Banned Books Awareness: “Naked Lunch”


200px-NakedLunch1steditionNaked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs, was originally published in 1959 and is included in Time magazine’s “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005”. Burroughs stated that the chapters, or “routines” as he calls them- are a collection of loosely-connected vignettes and intended to be read in any order which follow the adventures of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases from the U.S. to Mexico and other places. The stories come from Burroughs’ own experiences and his addiction to drugs (heroin, morphine, and while in Tangier, “Majoun”- a strong marijuana confection-, as well as a German opiate called Eukodol, of which he wrote about frequently).

It was originally published as The Naked Lunch in Paris in July 1959 by Olympia Press, but due to U.S. obscenity laws a complete American edition did not follow until 1962 and was titled Naked Lunch. This edition was noticeably different from the Olympia Press edition because it was based on an earlier 1958 manuscript in Allen Ginsberg’s possession. The article “the” added to the title was never proposed by Burroughs and added by the editors of Olympia Press.

Burroughs states in his introduction that Jack Kerouac suggested the title. “The title means exactly what it states: naked lunch- a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.”

Naked Lunch is Burroughs’ signature work and considered today one of the pillars of American literary history despite being quite controversial with subjects such as drug use and homosexuality.

Sections of the original manuscript were published in the Spring 1958 edition of Robert Creeley’s Black Mountain Review and the Spring 1958 edition of the University of Chicago’s student-run publication The Chicago Review. The student edition was poorly received and caused the university’s administration to discuss the future censorship of the Winter 1959 edition of the Review, resulting in the resignation of all but one of the editors. When the editor, Paul Carroll, published BIG TABLE Magazine (Issue No. 1, Spring 1959) alongside former Chicago Review editor Irving Rosenthal, he was found guilty of sending obscene material through the U.S. mail for including “Ten Episodes from Naked Lunch”, a piece of writing the Judicial Officer for the United States Postal Service deemed “undisciplined prose, far more akin to the early work of experimental adolescents than to anything of literary merit” and initially judged it as non-mailable under the provisions of 18 U.S.C. § 1461.

The book was banned in Boston and Los Angeles in 1962 and several European publishers were harassed.

The controversy even resulted in an infamous 1965 obscenity trial taking issue with its inclusion of child murder and acts of pedophilia, but that decision was reversed in 1966 by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Appeals Court found the book did not violate obscenity statutes and ruled it to have some social value. The hearing included testimony in support of the work by Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer.

For a further- and thoroughly-interesting read- here is a link to a partial transcript from the trial involving testimony by Ginsberg and noted author Norman Mailer. Here’s a snippet:

Q: When you use the words, “absolutely fascinating,” and so on, do you mean also, it has importance to you as a writer and other writers? Are you expressing notion of its importance?

Mailer: It has enormous importance to me as writer.

As for its social value, that is derived from the social discourse the work prompts on various subjects- specifically the death penalty. In Burroughs’ “Deposition: A Testimony Concerning A Sickness”, “The Blue Movies” which appear in the routine “A.J.’s Annual Party”, is considered “a tract against capital punishment.”

Naked Lunch was also banned in Australia from 1960-1973 and labeled as “hard-core pornography” by Customs after an imported copy was seized at Port Adelaide in February 1960.

Chairman Kenneth Binn’s report on ‘Naked Lunch’, 3 October 1963

In September 1963 the Literature Censorship Board received an application from Clem Christesen, founder of the literary and cultural affairs journal Meanjin, to import the novel under Regulation 4A of the Customs Act, which allowed prohibited literary books to be placed on restricted circulation. The Board didn’t agree with the Customs Department’s decision to ban Naked Lunch as pornographic recommended that Christesen’s request be approved. However, the censors unanimously agreed to retain the ban on the general sale of the book. Chairman Kenneth Binns concluded that “there is no need to note any particularly objectionable scene or passage for the book is so full of them and the general writing so extremely coarse that one need only consider the general character and tone.”

By July 1973, Naked Lunch was one of the last literary works to remain on Australia’s prohibited list. John Allen wrote to Customs Minister Don Chipp in 1972: “(sic) Being well aware that book censorship has to some extent been liberalised during your present term of office, I am most perplexed that Burroughs’ work should still be unavailable here.”

The Board agreed and removed the ban as well as on two other titles by Burroughs. What’s disturbing is the reasoning behind the decision. It wasn’t logic or an acknowledgment that censorship in any form is wrong. The official reason to lift the ban was because “none of them [are] likely to be popular reading, [and] had already been on the list for some time”.

The full 44 page customs report from 1973 can be viewed on the National Archives of Australia’s website.

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Wikipedia, American Library Association, University of Melbourne, National Archives of Australia
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Their Eyes Were Watching God”


Written in 1937 by Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” tells the story of Janie Crawford, a 16-year-old whose grandmother decides to marry her off to a well-respected man in the community.

Fellow censored author, Alice Walker, had this to say about the book: “There is no book more important to me than this one.”

Walker was an exception, though; as the novel’s negative public reaction came mostly from black critics and essayists. Interestingly, the positive reviews came from the white mainstream press.

The poor reception resulted from Hurston’s rejection of Racial Uplift literature- an ideology that educated blacks are responsible for the welfare of the majority of the race-, which was a response to the denial of African-American civil and political rights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Today, however, it has come to be regarded as a pivotal work in both African-American and women’s literature. TIME magazine has included the novel in its 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.

