Book ban ignites censorship debate

When Banned Books Week, a nationwide anti-censorship event, begins later this month, members of the Baldwin school board will have plenty to talk about.

Sept. 22, the board will have a special meeting to discuss a decision by the district’s superintendent to pull the award-winning book “We All Fall Down” from a ninth-grade orientation class.

Though many of the students were already well into the novel, which delves into topics such as teenage alcoholism and violence, Supt. Jim White ordered the book pulled after two complaints from parents.

White’s decision, without input from the school board, drew almost immediate criticism.

“It’s a case where one or two parents are forcing their personal beliefs on all students in the district, and that’s wrong,” board member Stacy Cohen said.

Cohen wants the decision reversed.

The book by author Robert Cormier includes weighty topics and profane language. After the parent complaints, White ordered copies of the book seized from the class taught by Joyce Tallman.

“We had some concerns about that particular book,” White said.

The superintendent said he read parts of the 1991 book and it was clear to him that it was not fit for his own daughter or granddaughter, so he ordered the book pulled.

White said the book would remain in the high school library, but couldn’t be used for the class.

Missing policy framework

Cohen said the superintendent likely overstepped his authority.

She based that conclusion on her reading of the district’s policy manual. She said there was no policy that would allow people to challenge the district’s classroom curriculum.

“The key is we need to put the book back in the classroom and look at creating a policy,” said Cohen, a former English teacher.

She said the district had a policy on challenging library materials. Under those rules, challenged books must stay on the library shelf until the issue is fully resolved.

The original letter objecting to “We All Fall Down” was filed by Lori Krysztof, who has a daughter in the high school orientation class and teaches kindergarten in the Baldwin district.

“I’m asking that the book be taken out of the curriculum for the class,” she said. “I have not asked that the book be banned.”

Krysztof said she found more than 50 objectionable passages while reading the 208-page work of fiction. The book’s profanity and sexual content were what she found most troublesome, she said.

Good timing

The school board scheduled a special meeting 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at district headquarters to decide whether “We All Fall Down” would be withheld or returned to the orientation class.

Timing of that session is unusual in that it will occur during Banned Books Week, a national event Sept. 20 to Sept. 27. It’s sponsored by six organizations involved in literary affairs. The theme is “Open Books for Open Minds.”

Banned Books Week attempts to shed light on books that have been banned or threatened throughout history, including the Bible, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

“We All Fall Down” ranks 41st among the 100 most frequently challenged books from 1990 to 1999, according to the American Library Assn.

In a published interview, Cormier attempted to explain why some find his writing unacceptable:

“I think it makes some people uncomfortable because I recognize that life isn’t always a series of happy endings. My books go against that. The hero doesn’t always win, and sometimes you’re not sure who the bad guy is.”

The ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom recorded more than 7,000 formal, written book challenges since 1990, including 515 in 2002. That may account for about one-fourth of all challenges, ALA reported.

A majority of protests are brought by parents, followed by library patrons and administrators.

“Unfortunately, any book can come under attack for any reason,” said Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. “I hope families will pick up a banned book and read it and discuss it together.”

Challenges in Lawrence

The Lawrence public school district hasn’t been immune to challenges of books in the library and classroom.

In 2001, William Shakespeare’s play, “Merchant of Venice,” was unsuccessfully challenged by Phyllis Allen of Lawrence.

She wanted it stricken from an advanced English course’s required reading list at Free State High School, but a district committee denied the request.

The district also received a challenge to the 1974 book “Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat: Superstitions and Other Beliefs” by Alvin Schwartz in 2001.

In a request seeking removal of the book from eight Lawrence elementary school libraries, Kennedy School parent Andrea Simpson wrote “Cross Your Fingers” should be withdrawn because it promoted the Christian faith and portrayed Wiccans as dangerous.

“Witches would not kill, drive people crazy, make one sick or do any type of spell against anyone,” she wrote.

The district rejected that complaint.

In 1996, inclusion of “Wait Till Helen Comes” in the curriculum was questioned on the grounds that the book presents suicide as a viable way of dealing with family problems. The complaint also was denied.

Librarians fear inquisition

Arla Jones, a librarian at Lawrence High School, said aggressive attacks on materials in library collections had a chilling effect on librarians as they choose which books to add to their collections.

She said pressure from the public to micromanage collections has increased during her 19 years as a librarian.

“We really have to focus on what the reaction of parents is going to be,” she said. “We have an internal censor following us around.”

Jones said high school students should be allowed to read widely. After all, she said, they are allowed to drive 75 miles per hour on the highway or enlist in the U.S. Army to fight a war in Iraq. But some people believe they’re not ready to read important, controversial books while attending high school, she said.

“I read some of the frequently challenged books in junior high,” she said. “I don’t think they scarred me.”