.  Taken out of context, the objectionable details become a lopsided and misleading description of the book, and that lopsided description then gets repeated endlessly and uncritically by people who don't read.

I have to caution Free Speech advocates not to jump to the conclusion that all the claims of the censors are at best exaggerations, and more often simple lies.  Sooner or later, if only by accident, something a censor claims to be obscene or harmful to minors will turn out actually to be so. I just haven't found one yet.  We have to read to verify their claims because that is the one thing they are the least likely to do themselves.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

West Bend Library Wins Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award

Congratulations to the West Bend Community Memorial Library in Wisconsin!

The Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign announced on December 8th that the West library was the winner of the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award.  Their web page says, in part:
The faculty voted overwhelmingly to give this year's award to the West Bend Library for its steadfast advocacy on behalf of intellectual freedom in the face of a library challenge that garnered national attention. The efforts of the library board, Library Director Michael Tyree, the library staff, and many supportive community members are to be commended.
"The West Bend librarians, library board, and library supporters demonstrated the strong and steadfast advocacy on behalf of intellectual freedom that is the focus of the Downs Award. Despite the enormous media attention that the controversy received, they were unwavering in their support of the public library's responsibility to provide a diverse collection to serve *all* community members," said Christine Jenkins, GSLIS associate professor and director of the Center for Children's Books.
 See the announcement at the GSLIS web page, and other information at:

Bless Me Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima is a magnificently written coming-of-age story.  Although this is a novel, author Rudolfo Anaya draws heavily on his real-life experiences growing up in a Spanish-speaking community in New Mexico in the 1940s.  He paints a colorful and textured picture of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, and multi-religious environment, exploring the tensions that arise from the successes and failures of blending disparate cultural elements.

Young Antonio, the main character, struggles to find harmony among the conflicting aspects of his own nature.  His father's family are cowboys, a loud and boisterous people accustomed to living on the high plains, wanderers of open vastness, riding horses before they can walk. His mother's family are quiet, settled farmers of the valley, people attuned to the earth, who hope Antonio will grow up to be a Catholic priest. Contention over which of those paths he might take begins quite literally at his birth, and Antonio is both cursed and blessed with elements of both natures.

Ultima, who has a profound influence on Antonio's life, is a curandera, an herbalist, healer, and midwife.  Some revere her as a woman who has never sinned, while others fear she may be a sorceress or witch.   Antonio and Ultima share a deep bond, for it is in the nature of both to feel  the rhythms of the earth and the seasons, to sense the presence -- not quite a spirit -- of the river, and to dream prescient dreams.

I read this book slowly, savoring the prose. At times, I stopped to read a paragraph over again, sometimes even out loud, just for the joy of the language.  I think most readers will find this book worthwhile, but I have to acknowledge my own special interest in it.  I am an anthropologist by inclination as well as training, and so am impressed by Anaya's gift for translating cultures, and not just words.

I plan on incorporating this book into some of the anthropology courses I teach, because I think it can be a valuable learning experience.  I am certainly not alone in making that evaluation, since the book is widely used in high school and college classes.

It would be criminal to deny this book to any reader old enough to comprehend its language.

Yet Bless Me, Ultima occupies position number 78 on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books of the 1990s, and made it to position number five on the list for 2008, for reasons of "occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence."  While charges that the book is sexually explicit are fabricated out of nothing, the other complaints have some factual basis.  There is violence in the book, essential to its life-and-death theme, and none of it gratuitous.  Strong language is used, most of it in Spanish, and all of it a realistic portrayal of the way people speak. Occult themes are also central to the book, which is not always kind to the Christian religion, although no claim for one religion over another is actually made.

An LA Times article of Feb. 4th, 2009, describes one recent challenge. The book was left in the school library but was taken off a 10th-grade reading list at Orestimba high school in rural California.  This was instigated by a parent who "initially complained about the vulgar language, the sexually explicit scenes and an anti-Catholic bias," and later added that the book's themes "undermine the conservative family values in our homes."   While the school board claimed their ban was motivated by excessive profanity, one cannot help but suspect that school board unlawfully removed the book because of objections to the ideas it contains.

More info on Bless Me, Ultima can be found on Wikipedia, Cliff Notes, and Spark Notes.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What Does Obsession Look Like?