In 1927, long before writing her novel, Hurston traveled the South to collect folk songs and tales through an anthropological research fellowship and the setting of the all-black Eatonville is based on the real, all-black town of the same name in which Hurston grew up. The town’s weekly announced in 1889, “Colored People of the United States: Solve the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a Negro city governed by Negroes.”

Since its publication, there has been objection to the language in the novel. These objections haven’t been about profanity but rather a criticism against characters speaking in a phonetic dialect, which is taken by some to be a mocking of how English is spoken among the black community.

Hurston’s rejection to the Racial Uplift efforts was that it presented African Americans in a way that would accommodate the cultural standards of the white majority and she asserted that her writing was distinct from other works of the Harlem Renaissance- which she described as the “sobbing school of Negrohood” that portrayed the lives of black people as constantly miserable, subjugated, and poor. Instead, Hurston celebrated the rural, southern communities as she saw them and especially refused to censor women’s sexuality, using innuendo to embrace the physical length of Janie’s various romances.

Add to that a story dealing with rape, inter-racial relationships, murder (even if it was in self-defense), and forced marriage it illustrates how it would be considered controversial from the start, but these subjects are just as emotionally charged in modern times: in 1997, a parent complained of language and sexual explicitness to the Stonewall Jackson High School in Brentsville, Virginia. After debate it was retained in their advanced reading list.

Janie’s story is one of self-identity and control of one’s own fate. Nearly 80 years after being published, its underlying theme of a journey toward self-realization still shoots right to the heart of readers of all ages and backgrounds. Humans, who are walking, running, and, sometimes, blindly stumbling along life’s path toward a common goal of personal fulfillment.

The power and importance of this universal struggle is summed up in a passage toward the end of the book, when Janie’s home is about to be destroyed by a hurricane:

“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Wikipedia, American Library Association
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Tropic of Cancer”


Henry Miller is one of the most important literary figures in American history, but most people don’t even know his name. His was a true underdog story: a creative and challenging author who influenced such literary and pop culture icons as Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Phillip Roth, Paul Theroux, Erica Jong, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles; but today, 34 years after his death, he remains a marginalized and largely forgotten figure in the footnotes of literature- all because his work was banned from the moment it saw the printed page.

Tropic of Cancer has been described as “notorious for its candid sexuality” and noted as responsible for the “free speech that we now take for granted in literature.”

Anaïs Nin helped to edit the book and Obelisk Press published it with financial backing from Nin, herself, in 1934 in Paris, France. The book’s jacket was wrapped with a warning that read, “NOT TO BE IMPORTED INTO THE UNITED STATES OR GREAT BRITAIN.” Even in liberal Paris, bookstores sold the novel under the counter; but as word spread, copies were bought by American tourists and smuggled home disguised under dust jackets from other books.

The government of the United States made it national policy to ban Tropic of Cancer from being sold or imported into the country arguing, “[it] dealt too explicitly with his sexual adventures and challenged models of sexual morality.” To push their agenda, the government went on to ban all of Miller’s works from entering the United States, regardless of its content or subject.

Set in Paris, France during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Tropic of Cancer is written in the first person and follows Miller’s life and struggle as a writer. Combining autobiography and fiction, some chapters follow a narrative and refer to Miller’s actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces; others are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections that are occasionally epiphanic.

Miller gave the following explanation of why the book’s title was Tropic of Cancer: “[It was] because, to me, cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch.”

The long, twisted road of censorship in the decades to follow is quite sordid.

Upon publication in France and the subsequent banning by the United States Customs Service, Frances Steloff sold copies of the novel at her Gotham Book Mart that were smuggled from Paris during the 1930s, leading to several lawsuits.

A copyright-infringing edition published in New York City in 1940 by “Medusa” (Jacob Brussel) included a last page that claimed its place of publication to be Mexico. Brussel was ultimately sentenced to three years in prison for it.

In 1950, Ernest Besig, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco, attempted to import copies of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn. Customs detained the novels and Besig sued the government. Before the case went to trial, Besig requested a motion to admit 19 depositions from literary critics testifying to the “literary value of the novels and to Miller’s stature as a serious writer”.The motion was denied by Judge Louis A. Goodman and the case went to trial with Goodman presiding. Goodman declared both novels obscene and Besig appealed the decision to the Ninth Circuit of Appeals, where they were once again declared “obscene” in a unanimous decision in Besig v. United States.

Miller, himself, mailed copies of the book to prominent American literary figures hoping for reviews and word of mouth. One of those was to an American friend that intercepted by a Customs official and ended up on the desk of Huntington Cairns, a Baltimore attorney who served as a legal advisor to the U.S. Treasury Department. Cairns, an erudite who counted among his friends H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore, read the book and, with some reluctance, banned it. Cairns recognized the literary merit of Tropic of Cancer, but was certain that under prevailing standards of decency, it could not be admitted.

When it was finally published in the U.S. in 1961, by Grove Press, it led to infamous obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography. Over 60 obscenity lawsuits in over 21 states were brought against booksellers. The opinions of courts varied; for example, in his dissent from the majority holding that the book was not obscene, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno wrote that Cancer is “not a book. It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.”

Both national and local authorities attempted to stop its sale. In the fall of 1961, Chicago police would routinely intimidate bookstores found to sell the book, arresting several workers. Grove Press, along with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that it was illegal for officials to interfere with the sale of the novel and spent more than $100,000 fighting these charges nationwide.

