Monday, November 29, 2010

The right to not sell a book...

A short while ago, Amazon began selling a book on Pedophilia; not just about pedophilia, but about how to be a pedophile. This, understandably, caused some uproar. But when Amazon removed the book from their virtual shelves, some people cried that it was a violation of free speech. An article in the Vancouver Sun had a few things to say on this situation: "there's a distinction between banning a book and asking a seller to take it off the shelf. A boycott is a market mechanism between sellers and customers. It isn't a form of coercion."

This article argues that the removal of the book is not a form of banning, since it is not trying to get rid of the book from ever existing, but simply a marketing strategy that conforms to the desires of consumers. I have no reason to counter this argument. Personally, I wouldn't want that book on any bookstore shelves at all, but that is not to say that I don't think the author had a right to write the book and get it published. There are differences there.
And, in fact, a positive conception of freedom of speech can lead to some perverse consequences. If everyone has the right to read books on pedophilia (distinct from the right to be protected from a government ban on such books), then they have the right to demand those books from bookstores -- which means someone might have to compel those bookstores to sell them.  
Any attempt to silence unpopular speech, even when it doesn't violate the right to free speech, is counterproductive. Denying someone a platform, in a democratic country with vigorous media, is the best way to make sure they get lots of attention.
Of course, other issues ensued from this debate.  Amazon defended the right to sell the book and defended the rights of those who may buy it, but soon after the book disappeared from the website with no fanfare, no statement, no defense.  They simply went against their policy at the last minute with no explanation.  This behavior from such a large and influential company is in itself rather disturbing.

Do you have any thoughts on the subject?  Do you think there is a distinction here between the right to free speech and the right to purchase literature?  

Friday, November 26, 2010


I was going through some old sources on books banned and challenged in the last few years and I thought I would post a simple, non-ranting post today because ranting just gets me upset for the rest of the day.  Today will be about the facts only regarding the removal of Laurie Halse Anderson's Twisted from the Montgomery County High School curriculum in 2009.  This information comes from "Books Challenged or Banned in 2009-2010" by Robert P. Doyle.

Withdrawn from classroom use and the approved curriculum at the Montgomery County, Ky. High School (2009), but available at the high school library and student book club. Some parents have complained about five novels that contain foul language and cover topics — including sex, child abuse, suicide, and drug abuse — deemed unsuited for discussion in coed high school classes. They also contend that the books don’t provide the intellectual challenge and rigor that students need in college preparatory classes. The titles appeared on suggested book lists compiled by the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, for twelve- to eighteen-year-olds who are “reluctant readers.” The superintendent removed the book because it wasn’t on the pre-approved curriculum list and couldn’t be added by teachers in the middle of a school year without permission.

Source: Jan. 2010, pp. 16–17; Mar. 2010, p. 56.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Appleton SD Book Review Update...

On Friday, October 29th I wrote a post about the Appleton School District and a challenge to the novel The Body of Christopher Creed.  The review committee met and voted 13-0 to keep the book in the classrooms according to Kathy Walsh Nufer on  A review committee is specifically created to bring a number of people together in one room to discuss a novel critically and to determine its usefulness as well as all of its positive and negative qualities.  This committee met and made their decision, and this, one would hope, should be enough.  But alas, such is not the case.

A parent has decided that because of the unanimous vote to keep the book in place, the system must be flawed!
Krueger questioned how the review committee could truly represent a cross-section of the community when its vote was unanimous to keep the controversial book as part of the required curriculum.
"I find fault with how the committee is assembled," he said. "The selection process itself reeks of cronyism, where the end result is a group of like-minded individuals and where a book challenge that is not politically correct is destined to fail."
I find fault with this parent's way of thinking.  Just because something is unanimous does not mean that it's a failure of democracy.  A review committee is, in some ways, like a jury.  While it does not have to decide unanimously, each member must provide all of their reasoning for their decisions regarding the book, and in doing so, some members may be persuaded of certain things or swayed in a direction they did not originally intend to go.