Obsession:  "Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or unwanted feeling or emotion, often with symptoms of anxiety.  A compulsive, often unreasonable, idea or emotion causing such preoccupation." [American Heritage Dictionary]

If you want to see what obsession looks like, check out the double-whammy on SafeLibries' blog today, GLSEN Gets It, the ALA Doesn't and Phyllis Schlafly Exposes ALA Fraud.  Both show the lack of sound judgment and unwillingness to face simple facts that come from unhealthy obsessions.

Both posts do the one thing that is most important to SafeLibraries, far more important than protecting children from pornographic books, which is to heap blame on the American Library Association.  I don't object to laying blame where it belongs, but I do object to heaping blame on the uninvolved, as SafeLibraries does in these posts.

In his first post, he blames the ALA for the fact that two books written for quite different age groups happen to be next to each other on a grocery store shelf.  The two books in question, "Bob the Builder" and "Looking for Alaska"  would not be placed together in most libraries. Arguably, they shouldn't have been together in the grocery store either, but what has that to do in the slightest with the ALA?   It is impossible to imagine that the ALA has the any influence or even awareness, let alone control, over how books are arranged on a grocery store shelf, yet SafeLibraries would have us believe that this juxtaposition is somehow the ALA's fault.  Somehow, in his mind, the ALA had a responsibility to warn the grocery store management of the difference in intended age group for the two books.  Not the authors, not the publishers, not the grocery store management who decided one way or another to acquire these two books, not the grocery store managers who decided how to arrange their inventory, but the uninvolved ALA.  This is a level of irrationality that comes only from unhealthy obsession.

If that weren't a sufficient example of obsession, Safelibraries goes on to repeat an especially thoughtless post by Phyllis Schlafly from her Eagle Forum.  Somewhat behind schedule, or perhaps lacking something more constructive and timely to say, Schlafly claims (again) that Banned Books Week is a Hoax perpetrated by the ALA.  In addition to inappropriate spin, her post contains two patent falsehoods.  First she says that "only government can engage in censorship" This arbitrary and self-serving redefinition of the term is ridiculous, as if a semi-literate mob breaking down the library doors to pull out all the books they object to wouldn't be censorship, just because it wasn't being done by government.  Secondly, she writes: "These people accused of being 'book banners' are just ordinary parents who want to limit their own children’s exposure to material they consider harmful or obscene."  That's not spin-doctoring, it's a simple lie.  Parents who really are trying to limit their own children's exposure are not labelled "book banners." But they are so labelled when they go beyond their own family, trying to rob other parents of the right make different choices.  Even that wouldn't be so bad, if it were true that they were worried only about harmful or obscene material.  The sad and well-documented fact is that many parents go far beyond that concern, demanding the removal of books for social, religious, and political reasons that have nothing to do with obscenity or harmfulness, going far beyond any kind of censorship the law will allow.

Rightly or wrongly, we might choose to overlook Ms. Schlafly's factual flub in this area.  After all, she's not a specialist in Free Speech regulation or library practices.  Those who make a study of this area cannot be so excused.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Wrinkle In Time

A Wrinkle In Time is a bit of fantasy, a bit of science fiction, written for older children and younger teens.  Adult readers will find it a bit light, although many have fond memories of reading the book when they were younger. A significant work of literature, it has it's own Wikipedia and Spark Notes entries, and has won the Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award.  In addition to these honors, author Madeleine L'Engle held a dozen honorary degrees and received awards such as the ALAN Award for outstanding contribution to adolescent literature, from the National Council of Teachers of English.

I read this book looking for objectionable material, and I found absolutely none.  The usual things that provoke censorious ire, such as descriptions of sexual activity, adult situations, strong language, glorification of crime, etc., are completely absent.

Yet the book is challenged. It occupies position number 23 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most challenged books of the 1990s.  Challenges are described in Foerstel's book Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries and in McClellan's Madeleine L'Engle: Banned, Challenged and Censored.