Publisher Barney Rosset hired lawyer Charles Rembar to help lead the “effort to assist every bookseller prosecuted, regardless of whether there was a legal obligation to do so”.Rembar successfully argued two appeals cases, in Massachusetts and New Jersey, although the book continued to be judged obscene in other states.

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the book was not obscene and it was widely- and finally- regarded as an important masterpiece of 20th-century literature. In Grove Press, Inc. v. Gerstein, the case Jacobellis v. Ohio (which was decided the same day) was cited and given as reason for overruling state court rulings.

Miller enjoyed no sense of fulfillment from the ruling because he knew that American readers were consuming his books for their sensationalistic elements and missing the liberating message of deliverance from hypocrisy and shame that lay behind them. In a 1972 interview with Digby Diehl published in the Los Angeles Times Miller declared, “More and more I’ve grown disgusted with my readers. I revealed everything about myself, and I find that they’re interested in this sensational life. But I was trying to give them more than that.”

True to that theme, it exists as an immersive reflection on the human condition. As a struggling writer, Miller describes his experience living among a community of bohemians in Paris, where he deals with hunger, homelessness, squalor, loneliness, and despair over his separation from his wife.

Many passages also explicitly describe his sexual encounters. In 1978, literary scholar Donald Gutierrez argued that the sexual comedy in the book was “undeniably low… [but with] a stronger visceral appeal than high comedy”. In fact, the semi-fictional characters are caricatures, especially the male characters who “stumble through the mazes of their conceptions of woman”.

Michael Hardin made the case for the theme of homophobia in the novel and proposed that the novel contained a “deeply repressed homoerotic desire that periodically surfaces”.

It remains listed by the American Library Association as one of the 100 most-banned classics and has been censored outside of the U.S. as well.

It was on the list of books banned by Canadian customs as of 1938 and The Royal Canadian Mounted Police seized copies of the book from bookstores and public libraries until the early 1960s when, by 1964, public opinions began to shift.

The only copies to exist in the United Kingdom were those few smuggled in after its publication in 1934. Scotland Yard proposed banning its publication in Britain in the 1960s, but decided the act would be political suicide because nationally celebrated literary icons such as T. S. Eliot were ready to defend the book publicly.

Tropic was also banned in Turkey as recently as 1986.

Henry Miller’s writing was a revolutionary literary style that reimagined the semi-autobiographical genre by blending character study, social commentary, philosophical introspection, explicit language, and sexual themes that are instantly recognizable and relatable to anyone who has ever stepped outside their own front door into the real world.

The only thing obscene about Tropic of Cancer is that it contains those subjects and language that society wishes to keep hidden and pretend does not exist as prevalently as they always have in human history. Detractors aren’t upset about others in society being influenced by the themes in Miller’s works; they’re worried about seeing something inside themselves reflected back up from between the stark contrasts of the black and white of the printed page.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Wikipedia, Huffington Post, New York Times, American Library Association, The File Room, LA Times
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “East of Eden”


John Steinbeck is synonymous with American literature. He’s considered one of- if not the- greatest author of the 20th century. His novels are considered classics and taught from grade school through university graduate courses here and around the world. Nevertheless, his three most notable works- The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Of Mice and Men (1937), and East of Eden- have also been repeatedly banned or challenged.

Published in 1952, East of Eden is often heralded as his most ambitious novel and was originally addressed to Steinbeck’s sons- 6 and 4 at the time- because he wanted to describe Salinas Valley in detail for them through the complex tale of two families.

Along the way, the major themes explored include depravity, beneficence, love, the struggle for acceptance, greatness, and the capacity for self-destruction, guilt, and freedom. He ties these themes together with allegorical references to the biblical Book of Genesis, most notably Genesis Chapter 4- the story of Cain and Abel. The novel’s title was chosen by Steinbeck from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden”. Steinbeck furthered the parallels in the naming of various characters. The first letters of the names of the main characters start with C, A, or both (Charles and Adam, Caleb and Aron, Cathy Ames and Abra).

Just like Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden was banned in Kern County, California because it was considered obscene due to his use of profanity; and a character, Cathy, becomes a prostitute. It was also controversial because residents felt it was “misrepresentative of the County,” causing copies to be burned at public gatherings.

Some of the other most notable cases of censorship include the following:

Opponents in Anniston, Alabama sought to remove it from school library bookshelves in 1982, also labeling it “ungodly and obscene”; it was later reinstated on a restricted basis. The schools in Greenville, South Carolina faced a similar challenge in 1991.

Canadian censors hopped on the bandwagon when residents of Morris, Manitoba had it banned from schools as well.

Steinbeck is the author of twenty-seven books, including sixteen novels, six non-fiction books, and five collections of short stories; he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962; but an unfortunate part of his legacy is that the American Library Association lists him as one of the ten most frequently banned authors from 1990-2004.

What’s more American than putting people on a pedestal and then knocking them down, right?


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Wikipedia, Yahoo News, “John Steinbeck: Banned, Challenged, and Censored” by Maurene Hinds,
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”


To join the elite group known as American Mensa a person must score among the top 2% of an “accepted standardized intelligence test”. To put it mildly, the members of Mensa are some of the smartest humans alive; so when it comes to all things academic they know what they’re talking about.