What did make me happy in this case, was the Superintendent's decision to actually follow policy and defend the decision, telling Mr. Krueger that "once a book has been challenged and a determination made, it cannot be challenged again for two more years."

There you have it parents, if you don't like the book and you feel it's just too unfair somehow to opt your own kid out of reading it, go ahead and come back in two years to try and take it away from every other child in the district again.  K, thanks, bye.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Quick! Cover up those sculpted genitals!

You heard me right, sculptures are the culprits in this round of "Ban That Textbook!"  Actually, I just came up with that category right now, and it probably won't last long because I'm forgetful, but it sounds catchy, so I'm keeping it this time.  Anyway, back to genitals...

According to Kim Williams at the Plano Star:

The content in a Humanities textbook has brought complaints from some parents, followed by the book’s removal from the shelves of the schools by the Plano ISD.
The district removed the textbooks after two people complained about photos of nude sculptures and other works of art from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, as well as the Italian Renaissance.
How much further is censorship of images going to go if not even 1,000 year old sculptures aren't safe from simple minds.  Did I say simple?  I meant to say simple.  Whoops, there I go again.  Sorry, perhaps too many incidents in one week has just gotten me upset, frustrated, befuddled, or all of the above.  But back to the article.  Kim Williams continues,
“Initially, the material was to be replaced with alternative resources,” Range-Stanton [director of communications for the school district] said. “After further review of local board policy EFA, our secondary curriculum staff has determined that the book, ‘Culture and Values: A Survey of the Humanities,’ should be considered a supplemental instructional resource for the course, since it is locally chosen and purchased and is not provided within the state textbook adoption process.”
Thank goodness the book is back!  But that's not the story here.  The story is that the book was removed in the first place due to only two complaints out of hundreds and thousands of students.  And not only that, but the official process of review was not even followed in the first place.  The initial removal of the book sparked intense public outcry, especially from former students:
Ashley Meyers, a former Plano student, used the book seven years ago; in response to the district’s decision to remove the book, she started a Facebook campaign which received support from 576 Facebook members. The Facebook campaign inspired letters and e-mails to be sent to the district out of concern. 
Maran Nelson, another former student who used the text in her humanities class, said she joined Meyers’ group on Facebook and even sent out e-mails to more than 600 people in hopes of their support.

Nelson, as it turns out, shares my perspective:  
Nelson was glad to hear that it was all a 'big mistake' but said she believes that a single parental grievance does not constitute a mob of opposition, which she feels is what happened when the district pulled the book. 
"This unwarranted textbook replacement would have had a deleterious impact on the Humanities course curriculum and the reputations of PISD schools,” Nelson said. “The district has already done a great disservice to its local and national public image by allowing the non-issue to progress as far as it did.”
So, why am I ranting about this when it's all been taken care of?  As I said before, I'm upset that it was an issue at all.  I stated in a previous post that I'm surprised how often School Districts are simply allowing one or two parents to throw a wrench in the entire system.  The School Districts are not standing up for their schools and their teachers and the decisions made to bring students a good, well-rounded educational experience.  They don't want a "problem" but they end up with more and bigger problems when they don't make any effort to defend the texts or the teachers, instead throwing them in front of the proverbial train first.  Katherine Terrell, yet another former student, said that, 
she appreciates the desire of parents to protect their children from content they consider inappropriate, but she wanted to encourage both parents and PISD to consider the consequences of that action.

“As the college application process becomes increasingly competitive, parents should encourage the highest possible quality of education for their children. Part of that education is an appreciation for world culture and arts, and artists from the ancient Greeks to Michelangelo to Picasso have chosen to represent the nude form,” Terrell said. “To erase these works from a course in art history is to misrepresent history itself.”

 Let's not mis-represent history if we can help it.  We all know there is enough bias already in textbooks and it's difficult to find quality texts that actually inform and give solid representations to students.  So how about we try not to get rid of those that are doing a good job simply because we don't like the fact that a sculpture is naked.  If it's that big a deal, take away your child's textbook and place sticky notes over the "naughty bits" you don't want them to see.  Not too difficult, and a whole lot less messy than removing the book from everyone else's more educated hands.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dear Mr. Huxley, I wish this wasn't the case...