Objections to the work are primarily religious, at least some of them the result of judging the book on the basis of excerpts rather than reading the entire work.  A Wrinkle in Time is frankly religious, asserting the existence of God and a clear demarcation between good and evil. More subtly, the book is also distinctly Judeo-Christian, naming Jesus and quoting scripture (without the usual citation of chapter and verse).  Some objections arise because thee of the characters appear to be witches, although reading the whole book reveals that those are merely transient appearances of beings that are later identified as guardian angels.  There are no examples of magic or spells, but it is a question of interpretation as to whether some characters are using technological devices or supernatural powers, such as using a crystal ball to show several people what is going on in other parts of the galaxy.

Those who object in spite of having read the entire book are usually fundamentalist or otherwise doctrinaire Christians who object to the liberal Christian, even pantheistic, style of the book (and of the author).  For example, some feel that the book demotes Jesus from a unique incarnation of divinity to just one of many teachers.  In Trojan Horse: How the New Age Movement Infiltrates the Church, authors Scott and Smith claim that L'Engle's influence is penetrating mainstream Christianity in spite of her denial of basic religious tenets.  In Battle to Destroy Truth, Claris van Kuiken called L'Engle's books "repulsive, dangerous, subversive, and treacherous," a characterization that most readers of the book would find incomprehensible. (I'm quoting and paraphrasing these sources from McClellan's book, mentioned above.)

Some parents have chosen to opt their children out of classroom assignments that require reading this book.  Disturbingly, that has not been enough for some, who have also called for removing the book altogether from curricula or even library shelves. There is, of course, no legal basis at all for censoring a book over differences in religious perspective.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Richard Wright's Black Boy

Black Boy, by Richard Wright, is an important and frequently challenged book.  An author of note, Wright is himself the subject of several biographies and works of literary criticism.  Black Boy, and some of Wright's other books, are used as teaching tools in middle schools, high schools, and colleges.  The book is the subject of volumes of Cliff Notes and Spark Notes, and has it's own Wikipedia entry.

Often the center of controversy, the book is semi-autobiographical, describing the author's own experiences growing up poor and black in Mississippi in the 1920s.  The author shines a light on some of the darker recesses of recent American history, painting a gloomy picture of race relations and economic opportunity (or its lack) that is unflattering to all.

Censors try too often to claim that the books they object to are all worthless trash, and this certainly one of the works that resoundingly falsifies that claim. Once again, I must thank the censors for calling attention to a fine piece of literature.  I found this a fascinating and rewarding read, a deep and uncommonly honest look into a part of American culture many would prefer to forget, written by someone unusually gifted both as a social observer and an expressive writer.  Wright is an iconoclast, a burster of mythological bubbles, the one person in the room willing to say out loud that the emperor has no clothes.

Objections are sometimes raised, claiming that the book is too sexually explicit and contains foul language.  Having just read it, I can say that those constitute a very small part of the book, which contains nothing too serious or explicit for any teenage reader.

More honest objections to Black Boy have been political and social.  The author was at one point a member of the Communist party.  While he later repudiated the party, this fact was enough to provoke calls for the suppression of his writings.  The book portrays human beings as brutal, selfish, and exploitative.  It's portrayal of southern society of the 1920s is decidedly unflattering. It also violates major American cultural taboos in at least two ways.  First, it dares to suggest that lack of economic opportunity profoundly alters human character and behavior, challenging the Horatio Alger mythology of the downtrodden pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.  Second, it dares to suggest that religion can be part of the system of worldly power.

Speaking of censorship, I point out the 1945 remarks of Mr. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, sometimes Governor and sometimes US Senator, who condemned the book in no uncertain terms.  Bilbo was, according to Wikipedia, a segregationist, a white supremacist, member of the Ku Klux Klan, and author of a book titled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization.  He made these remarks in the US Senate, so they are included in the congressional record (June 27th, 1945, 79th Congress, 1st Session, Congressional Record Volume 91, page 6808):
There is another book which should be taken off the book racks of the nation; it should be removed from the book stores; its sales should be stopped.  It is the recent book of the month, which has had such great sale. . . . It is entitled "Black Boy,"  by Richard Wright. . . . He wrote the book Black Boy ostensibly as the story of his life.  Actually it is a damnable lie from beginning to end.  It is practically all fiction.  There is just enough truth to it to enable him to build his fabulous lies about his experiences in the South and his description of the people of the South and the culture, education, and life of the southern people.  The purpose of the book is to plant the seeds of hate in every Negro in America against the white men of the South or against the white race anywhere, for that matter.  That is the purpose.  Its purpose is to plant the seeds of devilment and trouble-breeding in the days to come in the mind and heart of every American Negro.  Read the book if you do not believe what I am telling you.  It is the dirtiest, filthiest, lousiest, most obscene piece of writing that I have ever seen in print.  I would hate to have a son or daughter of mine be permitted to read it; it is so filthy and so dirty.  But it comes from a Negro, and you cannot expect any better from a person of his type.