Recently, the members consulted on a list of banned books created by Uprise Books Project founder Justin Stanley and were asked to rank the top 10 in order of importance. The list may or may not surprise you and many of the titles have been previously covered in this column. See if you can recognize a few:

1. 1984
2. To Kill a Mockingbird
3. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
4. On the Origin of Species
5. Catcher in the Rye
6. Of Mice and Men
7. The Lord of the Flies
8. The Lord of the Rings
9. Slaughterhouse-Five

Comments about the top winner included references about the author himself. “Orwell’s insight into the malleability of human thought and behavior is a timeless incentive to personal awareness of the consequences of action and inaction,” said one member. Another pointed to its influence on society, saying, “1984 is one of those books that has become a cultural cornerstone.”

Okay, but where is number 10 on this list? That, dear readers, is the subject of this week’s column. It’s none other than the queen of banned books herself, Judy Blume, and her immortal tale of budding womanhood, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”.

Written in 1970, the young adult novel followed Margaret as she tackled many common pre-teen female issues including buying her first bra, having her first period, coping with belted sanitary napkins (changed to adhesive pads in recent editions), jealousy towards another girl who developed a mature figure earlier than other girls, liking boys, and whether to voice her opinion if it differs from those of her friends.

Those sure are some complex issues, but perhaps the most noted is that Margaret’s mother is Christian and her father is Jewish and, at its core, the novel explores her quest for a single religion in her life, which adds alienation to an already tense list of subject matters.

All of this lead to it being one of the most banned and challenged books of the last 30 years. In fact, second only to Stephen King, Judy Blume is the most banned author in American history, with several of her books appearing on banned book lists nationwide.

During an interview with NPR, Blume said, “When I started to write, it was the ‘70s, and throughout that decade, we didn’t have any problems with book challenges or censorship. It all started really in a big way in 1980… It came with the election, the presidential election of 1980, and the next day, I’ve been told, the censors were crawling out of the woodwork and challenging, like, ‘It’s our turn now, and we’re going to say what we don’t want our children to read.’

The number of public libraries and schools where this book has been challenged is astounding, but it was outright removed from the elementary school libraries in Gilbert, Arizona in 1980 and ordered that parental consent be required for students to check it out from the junior high school.

It was challenged in the Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Fund du Lac, Wisconsin school systems in 1982 because the book is “sexually offensive and amoral.”

Also in 1982, it was restricted in Zimmerman, Minnesota to students who had written permission from their parents. After the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union sued the Elk River, Minnesota school board (1983), the Board reversed its decision.

It was then challenged at the Xenia, Ohio school libraries in 1983 because the book’s “two themes of sex and anti-Christian behavior” were deemed inappropriate.

A similar charge of being “profane, immoral, and offensive” led to it being challenged, but later retained, in the Bozeman, Montana school libraries in 1985.

Perhaps most daunting is that Blume paints a bleak and dark vision of the path that we’re on as a society, “[censorship] hasn’t gone away. It’s growing in different directions… It’s contagious, the desire to control everything in your children’s lives, including what they read.”

The reasons behind these challenges may seem innocent and well intentioned, but the truth is that at the center of the issue it isn’t these topics themselves that worry parents, it’s that we don’t want to acknowledge them for very one very selfish reason: they make us uncomfortable. We simply don’t want to talk about it- especially with our children. Therefore, we hide in a bubble and force our children to search for the answers on their own and get then angry when they find them.

“But if they read about it, they’ll know more than we do and start to question the world around them.” That’s the rationale. So, logically, it means that the books must be destroyed lest the truth get out that their world is changing- socially and physiologically.

American Mensa was quite correct in placing Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret at number 10; just as 1984 was the perfect choice for number 1. In fact, one could easily equate the futuristic Proles of Orwell’s classic with the children of today, who find themselves caught up in a war for intellectual freedom with the previous generations, because hope for the future lies with them. Only there, amid the dreams and inquisitive minds of our youth does the power exist to destroy ignorance and fear. However, until they become aware they will never rebel, and only after they have rebelled can they ever live their own life and walk a path of wisdom.

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Wikipedia, Media Bistro,, NPR
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “The Bluest Eye”


Nobel and Pulitzer-winning author Toni Morrison has an impressive resume of literary hits and numerous awards, but with that comes a history of having those same novels censored. In January of 2012, the Plymouth-Canton Schools in Michigan was the latest setting in a long list of schools and libraries faced with censorship efforts for her novel, Beloved. Now, an Alabama state senator, Republican Bill Holtzclaw, is trying to ban her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, from all schools in the state on the grounds that its content and language are “objectionable,” according to the Alabama Media Group.

“The book is just completely objectionable, from language to the content,” Holtzclaw said, because the book deals with subjects such as incest and child molestation.

The 1970 novel is set in Lorain, Ohio- Morrison’s hometown- in the years following the Great Depression and chronicles one year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a black girl with an inferiority complex due to her eye and skin color, who wishes for blue eyes so she can be praised and admired.

Holtzclaw made the comments as part of his reelection campaign announcement. The Alabama Media Group also reports that the Madison County, Alabama Republican Executive Committee was preparing a now-aborted censure against Holtzclaw for not publicly opposing Common Core, the federal Department of Education’s effort to make schools more competitive and to push critical thinking.

The novel’s censorship efforts in the past decade alone include being challenged- and later retained- in 2004 by the Kern High School District in Bakersfield, California due to complaints of the book’s sexually explicit material.

Then, in 2006, it was banned from the Littleon, Colorado curriculum and library shelves after complaints about the rape of an eleven-year-old girl by her father.