See, even Mr. Huxley can't believe it.
A Brave New World is under attack yet again, but not for sex this time.  No, this time a mother/daughter team has decided that because the book contains depictions of "Native savages" that it should be removed from the curriculum immediately.  There are several problems here.

The first problem revolves around the "Native savages" themselves.  Huxley's book was published in the 1930s and attitudes toward Native Americans were very different than they are today.  Attitudes change, but the text, since it is printed, does not.  It becomes a social artifact that reminds us of how we have treated people, placed them into categories, presented them as stereotypes.  These depictions are lessons in change, not something that should be taken as offensive in an entirely different social setting.  This is the exact same thing that is happening with To Kill a Mockingbird and the use of the "N word."  Again, it's contextual and reveals social attitudes during specific time periods.  The words are on the page already: Deal with it!

Secondly, the mother declared that "We are not about book burning and we're not radicals.... We're not trying to in any way censor that book, we're just saying it does not belong in high school. It is not appropriate for the curriculum."  Well, unfortunately getting a book removed from a curriculum for unfounded or personal reasons can be considered a form of censorship, especially since the school chose to comply so readily.

What I find just as difficult to understand, is the willingness of schools to sacrifice their teachers so readily.  The teachers who help choose and refine classroom texts and lessons, and those who put so much effort into defending their decisions, are turned away so easily:
The chair of the language arts department, Shannon Conner, defended the merits of the book calling it a "superb warning book about our future. Huxley cautions his future readers from becoming too reliant on, and compliant with, technology." But at the same time, the high school apologized and determined that the "cultural insensitivity embedded in this book makes it an inappropriate choice as a central text in our 10th grade curriculum."
I really don't know what to say.  It's infuriating, saddening, and discouraging to know how easy it is to force your own personal views onto entire schools and larger populations.  This woman and her daughter could have easily asked for an alternative text to work with, but instead they felt it necessary to take the book entirely out of the curriculum in an attempt to prove that they were somehow wrongly harmed by reading a book that could have served as a learning experience regarding social attitudes over time.  Needless to say, I'm incredibly disappointed.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Teens Take a Stand...

Tom Dalton wrote an article on November 10th about students in Salem who staged an all-night reading of Banned Books in celebration of their freedom to do so.  
Jefell Campos, a junior at Salem Academy Charter School, drew stares yesterday as he walked down the school corridor.
"I decided to go all out," said the 17-year-old, who was wearing red, white and blue one-piece pajamas and a Patriots stocking cap with dangling dreadlocks.
On most days, Campos would have been sent home.
But yesterday, he was a celebrity — one of 40 seniors and juniors taking part in "Banned Books Jim-Jam!" a nonstop reading of banned or controversial books. It was part educational sleepover ("Jim-Jam" is British slang for pajama party) and part living lesson about a precious freedom.
When I read this, I smiled, something which happens all too little these days as censorship and literary challenges become ever more prevalent, and for worse reasons than ever.  The students heard of one incident in which a book was banned because the last name of the author could be confused with a Marxist writer.
"Just because your last name is a communist's name, why would you ban a book?" [Campos] said. "This country is getting stupider. People's freedom of speech is being taken advantage of, and I think it's time for people to stand up and say, 'Enough!'"
These students reminded me that some young people actually care about their freedoms; they don't take it for granted and forget that it is something to celebrate and appreciate.  I wish more schools would partake in such activities, but for now I will have to be satisfied with the work of one such institution.

