Law and Conversation

September 26, 2011

Read this: a Banned Book

DailyLit, among many others, reminds me that it’s Banned Books Week here in the US.

Isn’t it paradoxical that the books someone’s periodically kicking up a fuss over and trying to ban, or succeeding in banning, from schools and libraries are frequently classics? Those that aren’t, it seems to me, end up as merely forgettable and forgotten, not influential. In either case, the fussing seems silly to me, as in last year’s case of the brouhaha over Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel, “Speak.”

DailyLit invites readers to post their personal favorite banned book; so far responses include Huckleberry Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Catcher In The Rye, and The Bible. The American Library Association has lists by year here.

Some banned books that have a special place in my own heart, though I don’t see them on the ALA’s or DailyLit’s lists, are comic books, which Frederic Wertham, a German-born psychiatrist who emigrated to the US in the 1920s, campaigned against in the mid-20th century. A recent novelization of that period is Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2001. More on Dr. Wertham, including a cartoon of him from an issue of MAD magazine, is here.

I’ll have more on comic books and books about them in my next post. (Redhead, are you still there? Thanks to you, I *finally* read Chabon’s book!) In the meantime, I hope readers will join me in commemorating Banned Books Week by reading a book from the ALA’s lists. DailyLit has “The Scarlet Letter” available for free!

October 8, 2010

Everyone needs stories

The sad tale of the teenage Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, who killed himself last week by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student posted a video they’d clandestinely shot of him in an intimate encounter with another male, together with the attempted banning of Laurie Halse Anderson’s YA novel, “Speak,” in Missouri a couple of weeks ago, has me thinking about how everyone needs stories. 

Author Cheryl Rainfield wrote of her own childhood abuse and in support of Halse Anderson’s book:

“[A]llowing children and teens to find reflections for their own experiences; being able to read about those experiences in safety while gaining knowledge to arm themselves; or encouraging readers to speak out and find healing themselves because of what they’ve read is SO important.”

The suicide of another young gay person, reportedly after intense bullying based on his sexual orientation, inspired Chicago native and writer Dan Savage to start a story video project to let young gay people know that It Gets BetterIn Savage’s words, “I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”   He’s asking other gay adults to make videos of aspects of their life stories, hoping that young people who watch them will realize that tough times don’t last forever.  As Chicagoist reports, only 11 states, including Illinois, currently specify LGBT students as a protected class in anti-bullying and harassment legislation.

Bullying for any reason, of course, is shameful, as is discrimination on grounds unrelated to people’s ability to do their jobs, or afford housing, or other matters.  But drafting a law that prohibits bullying without being overbroad is not an easy task.  Though many look to the law above all for power, story can sometimes be an even more powerful and enduring bulwark against evil, as the responses to “Speak” and the “It Gets Better” project show.

Difficult real-world subjects that many young people have to deal with include not only sexual abuse and coming to terms with sexuality but also poverty, parents’ unemployment, war, racial prejudice, divorce, substance abuse, and eating disorders.  Here are some books with great stories that portray young people coming to terms with some of those issues:

“Ramona And Her Mother,” by Beverly Cleary (parents’ job difficulties, family tensions)

“Houseboat Girl” and “Cotton In My Sack,” as well as others in the American regional series by Lois Lenski (poverty)

“Wintergirls,” by Laurie Halse Anderson and “Perfect,” by Natasha Friend (eating disorders)

“Lush,” by Natasha Friend (parent’s alcoholism)

“Where The Lilies Bloom,” by Vera and Bill Cleaver (poverty, loss of parents)

“Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry,” “The Gold Cadillac,” and many other books and stories by Mildred Taylor (racial prejudice)

“The Ark,” by Margot Benary-Isbert (war)

“A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” Betty Smith (poverty, parent’s alcoholism)

“Veronica Ganz,” by Marilyn Sachs (divorce, family tensions, bullying)

“Will Grayson, Will Grayson,” by John Green and David Levithan (sexual identity)

“Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank (ethnic prejudice, war)

Traditional folk and fairy tales, “Little Women,” by Louisa May Alcott, and the “Little House” books, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, may not readily come to mind when thinking about children’s or YA books with edgy subjects.  But fairy tales often include poverty and wicked stepmothers, Marmee and her brood are struggling with the absence of the girls’ father due to war, and the “Little House” books depict a family living hand to mouth and clawing themselves up through a series of unremitting disasters that weren’t unusual for their time.

Are there any books or stories that have helped you through a difficult time in your life?

October 1, 2010

Slaughterhouse-Five and Banned Books Week

Filed under: Books and writing — Helen Gunnarsson @ 8:32 am
Tags: , , ,

As I previously reported, I’m reading Kurt Vonnegut‘s “Slaughterhouse-Five” in honor of Banned Books Week.  I’d hoped to have finished the book (a slim volume) by today so I could review it, but too many other tasks with higher priority have intervened, so I’m only up to page 65.

I can report that the book is beautifully and tightly written and draws the reader in.  From reading this editorial, and since the characters in the book are, after all, soldiers on a wartime front, I’d expected plenty of profanity.  At this point, though, there’s been hardly any.  I’ve leafed through the remainder to see if the language becomes more profane, but I’m not seeing many four-letter words in the rest, either, in contrast to what the editorial’s author alleged. 

True, the content has some horrifying stuff–but the book is about war, and war is, after all, horrifying.  I can’t think of any good reason to sweep that under the rug.  Shouldn’t we who are fortunate enough not to have participated in battles or lived where wars have recently taken place educate ourselves about what those who haven’t been so lucky have had to endure?  Vonnegut knew what he was writing about, having survived the 1945 firestorm of Dresden when he was an American POW.