Moving on to 2007, it was challenged in the Howell, Michigan High School because of the book’s strong sexual content. The president of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education (LOVE) demanded that the county’s chief prosecutor review the book on the charge that teachers violated laws against the distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors. The county prosecutor responded: “Whether these materials are appropriate for minors is a decision to be made by the school board, but I find that they are not in violation of the criminal laws.”

It was challenged in the Delphi, Indiana Community High School’s curriculum on complaints against its inappropriate sexual content and graphic language.

Last year (2012) it was challenged in the Brookfield, Connecticut High School curriculum for “sex scenes, profanity, and age-appropriateness”. Up to that point students in the high school had been reading the book since 1995 without parental or student complaint.

It’s quite appropriate and expected for Senator Holtzclaw to be offended by rape and incest. He should be. I should be. You should be. It’s sick and it’s wrong. But not speaking about it and pulling the plug on the discussion is just as- if not more- harmful than the act itself. Just like with so many titles before and after The Bluest Eye, great literature is supposed to initiate discussion on social topics in hopes of finding a solution so that the horror faced by victims doesn’t happen anymore. It is a sad and tragic situation that many young people endure.

However, that’s just one aspect of this story and, as unfortunate as it is, the sexuality depicted and complained about overshadows an even more sinister and dark tragedy that is being left out of the discussion- the feelings of alienation and insecurity that almost every adolescent experiences.

The thought that if one just changes their eye and skin tone they will be perceived as beautiful is the real tragedy in young Pecola’s tale and is one that all high school students can relate to and that makes The Bluest Eye perfectly suited and appropriate for the targeted age group. We’re not talking about a fifth grade reading class, but 16 to 18 year olds.

The fact that Holtzclaw is an elected policy maker, entrusted to uphold the Constitution not to spit on it, is very troubling, indeed. To use a political seat for the express purpose to prevent your very constituents from exercising their guaranteed rights is the true unlawful act in relation to The Bluest Eye. The Supreme Court has ruled on that very subject- the censoring of the freedom of speech for political reasons violates the First Amendment. Perhaps policy makers should read the Constitution and how a federal government functions before becoming part of the policy process.

What’s even more disturbing than the support of his fellow party-members for his censorship efforts is their displeasure that his main goal isn’t in defeating the Unites States Department of Education’s push toward developing and improving educational standards and critical thinking skills across the nation.

Whether brown, blue, or hazel, what we really need is a world in which we have eyes of wisdom willing to look beyond our own petty personal preferences and insecurities towards a future that is better for all of us. A world where a child isn’t made to feel inferior because of the color of their eyes or their skin. A world where eyes aren’t judged by their color, but by their reflection of the humanity within.


For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: USA Today, Marshall University, Wikipedia
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Persepolis”


The United States’ third-largest school district, Chicago Public Schools, denies that it banned the book, saying that it “only removed copies from classrooms.” They can euphemize it any way they like, but it’s still censorship.

Labeling the graphic novel as “inappropriate,” CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett also ordered mandatory training for any high school teacher who wishes to continue using the illustrated story of Marjane Satrapi growing up in revolutionary Iran “due to the powerful images of torture in the book,” she stated in an email sent on March 13th to all CPS principals.

The CPS Office of Communications has refused to explain to the public or the press how this incident took place, why Persepolis has suddenly become controversial after being read by thousands of teachers and students since its publication, and has even refused to confirm that the censorship order had gone out at all. Luckily, for you, my dear readers, you can view a screenshot of the email here.

This just so happens- perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not- to also come on the eve of a massive closing of many of the district’s schools.

Satrapi, who is in Germany, criticized the district for pulling a book that has been approved for use in their schools for nearly a decade and for requiring “special training” for teachers. “For me, the worst in all of that is it’s absolutely the biggest insult to the intelligence of the teachers,” she said last week to the Chicago Sun Times.

She has visited Chicago several times, including a 2004 trip when she signed copies of Persepolis at some CPS schools; so Satrapi couldn’t believe problems arose in the district saying, “Even in Texas I didn’t have trouble with [it].”

The book is Satrapi’s illustrated recollection as a child and teenager during the Iranian Revolution; the 2007 animated film version won awards and critical acclaim.

On its own website, CPS even lists Persepolis as a good resource in the 2012-2013 Literacy Content Framework for seventh graders, along with Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street; also listed is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre for 11th graders.

So what changed?

The book was removed after agreeing with a complaint from a teacher and principal in the Austin-North Lawndale network.

Lane Technical High school students waved signs along Western Avenue after school on March 15th, chanting, “No more banned books!” and “Let us read!” as they stood amid freezing rain. Several said they had already read Persepolis as seventh graders.

No parents have complained about the book either, according to Valerie Mason, who has taught Persepolis at Lane Tech for the last five years to 11th and 12th graders. In fact, many parents have asked to borrow copies after talking with their children about the graphic novel.

Student Katie McDermott didn’t see the language or images as problematic because the class had a guide for discussions.

“If we don’t create opinions, we won’t have individualism,” McDermott said. “If (students) can’t voice themselves, then we won’t have a country that’s individualistic,” said the 18-year-old, who helped organize the student protest.

Junior Matthew Wettig even contacted Satrapi for the school paper, The Lane Warrior.

“I didn’t know how she could possibly know about it,” he said. “So I just thought not only it’s my duty as a human being but as a journalist to shed light to her on the situation.”