Even more impressive is that teachers were involved as well!
It was 15 straight hours of public reading, by teachers and students, from the American Library Association's list of books that have been banned, restricted or challenged in communities across the United States. [emphasis added]
 The students read from a number of books throughout the night, being kept awake with Red Bull, sub sandwiches, and popcorn.  They were even treated to a pancake breakfast in the morning before they went away to catch up on sleep.  The following books are a sample of what they read from over the course of the event:
The Color Purple
A Separate Peace
The Kite Runner
The Call of the Wild
Of Mice and Men
Brave New World
To Kill a Mockingbird

It's great to finally hear a positive story of students standing up for their rights to read literature with important ideas and for them to realize that this right is important enough to stand up for.  They did have fun as well, but that's part of the appreciation.  Have you seen this sort of event put on by schools near you?  Or even in libraries or other institutions?  It would be great to hear if this sort of event is happening in other places throughout the world.  As always, thanks for reading!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Another Mockingbird Article...

I would like to bring your attention to another article on the To Kill a Mockingbird performance controversy.  I think it has a lot of good things to say and the author of the article takes a very well-rounded approach to the situation, citing a number of members of the review committee.

Read the article here.

***UPDATE (Nov. 16)***
According to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, "A committee of nine district employees and parents decided Monday morning that the material is appropriate for high school students but did not say whether the school should produce the canceled show."

Hopefully a decision will be made soon and the students will be able to put on the production.  As the drama teacher mentions in the article, it's the drama students that are the most hard hit by this whole mess.  They are the ones who were shut down and are now waiting to hear if they can go on.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

There's such a thing as context, people!

One of the many things that confuses me, is the sudden--and by sudden, I mean over the last decade--attempt to get rid of classic works of literature, from A Brave New World to 1984 to To Kill A Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn.  I'm not going to lie and say that I love each one of these books and that I want to read them again and again, but I feel that each work is definitely important and has many lessons to teach.  I can't figure out why there is such a sudden rise to leave these out of school curricula or to remove them from library shelves.  I've spoken a bit before about perceived innocence in youth and children, and here again I wonder where these perceptions come from.  This idea that children and young people are somehow innocent of racism, sex, offensive language, etc., is just plain confusing to me.

I recently came across an article by Mark Lane, of the The Daytona Beach News-Journal, which speaks to the removal of a school production of To Kill a Mockingbird at Flagler Palm Coast High School, on the basis that it used the "N-word," as if people have never heard the word.  People seem to forget about context a little too often.  There is a difference between yelling "nigger!" (this is one of those context moments, so please don't go saying I'm racist) at someone out of anger and a desire to inflict emotional or psychological pain, and using it in a play that is describing the harm associated with racism and racial slurs.

There is also a second issue that raises its head in a situation like this: censorship breeds publicity.  Mr. Lane writes:
Speaking as the parent of a former high school theater student, I can tell you that had this play gone forward, a few people would have complained during intermission, only to forget about it by curtain call. An assistant principal would have had an animated telephone conversation with a parent who was offended after talking to someone who had heard about the play. And an angry letter to the editor may have found its way to this newspaper.
And that would be about it.
Instead, administrators now find themselves talking about censorship and political correctness to out-of-town television and newspaper reporters.
This is the same case as the banning of Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which subsequently led to higher book sales in nearby book stores.  Censoring only leads to more interest, which leads to more fighting.  It is undeniably counter-productive.

Another issue at play here is the age of the students, and the perceived innocence that adults place on them.  This was a high school production!
Remember, these aren't little kids we're talking about here. These are high school students. They are allowed into R-rated movies all by themselves. They know how to read things on the Internet. A student play is unlikely to harm their sensibilities.
It is here that I will leave you because I wish to remain somewhat neutral (even though this blog is obviously subjective and biased) and I don't want to end up ranting and raving for pages and pages.  What I want to leave you with are the following three reminders:

1) Children are not as innocent as adults try to pretend.
2) There is such a thing as context, and this should never be forgotten.
3) Censorship only leads to greater publicity.

Monday, November 8, 2010

On a lighter note...