An excerpt from Vonnegut’s “Palm Sunday:  An Autobiographical Collage” in which Vonnegut reacts to his book’s being burned in a North Dakota school furnace by the janitor, at the school board’s direction, is here.  (Hat tip:  Laurie Halse Anderson.)

The Guardian has a quiz so you can test your knowledge of banned books.

September 30, 2010

Dinner guests from purgatory

Thanks to Zimbabwean lawyer and writer Petina Gappah for posting a link to South African writer and filmmaker Gillian Schutte’s account of a dinner party not quite from hell, but, perhaps, from purgatory.  Schutte’s impromptu guests were 2001 Nobel literature laureate V.S. Naipaul and his wife, Nadira.  I’m disappointed that she doesn’t report whether they brought a hostess gift!  The site that published Schutte’s review, BOOK Southern Africa, looks like a great resource for those interested in South African literature.

South Africa banned Shirley Jackson’s famous and deeply unsettling short story, “The Lottery,” after it was published in 1948.  On learning of the banning, Jackson reportedly said she was pleased, for it indicated that the South African authorities at least understood her story

After The New Yorker published Jackson’s story, it received hundreds of letters expressing shock, confusion, and disgust, which the magazine forwarded on to Jackson.  Some letters were abusive, and, indeed, Jackson’s own mother told her that neither she nor Jackson’s father liked it and wondered why Jackson didn’t write something uplifting instead.  An analysis of the story that appeared in the spring 1985 issue of the New Orleans Review is here.

I’ve previously noted that it’s Banned Books Week here in the US.   The American Library Association has published lists of the most frequently banned and/or challenged books, not just in the US, but in other countries as well, together with summaries of the reasons stated for the challenges or bans.  According to this article, Playboy reported in 1984 that “The Lottery” was among the 30 most often banned works in American schools and libraries.  But it’s required reading in many schools also, including the 6th grade honors English class in my own community.

Anyone who still thinks that “Twitter is for twits” should consider how writers and passionate readers (including me) harnessed its power to publicize an attack on Laurie Halse Anderson‘s terrific YA novel, “Speak,”  as reported by The Guardian, among other publications.   And any reader of my posts can tell that I don’t generally approve of banning books.  So many classics have been the subjects of banning attempts, and, whatever the book’s merit, it seems obvious to me that trying to prohibit people from reading a book has demonstrably the opposite of the desired effect, serving only to whet curiosity.  In fact, I well remember my own reaction the one and only time that my father, who, throughout my childhood, used to take me to the library (my favorite place!), told me I was not to read a book–“Love Story,” by Erich Segal.  That summer at camp, on discovering that one of my 11-year-old cabinmates had a copy, I immediately borrowed it from her and read it–and, on finishing, thought “That’s IT??!?”

First Amendment advocate though I am, I would agree that there are publications that have no redeeming value and should be legally prohibited, with criminal penalties for their creators.  Child pornography comes to mind, as do crush videos.  But, as the litigation over the law prohibiting the latter shows, it can be very difficult to craft legislation that doesn’t violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (though the Senate is again trying).

Do you agree?  What do you think?

September 27, 2010

Read This: Banned Books Week

Filed under: Books and writing,First Amendment,Law,Read This!,YA — Helen Gunnarsson @ 12:16 pm
Tags: ,

It’s Banned Books Week here in the US.  I thought a good way to celebrate it would be by reading one or more books that have been banned or the subject of banning attempts, so I’m planning on checking out Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” which, along with Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak” and “Twenty Boy Summer” by Sarah Ockler, was the subject of a complaint to the school board of Republic, Missouri

According to the local newspaper, Vonnegut’s book was removed from the Republic schools; the other two are still there.  For a description of the extent to which local school boards may exercise discretion over removing books from school libraries, see Island Trees School Dist. v. Pico by Pico, 457 U. S. 853 (1982).

I read “Speak” as well as another acclaimed YA novel by Halse Anderson, “Wintergirls,” last week and have put Ockler’s book on my list as well.  I might not have read any of these books absent the editorial attacking them, which caused quite a fuss last weekend among many of the readers and writers I follow on Twitter, including Halse Anderson.  My reaction clearly wasn’t unique, since, I see, the Springfield (MO) News-Leader, which published the editorial and subsequent articles about the controversy, has a sidebar noting that every single copy of those books has been checked out from the local library and is the subject of multiple holds.

The complaint about the books cites the profanity in “Slaughterhouse Five” and the references to sexual activity, including rape, in the other two books as support for the complainant’s argument that they “should be classified as soft pornography.”  In his editorial, he asked “How can Christian men and women expose children to such immorality?”  But more than one person commenting on the various recent editorials in the News-Leader cited Biblical stories of incest (Lot and his daughters) and other similarly pungent tales, and wondered whether the complainant would extend his logic to the Bible.  Most of those who actually read the books in question also observed that they actually make strong statements against the violence that they refer to or depict.

Banned Books Week comes on the heels of a Gainesville, FL minister’s announcing, and then canceling, a public burning of the Koran.  Miriam at Dystel and Goderich Literary Management made the obvious link to Ray Bradbury’s classic “Fahrenheit 451,” saying “books, like phoenixes, rise from the flames of censorship.”

I recommended “Speak” last week.  After reading both that book and “Wintergirls,” a story about a teen’s struggle with depression and anorexia, I was mightily impressed.  Both, in my view, are excellent books for tweens, teens, and adults alike to read.  How any thinking person could argue that “Speak” qualifies as “soft pornography” is absolutely beyond me.

What’s your reaction on hearing that someone wants to have a book removed from a library or reading list?  Does that pique your curiosity so that you then want to read it?  Do you think it’s effective at keeping the book away from people?

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