Members of the American Library Association and the Freedom to Read Foundation joined the protest.

The Chicago-based ALA, in a letter to Byrd-Bennett, Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, expressed its ethical and legal concerns regarding the situation and asked for an explanation for the policy change.

The Chicago Teachers Union also expressed its surprise over the ban.

“The only place we’ve heard of this book being banned is in Iran,” CTU financial secretary Kristine Mayle wrote in a statement. “We understand why the district would be afraid of a book like this, because it’s about questioning authority, class structures, racism, and gender issues.”

According to additional comments to the CTU’s press release, the district is now claiming that Persepolis is banned “only from seventh grade classrooms but will be available in school libraries,” but the hidden catch is that 160 of its schools don’t have libraries- “and they know that,” said CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin.

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Chicago Sun Times, Daily KOS
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: Sex manual banned for 200 years goes under the hammer


Aristotle’s Compleat Master-Piece had been banned in the United Kingdom for 200 years and it’s about to go under the hammer yet again- the auction hammer, that is.

An edition printed circa 1766 is expected to draw more than $645 at the Edinburgh auction house Lyon and Turnbull on January 16th.

The material- considered quite tame by today’s standards- was deemed rather rebellious for its time and was extremely popular, resulting in many printings and editions after first appearing in print sometime around 1680. It was believed to have served as a reference guide for amateur midwives and young married couples and presented some rather interesting ideas on sexual relationships and how to conceive, while also providing an intriguing dialogue about the changing social perspectives on sex- as when it encouraged both parties to enjoy the sex to improve the chances of conception.

The book contained little by way of saucy tales or erotic images, but it did contain some strange advice- such as instructing midwives to burn marigolds and blow the smoke inside a mother’s vagina to help extract the afterbirth. It also included some off the wall cautions about extramarital sex like a warning that if a child is conceived out of wedlock the baby could be born “all hairy” or that conjoined twins could result. The illustrations in the book are thought to be one of the main reasons for its forbidden status. One image depicts a baby in a womb and the woman’s torso has been cut open to show the fetus. Other images of hairy children or children with their mouths where their navels should be are found scattered throughout the text.

Despite the censorship of the work, there were, in fact, more editions of this work published in the 18th century than any other medical text. The book continued to thrive in a vibrant black market, remaining banned until 1961 at a time when British law officials were working to clear the law books of “old and useless laws” that no longer pertained to the modern era.

Contrary to the title being credited to the famous philosopher Aristotle, there is little resemblance to any of his work in the text and no proof that he had anything to do with its content whatsoever. That being said, no factual documentation exists of the actual author(s), either. One possibility is that by attributing it to Aristotle they were trying to make it sound more worthy than it might have been- the medieval equivalent of a commercial spin, if you will. Some pieces seem to resemble the work of 17th-century physician Nicholas Culpeper and 13th-century saint and thinker Albertus Magnus.

Whatever its origin, the impression that Aristotle’s Compleat Master-Piece has made on literary and sociological history is unmistakable.

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: The Guardian (UK)Huffington Post
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “The Glass Castle”


The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, is an autobiographical memoir of Walls’ and her siblings’ unconventional and poverty-stricken upbringing at the hands of deeply dysfunctional parents.

The book, published in 2005, pulls on the heartstrings of readers with its resonating and poignant topics; but the parents of a student at Traverse City West Senior High School, in Michigan, are the latest to ask school officials to have a book banned from 9th-, 10th- and 11th-grade courses.

Heather and Jeff Campbell complained about the book and the Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education is to weigh in on the matter Monday, December 10th.

It was assigned to the Campbells’ daughter over the summer as part of a freshman honors English course, but her parents objected to the memoir because it includes explicit language and references to child molestation, adolescent sexual exploits, and violence as it recounts the author’s experiences growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who suffered from mental illness.

On November 20th, the school board’s Curriculum Committee endorsed a recommendation to remove the book from student study. That recommendation originated from a separate committee that was formed to address the Campbells’ complaint, a step required by district policy.

The committee was composed of Jayne Mohr, TCAPS assistant superintendent; Stephanie Long, an assistant principal at West; Genevieve Minor, West’s media specialist; teachers Maya Kassab and Sherry Stoltz; and parents Billie Jo Clark and Jennifer Bonifacio.

Clark read the book before it had been assigned to students and said it offers more than just an engaging story and plans to have her 9th-grade son to read it.
“It’s a book about overcoming the most incredible obstacles in your life,” she said. “It is a book about forgiveness.”

But the Campbell’s don’t think the recommendation to remove the book from 9th-grade reading lists went far enough. Jeff Campbell called it a “minimalist action” in an email to Mohr.

“I never thought I would be somewhere where I would have to say- it’s almost like a book-burning- ‘please take this off the reading list,’” said Heather Campbell. “I just think we need to use some common sense when it comes to our kids. It’s just really inappropriate for 13- and 14-year-olds.”

“I don’t think we’re purists by any means,” added Jeff.

The problem is that they are.

To be honest, it’s perfectly acceptable that the Campbells have objections to the book; but that same right to their own opinion does not give them the authority to force that opinion, and its ramifications, upon everyone else involved.

This isn’t the first time the book has faced the torch-squad, either.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom sited a challenge that occurred in fall 2009 in Santa Clarita, California, where a parent challenged the school district over “The Glass Castle” and “The Bean Trees” being assigned in an honors English class.

