Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Banned Books

(Belated post--this ran in the 11/2/05 issue of the Centre Daily Times)

Every September the American Library Association observes Banned Book Week. This year's display at Centre County Library did not shock because of its racy titles. In fact, according to librarian D. J. Lilly, many patrons expressed shock at seeing one of their favorite books tied up with yellow tape. "What's wrong with it?" they would ask. A handout prepared from the ALA website (www.ala.org) offered various reasons, most often "offensive language."

Looking down the list of banned and challenged books was like looking at a copy of the 10th grade curriculum guide from my years of teaching literature at the high school. There was Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl," Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451."

"Huck Finn" has been controversial since its publication in 1884 when it was banned by the Concord, Massachusetts Public Library, not for its language but for its depiction of a way of life the library board considered "rough, coarse, and inelegant." Twain, whose satire on civilization is narrated by nature-loving Huck, could not have said it better himself. More recently the book has been challenged because of its use of the n-word (over 200 times in the book, mostly by Huck).

My eventual decision to substitute another coming-of-age novel for "Huck Finn" was based on putting myself in the place of a minority student in the classroom and hearing repeated racial slurs. I felt like Huck in the middle of the Mississippi, trying to make up his mind whether to turn Jim over to the slave hunters or follow his conscience and protect his friend. "Huck Finn" will always be one of my favorite books, but how and when or even whether to teach the book remains a sensitive issue.

"The Diary of a Young Girl," Anne Frank's story about hiding out with other Jews in Holland during the Holocaust documents a time in history we are still trying to come to terms with. It makes the ALA list because it is "too depressing." The subject of "Fahrenheit 451" is book burning, an irony in itself. Even dictionaries don't escape the "offensive language" charge.

In the long run, according to ALA, it is "parents and only parents who have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children to library resources." In the classroom an alternate title can always be substituted for one a parent might object to. The freedom to read comes with an option: the freedom sometimes not to read.