While the Senator provided some of the most vitriolic rhetoric against the book, he was not alone in challenging it.  Black Boy has it's own entry in Karolides' Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds, where just some of the censorship attempts against it are described.  The book was banned in Mississippi for a time.   Infamously, in the 1970s, the book was included among those that the Island Trees School Board tried to remove from their school library.  The Board characterized Black Boy, Vonnegut's Slaughter House Five, Morris' The Naked Ape, and other books as "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Sem[i]tic, and just plain filthy," and they stole into the library at night and removed them.  This resulted in the Board v. Pico decision, in which the US Supreme court clarified that school boards cannot remove a book merely because they disagree with its message.  Attempts at censorship still crop up, mostly over the use of the book in classroom curricula.

I found the following two quotations especially striking.   More than the few and slight descriptions of sexual activity or the occasional use of strong language, these are the issues that motivate objections and challenges.  Each of these quotes addresses quite different issues, and each speaks volumes in a single paragraph:
I began to marvel at how smoothly the black boys acted out the roles that the white race had mapped out for them.  Most of them were not conscious of living a special, separate, stunted way of life.  Yet I knew that in some period of their growing up -- a period that they had no doubt forgotten -- there had been developed in them a delicate; sensitive controlling mechanism that shut off their minds and emotions from all that the white race had said was taboo.  Although they lived in an America where in theory there existed equality of opportunity, they knew unerringly what to aspire to and what not to aspire to.  Had a black boy announced that he aspired to be a writer, he would have been unhesitatingly called crazy by his pals.  Or had a black boy spoken of yearning to get a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, his friends -- in the boy's own interest -- would have reported his odd ambition to the white boss. [p. 172]

There were more violent quarrels in our deeply religious home than in the home of a gangster, a burglar, or a prostitute, a fact which I used to hint gently to Granny and which did my cause no good.  Granny bore the standard for God, but she was always fighting.  The peace that passes understanding never dwelt with us.  I, too, fought; but I fought because I felt I had to keep from being crushed, to fend off continuous attack.  But Granny and Aunt Addie quarreled and fought not only with me, but with each other over minor points of religious doctrine, or over some imagined infraction of what they chose to call their moral code.  Wherever I found religion in my life I found strife, the attempt of one individual or group to rule another in the name of God.  The naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn. [p. 119]

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian novel about the near future of the United States, or at least part of it, after ecological degradation and political turmoil lead to a theocratic revolution.  Reduced fertility combined with religious bigotry create a rigid, ideologically controlled, sexually repressed society in which women are virtual slaves.  For women, in particular, reading and learning are forbidden.  It won the Nebula Award and Booker Prize in 1986 and the Prometheus Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award in 1987.  Often a part of school curricula, the book has it's own Wikipedia entry, and it's own volumes among Cliff Notes and Spark Notes,

Canadian Author Margaret Atwood has won these and other awards, and holds honorary degrees from at least a dozen universities.

The Handmaid's Tale also ranked 37th on the American Library Associations list of most challenged books for 1990 to 1999, and is listed in Sova's book Literature Suppressed on Sexual Grounds.  Challengers sometimes object to sex scenes, brutality toward women, or a bleak view of the future. Anyone who reads the book will realize that these claims are exaggerated to hide what is really bothering most challengers, which is that the book portrays fundamentalist religion (of any kind) as a hurtful and destructive force.

While responding to censorship attempts, I am often reminded of The Handmaid's Tale, as censorship plays a prominent roll in the story.  It is a prophecy of what life could be like if the censors win, if those who fear books and ideas come to power, if those who don't read get to tell those who do read what they can and cannot read.