In 2010 it was challenged at the William S. Hart Union High School District in Saugus, California, as required summer reading for their honors English program. The complaints included use of profanity, criticisms of Christianity, and accounts of sexual abuse and prostitution. Students had the option of alternative assignments that still meet objectives and teaching goals of the course.

Also in 2010, a high school English teacher in Brookline, New Hampshire, defended her summer reading list choice after an e-mail with a passage from the book depicting sexual abuse was sent to school officials.

Debbie and Steve Pucci, parents of an 11th-grader, wrote an e-mail which included nothing but a two-paragraph excerpt from “The Glass Castle”.

The Pucci’s did not include an explanation with the e-mail and sent the passage out of context to principal Cindy Matte, Superintendant of Schools Susan Hodgdon, and Janice Tremblay, chairwoman of the Hollis/Brookline Cooperative School Board.

During a meeting with school officials that followed a series of e-mail exchanges, Debbie Pucci said, “The language in the book was very offensive.”

“Why this book, with all the great literature out there?” she and her husband wanted to know.

Their answer arrived in a letter dated August 10th that was sent to parents of every student in the AP English class assigned the summer reading.

“I chose the text because it is commonly taught in AP Language and Composition classes as part of a memoir unit,” English teacher Samantha McElroy wrote. “Teachers and critics have praised the memoir for Walls’ honest account of positive life experiences as well as difficult incidents, citing her resilience and success in spite of such challenges as inspirational. Unfortunately, it contains mature content and language that may have taken your child by surprise and made him or her uncomfortable.”

A day later, the Pucci’s reply came: “We can appreciate how all of you must have reacted when you received our e-mail. It was exactly as we had anticipated. However, we can assure you that we were even more shocked to discover this and dozens of similarly offensive excerpts from (our daughter’s) required reading assignment. We too are disturbed and puzzled as to how this required book for AP English could ever be deemed appropriate by any member of our high school administration and/or professional staff.”

Earlier this year it was challenged as part of the tenth-grade English curriculum in the Sade-Central City High School classrooms in Cairnbrook, Pennsylvania because of objections to Walls’ descriptions of abuse such as sexual assault, drunkenness, seeing the family cat thrown from a moving car, having to drink ditch water, and the use of “casual profanity.”

After voting to retain the title in class curriculums, even staunch critics of the graphic accounts praised its theme- overcoming adversity.

It’s been seen time after time when someone objects to these topics wrapped inside literature and fiction and wants to prevent it from being read, but this is historical fact. It did happen. It does happen. It will happen again- no matter how blind the Campbells or the Puccis of the world choose to be when faced with the truth of the world in which they live.

If a student is mature enough to handle the added responsibility of an honors course, then they are deemed mature and capable enough to handle the resulting content in the educated opinion of school officials and teachers, even if you can’t wake up and see that she’s not that pig-tailed, naive little girl sitting on your knee anymore.

Just because the Campbells and the Puccis choose to view the world through the rose-colored lenses of ignorance does not mean that those of sufficient maturity and critical thinking skills can’t absorb and discuss the real world issues brought forth between the pages of “The Glass Castle.”

If one considers their son or daughter still too immature by the time they’re taking high-school level honors courses, that does not mean that every other student is of equally-stunted emotional growth or intelligence.

If that’s the case, then your child really shouldn’t be approved to be in an honors-level course to begin with. The whole point of honors classes in high school is for students who have reached a level in their education where they are ready to engage in college-level analysis and discourse.

When a book comes along that can make a reader who faces a similar situation or past not feel so alone, or provide an eye-opening awareness to those who are in a position to break the chain, then everyone- everywhere and of all ages- should read it.

The memoir has spent 261 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and is now under development as a film by Paramount. By 2007, The Glass Castle had sold over 2.5 million copies, had been translated into 22 languages, and received the Christopher Award, the American Library Association’s Alex Award (2006) and the Books for Better Living Award.

For more information on the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project and the complete list of titles covered, please visit the official website at

Sources: Wikipedia, Marshall University, Detroit Free Press, Traverse City Record-Eagle, The Telegraph,
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “The Grapes of Wrath”


The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, was first published in 1939 and would achieve both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize that same year. When Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962 the novel was referenced frequently.

Set during the Great Depression, the story centers on the Joad family, poor tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, the Dust Bowl, and economic hardships resulting from the changes in the financial and agricultural industries. The Joads set out for California, along with thousands of other “Okies,” to find jobs, land, dignity, and a future. This fictional tale is based very much on actual events that are a part of history, as many headed to the West Coast after the Dust Bowl.

According to The New York Times it was the best-selling book of 1939 with more than 430,000 copies printed by February 1940. Noted Steinbeck scholar John Timmerman, in summation of the novel’s impact, said, “The Grapes of Wrath may well be the most thoroughly discussed novel- in criticism, reviews, and college classrooms- of 20th century American literature.”

TIME magazine lists it as one of the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. In 2009 The Daily Telegraph included it as one of the 100 novels everyone should read and in 1998 the Modern Library ranked The Grapes of Wrath tenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.

Despite its critical and popular acclaim, upon its release there were very heated outcries against the novel and its author spanning the entire social and political spectrum of the United States. At times the novel literally fuelled the fires of public debate as local communities burned copies in protest.

When Steinbeck was preparing to write the novel, he famously wrote, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression and its effects]. I’ve done my damnedest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”

Not surprising, Grapes of Wrath gathered a huge following among the working class due to Steinbeck’s sympathy to the workers’ movement and his open prose style.

