Students in Missouri’s Republic school district won’t find Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer in their school libraries. Classics like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Grapes of Wrath are on every “top banned books” list in the country.
I wanted to know what unpopular literature my kids may not have access to at school, and thought I could turn it into a valuable lesson, so I asked my middle-schoolers to check with their librarians. They even explained that Mom expressed an interest in “writing about banned books”. Operation Lesson Learned was a no-go; the librarian they asked put the [temporary] kibosh on our lesson by refusing to provide a list of banned books. “That’s that”, my daughter summed up. Not so fast. The list of censored material was censored?
Since it was after school hours at this point, I called my local public library. I spoke with a friendly voice in the reference section about how to obtain a list of banned books in my area and/or in my school district. I explained that I had fruitlessly checked the district’s website and that my children were refused a list at school. After an assurance that the Wentzville branch of public libraries did not participate in censorship, I was told that the absence of a list from the school district may mean that there aren’t any banned materials. Furthermore, banning is different than “challenged” materials. I was directed to the American Library Association website for more information.
Apparently a challenge is the first step in “removing or restricting” material. For schools, this may mean a person or group of people would approach the school board and challenge a book or idea being used or available in a school. Usually it is done to protect children from ideas or knowledge that challenge instigators find undesirable or disagreeable. When a challenge is made, a committee is formed to determine if it has merit. A banning is simply a successful challenge and more rare than you may think.
Through a series of informative charts and graphs on the ALA’s website, I picked up a few more things. First, as previously noted, the books most often challenged and/or banned are also the most read and in most cases the most praised. One could argue that banning a book makes reading it more desirable. The top four reasons given for challenging a book in order from most to least: sex, offensive language, violence, age appropriateness. (what is up with our sex hang-ups anyway?)
So I know how and [mostly] why it’s done but I still don’t know which, if any, materials are banned in my kids’ school district. The list was so difficult to obtain, it was either highly offensive or non-existent. At this point, I was no longer mildly curious. I was going to get that information from someone, somewhere. It was time for another phone call.
I rang up the kids’ school and connected with the library. After explaining what I was after, I was transferred to the head librarian’s desk where I left a message. Soon after, my phone buzzed the Star Trek theme song. Bingo.
The good news is that there wasn’t a big secret. The head librarian did not know of any banned books (she would know, right?) and in the many years she has held her position, she told me she has participated in only one challenge committee. The challenge: a book called Puppies. The reason for the challenge: a single reference to the word ‘bitch’ as it applies to…yep, puppies. Because the single reference to the term ‘bitch’ was used in an informative context and not intended as derogatory, it was deemed appropriate usage and the challenge went nowhere.
The potential bad news is that I have yet to get a definitive answer. Given the lack of information online, the word of my school’s head librarian, and the lack of student or parent outrage, I’ll assume our school is relatively censorship-free. Little to no censoring insofar as it applies to books, anyway.
The lesson, I told my kids, is that while it is okay to have and promote your own beliefs and opinions, it’s not okay to [systemically or otherwise] force them on others. It’s okay to decide what books your children read, it’s not okay to make that decision on behalf of other parents. Why? Perhaps because our forefathers understood that knowledge is power and the desire to ensure the people had this power led to writing of the very first amendment to the Constitution. The more varied and culturally diverse the information we have access to, the more knowledgeable—and thus powerful–we can be.
Stacy Mergenthal is an activist for progressive causes and voice for the working class. She currently resides in Missouri with her family.