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Banning books

Banning books — Why titles get removed from school and public libraries across the country

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What, apart from their colorful titles, do Little Red Riding Hood, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Color Purple have in common? They are all, improbably enough, among the books frequently targeted for removal from schools and libraries by an increasingly vocal sector of American parents. In Cheshire, Conn., this month, parents demanded the removal of Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins (winner of a National Book Award) and Jan Slepian’s The Alfred Summer, citing them for profane and blasphemous phrases such as ”you maniac,” ”stupid kid,” and ”dirty joke.” ”I’ve never had a year like the last one — there are more censorship attempts than there have ever been,” sighs Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which assists librarians in their efforts to keep books from being banned. ”Last year, we heard about 600 reported cases — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This year we’re already seeing substantially more than last year.” David Crane, vice president of People for the American Way, an organization that, among its other activities, monitors book-banning in schools, reports that ”pro-censorship groups have grown extremely sophisticated in their attacks on books and teaching materials. There are an awful lot of people out there who want to turn our public schools into Sunday schools and they’re real active.”

What kinds of books get hit? Works dealing with sex, feminism, teen rebelliousness, AIDS, homosexuality; less predictably, books that describe the inequities of the black experience, such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree, or works that suggest non-Christian religious practices, including fairy tales that have the word devil or witch in the title. In Au Gres, Mich., parents demanded Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary be barred because it included profanity. Little Red Riding Hood was temporarily lifted from Clay County, Fla., school libraries because the protagonist’s basket contained wine for her grandmother. And Impressions, a children’s reading series published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, has been under frequent attack for promoting ”occultism” because it includes both fairy tales and fantasy stories.

Although only one third of all reported book-banning efforts are successful, the monitoring organizations admit that they only hear about a fraction of the attacks. Who’s doing all this censoring? Mostly parents affiliated with ultraconservative pressure groups such as Citizens for Excellence in Education or Focus on the Family — though book banners have also included black parents offended by Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But the assault on a book can come from almost anywhere. In a double-whammy censorship strike, Roald Dahl’s The Witches was removed from a Kentucky elementary school because parents found it ”occultic, nightmarish, and unfit for young children,” and because a local coven complained it portrayed their coreligionists ”negatively.”