Banned Books Week: It can happen here

It’s too easy to think of book challenges in the abstract. The fact is it is something we confront even here.

If you take a look at a map showing documented challenges to books in schools and libraries in the United States, you’ll see South Dakota has two push pins.

In 2010, “Paul Shaffer’s We’ll Be Here for the Rest of Our Lives was challenged, but retained, at the Mitchell, S. Dak. Public Library despite a resident’s concern that the book was objectionable with its ‘too frank depictions and discussions of sex and sexual matters.’ Written by the longtime leader of David Letterman’s band, the book is filled with show business stories and tales of Schaffer’s upbringing in Canada.”

In 2009, “Stuck in the Middle: Seventeen Comics from an Unpleasant Age (Ariel Schrag, ed.) was pulled from the school library collections at two Sioux Falls public middle schools. The book is the work of sixteen cartoonists who recreated true tales from their middle-school years. The book’s major themes are bullying and boy-girl awkwardness. Masturbation and marijuana show up in passing, and several of the vignettes include words most parents wouldn’t want to hear from their children.”

But the map missed one other challenge in the Sioux Falls School District. Last year, a parent of a high school student complained about Identical, a novel by Ellen Hopkins available in the high school’s library. The book discusses rape, incest and drug use, but last November a committee of parents and school employees decided it should remain available. What raised eyebrows is that when the matter came before the school board, it did not see the parent’s original complaint, the committee’s written recommendation or even a list of who served on the committee. The School District said the state’s public records law didn’t apply to that information because the committee was created by the superintendent of schools, not the school board.

It is perhaps encouraging that in two of the three cases the material was retained. Still, as I observed a year ago, I am somewhat dismayed by the removal of Stuck in the Middle because of the views I discussed yesterday. Removing material rather than placing reasonable restrictions on it allows a handful of people or one person to dictate what is appropriate for other people’s children.

I suppose that writers should, in a way, feel flattered by [censorship. It shows] a primitive fear and dread at the fearful magic of print.

John Mortimer, Clinging to the Wreckage

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