I wanted to start off the week with happier story, possibly something that wasn't an example of exclusion, but an example of inclusion.  Yesterday, I received an email from the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table of the American Library Association (GLBTRT), describing reactions to the new Stonewall Children's and Young Adult Literature Awards, which was announced on November 1st.  According to a blog article in the New York Times,
The new award, called the Stonewall Children’s and Young Adult Literature Award, is for an English-language book “of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered experience,” the association said on Monday. Stonewall Awards for adult books have been handed out since 1971.
Roberta Stevens, the president of the American Library Association, said in a statement that children’s books that include the experiences of gays and lesbians “are critical tools in teaching tolerance, acceptance and the importance of diversity.” 
The books chosen for ALA awards are often sought out and used by a great many teachers and schools because the association is known for its high standards and careful scrutiny of works of literature.  It's a good day way a new and growing genre gets this kind of attention and praise.  And that's it for today.  Have a good week!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Scared New World

Brave New World is Aldous Huxley's famous satire about a world gone to extremes with science, technology, and ethics.  Now that same satire is part of another satire in which groups of parents go to extremes trying to protect their children from good, classic, quality literature.  Someone should write a book about that!  Oh wait...

North County High, according to the Maryland Gazette, has been asked to remove Brave New World from the curriculum in both a new Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics program as well as the advanced placement honors program.  One member of the group advocating for the book's removal had this to say:
 "If you were to have images in what is depicted by this book - you would go to jail," said petition organizer David J. Cole of Linthicum. "If that's the type of literature that (the schools) think is appropriate for children … I disagree with that."
What Mr. Cole doesn't seem to realize is that the same can be said of other books, such as The Holy Bible as well as Judy Blume's Forever.  Not only that, but there is nothing explicit within the book itself (it's not erotica!), but some descriptions and suggestions can definitely lead to interesting visuals in the imagination.  But again, that can be said of many, many books, and has more to do with the individual reading the text than the text itself.
Linda Poole, who heads up the Secondary Reading, English and Integrated Literacy program, called the book an "excellent example of satire."  The supplemental text deals with ethical issues revolving around science and technology, she explained.  "This is a satire written with that in mind - what could happen if science is misused," said Poole. "It is an internationally recognized text."
I don't think I will ever truly understand what drives parents to attempt such blatant attempts at censorship with such poor reasons and arguments.  Not only that, but as in other similar challenges that I've blogged about, I wonder why these parents can't just be satisfied with an alternative text being used for their child, instead of having to deprive every other child in the school of the chance to read important works of artistic merit.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A recent article in Publisher's Weekly took up the issue of censorship on a very broad scale.  Andrew Albanese reported that a federal judge halted the implementation of a Massachusetts law that would ban certain works from the Internet and punish distributors of works deemed to be “harmful to minors,” deeming it overly broad and in violation of the First Amendment.  The law was highly contested by publishers and a large group took matters into their own hands shortly after the law was passed:
The decision comes after a group of booksellers, advocates and trade associations sued the state in July, arguing that the sweeping new law breached the First Amendment because it could be used to ban virtually anything from the Internet, including material adults have a First Amendment right to view.  Plaintiffs included the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Harvard Book Store, the Photographic Resource Center, Porter Square Books.
This is a perfect example of how defense of one cause can lead to limitations of human rights in other areas.  While I am most definitely against promoting gratuitous sex and violence to minors or works/texts that exploit minors, attempting to enact a blanket law is an incredibly ineffective way to go about it.  The article quotes Carol Rose of the Massachusetts branch of the ACLU:
“The problems with this law show the danger of legislating out of fear, and in a hurry,” said Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “This case is a reminder that we need to remain ever-vigilant in the defense of basic civil liberties against lawmakers who try to capitalize on cases involving children to expand government power in ways that could be used to silence booksellers, artists, healthcare providers, and the rest of us.”
Issues surrounding children, innocence, and the protection of both, are volatile at best.  Those who wish to argue for human rights are often seen as "the bad guys" because by allowing certain rights, there is the opportunity for that right to be abused.  And that is why I so often advocate for the family relationship to be one in which certain rights are regulated.  Parents have the right to know what their children are reading, but not to place their values on every other family in a school.  And people certainly have the right to protect children from potentially threatening literature or sources on the internet, but not by attempting to create some sort of blanket law that hinders the right of the majority of the population to read or seek out the materials they want. 

I know, it's a slippery slope, but certain things on slippery slopes are worth fighting for.