But many Americans were disgusted by how Steinbeck described the poor and accused him of exaggerating the conditions to make a political point; however he argued that this was actually a diluted narrative reflecting the harsh truth of what was actually being witnessed by families in these communities at the time. In fact he had done the opposite, purposely underplaying the conditions that he knew were far worse than the novel describes because he felt that exact descriptions would have gotten in the way of his story.

Many of Steinbeck’s critics attacked his social and political views; but, again, part of its continuing impact stems from its passionate depiction of the plight of the poor and the working class. Bryan Cordyack wrote, “Steinbeck was attacked as a propagandist and a socialist from both the left and the right of the political spectrum. The most fervent of these attacks came from the Associated Farmers of California; they were displeased with the book’s depiction of California farmers’ attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a ‘pack of lies’ and labeled it ‘communist propaganda’.”

In this photo (left) from the Kern County (California) Museum, Clell Pruett burns a copy of The Grapes of Wrath as Bill Camp and another leader of the Associated Farmers stand by. At the time this photograph was taken, Pruett had not read the novel. Years later, after he read the book at the behest of Rick Wartzman, the author of Obscene in the Extreme, Pruett declared that he had no regrets about burning it.

One member of the county board of supervisors condemned the book as a “libel and lie.” In August 1939, by a vote of 4 to 1, the board approved a resolution banning The Grapes of Wrath from county libraries and schools.

Wartzman says that what happened in Kern County illustrated the profound divide between the left and right in California in the 1930s.

Bill Camp, head of the local Associated Farmers, a group of big landowners who were avid opponents of organized labor, pushed for the ban. He and his colleagues knew how to get a bill passed in the state Legislature- and they also knew how to be physical.

“They knew how to work with tire irons, pick handles, and bricks,” says Wartzman. “Things could get really ugly and violent.”

Camp wanted to publicize the county’s opposition to The Grapes of Wrath and he was convinced that many migrants were also offended by their depiction in the novel, so he recruited one of his workers, Clell Pruett, to burn the book. At the time the only information Pruett had on the novel and what it contained came from what he had heard on a radio program about it. What he heard made him angry and he readily agreed to take part in what Wartzman describes as a “photo op.”

Meanwhile, local librarian Gretchen Knief was working quietly to get the ban overturned. At the risk of losing her job, she stood up to the county supervisors and wrote a letter asking them to reverse their decision.

In the letter she said, “It’s such a vicious and dangerous thing to begin. Besides, banning books is so utterly hopeless and futile. Ideas don’t die because a book is forbidden reading.”

The supervisors upheld the ban, and it remained in effect for a year and a half.

The censorship of The Grapes of Wrath would actually be a key factor in the creation of the Library Bill of Rights, the statement that is described by librarians as ensuring that American citizens have the right to access whatever information they wish without question, and the right to utilize that information.

Still, to this day The Grapes of Wrath continues to be burned, banned, and challenged for the reasons stated above, and on claims of containing “vulgar language” and “sexual references.”

In August 1939, 20 public libraries were ordered by the Kansas City Board of Education to remove the book because of “indecency, obscenity, abhorrence of the portrayal of women and for ‘portraying life in such a bestial way.’”

In East St. Louis, Illinois, 5 of 9 library board members voted to have the book burned on the courtyard steps in November of 1939. The vote was later rescinded because of the “national commotion it had aroused” and the books were placed on the “Adults Only” shelf. In the week of this incident the book sold its most copies to date; and a librarian said that the book had the longest waiting list in recent years.

It was actually burned by the East St. Louis, IL Public Library (1939) and barred from the Buffalo, NY Public Library (1939) on the grounds that “vulgar words” were used.

Internationally, it was banned in Ireland in 1953; and was one of the books cited in the 1973 case in which eleven Turkish book publishers went on trial before an  Istanbul martial law tribunal on charges of publishing, possessing, and selling books in  violation of an order of the Istanbul martial law command.

It would be removed, but later reinstated on a restrictive basis, from two Anniston, Alabama high school libraries in 1982.

It was banned in Kanawha, Iowa in 1980 and in Morris, Manitoba in 1982; and challenged by Vernon-Verona-Sherill, New York, School District in 1980.

It was challenged  at the Cummings High School in Burlington, North Carolina in 1986 on religious grounds because a parent alleged that the “book is full of filth. My son is being raised in a Christian home and this book takes the Lord’s name in vain and has all kinds of profanity in it.” Although the parent spoke adamantly to the press, a formal complaint with the school board was never filed. What was the parent’s issue? It contained the phase “God damn.”

It would also be challenged in the Greenville, South Carolina schools in 1991 on the same grounds.

It has also been challenged as required reading for Richford, Vermont High School English students in 1991 due to the book’s language and for the portrayal of a former minister who recounts how he took advantage of a young woman; and in Union City, Tennessee High School classes in 1993.

It has been a staple of American high school and college literature classes across the country due to its historical context and its enduring legacy as one of the truly greatest American novels of all time. A celebrated film version starring Henry Fonda and directed by John Ford was made in 1940.

Knief was quite right in her letter to Kern County officials. Ideas cannot die simply because they are not on a printed page. You can destroy all the pages you like, but you cannot break the determined spirit of freedom. It is a sad testimony that almost 100 years later the truth of her statement goes unrealized by so many.


Sources: Wikipedia, American Library Association, NPR,
© 2012 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions