Banned Books Awareness: “The Working Poor”


thPQ4FUC4XBanned Books Week, which coincides with the new school year each autumn, is usually a time when scholars, book lovers, and legal analysts discuss how censorship impacts society and education. One would expect those in charge of our schools to hold all aspects of education- especially books- most dear.

As it turns out, at least one Superintendent has a different view.

Dawson Orr, of the Highland Park ISD in Texas, made the autonomous decision to ignore district policy and remove seven books from classroom shelves. In doing so, he set off a firestorm that reached the national level.

The books were reinstated and the district’s policies on book selection for classroom use and how challenges to those books are handled is under review.

Move forward four months and The Working Poor, a non-fiction work about poverty by David Skipler, is threatened yet again in the district on accusations that it is “sexually explicit” and “has no place in a high school English course”. The course is Advanced Placement English III and is a college-level course for juniors.

The book tells the true stories of people in the United States living just above the federal poverty line. The English department’s review of the book for the district listed an acknowledgement that the book contained some material that could be considered controversial, but deemed the work an asset “to build students’ capacity for empathy and knowledge of an issue facing millions in America and millions more across the world.”

The parent who filed the complaint stated that “The Working Poor is not a great work of literature or an example of rich writing we want our students to emulate. One must ask, is this the best piece of literature our students can read to learn to write?”

She argued that if English teachers want to teach global poverty and economic equality, alternate books such as Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, We the Living, by Ayn Rand, and America the Beautiful, by Ben Carson, were more appropriate.


The disagreement being put forth is that material of a social or economic nature that speaks of economic inequality is unfit for a college-level English course; but material by Ayn Rand, whom is often associated with conservative policies and often quoted by the wealthiest members of American political and economic organizations is.

Carson is a regular on Fox News and other conservative media programs. His book has received no serious critical praise; in fact the most notable discussion about it has been the charge that passages were plagiarized.

So much for the complainant’s “quality literature” argument.

It should be noted that the Highland Park ISD is one of the wealthiest in Texas. Both sides in the debate acknowledge the perpetuated stereotypes.

The author of the contested book stated that he is unaware of it being challenged in any other district. Following the initial suspension in September, he added an afterward about the issue in his forthcoming book, Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword.

Shipler defends that there is nothing “prurient, obscene or sexually explicit in the book” and the anecdotes by women quoted in the book mentioning issues of sexual abuse and abortion only did so because they felt the trauma was relevant to their issues. He included them not only because they were valid topics for the subject matter, but also to describes challenges that cut across socioeconomic lines and teach readers about harsh realities.

The dispute has resulted in the formation of two opposing groups in the community: Speak Up for Standards, which objects to some mature content in high school books, and HP Kids Read, which opposes book suspensions and censorship.

Shipler mentions that he has conducted many discussions in schools across the country and has a granddaughter attending high school. He has found that not only do most children that age understand such material, they are fully capable of making informed and intelligent decisions and opinions related to that material.

Take, for example, Highland Park senior Gaby Gear. She said that, “It didn’t seem like a big deal when we read it. Just kind of the realities of life.”

Another senior, who read the book last year, said that those realities had an impact on her.

“To me, it kind of opened my eyes,” says Maddie Kelly. “I couldn’t imagine going through that.”

The proposed changes to the district’s policy on controversial material will be voted on later this month or in February. The new proposals include:

  • Staff “place principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice” when selecting instructional material. It ensures that books “are evaluated as a whole and selected for their strengths rather than rejected for their weaknesses” and are not “masked, clipped, or altered in any manner inconsistent with the author’s intent.” The removal of controversial materials from the library will be prohibited.
  • The principal or a designee will be required to review guidelines with teachers each year about how to select instructional material and handle objections.
  • Eliminate an approved book list for the high school. Teachers currently pick books from the list to teach in class or assign for outside reading. Instead, the district would create a new annual approval process. (Highland Park High School Principal, Walter Kelly, said the approved book list opens the district to criticism over books that haven’t been used for years. It also limits teachers to about 200 approved titles.)
  • Changes to how the high school uses permission slips. Permission slips will go home to parents the first week of the school year along with a course overview. The early notice would allow teachers more time to plan alternative assignments if a parent or student “opts out.”
  • Puts safeguards in place to avoid interruption of classroom lessons and a continuous cycle of challenges. It prohibits a formal challenge to the same material or an appeal to reinstate a removed material until two calendar years have passed.
  • Parents can only formally challenge material that’s in use or scheduled for use. If a committee deems a book inappropriate, the superintendent can delay removal of the book “if he or she determines the immediate removal would be disruptive to the instructional process.”
  • Creates a timeline for the annual review of books that teachers plan to use during the upcoming school year. It allows time for parents to review that list and raise objections.


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: Dallas News, WJBC, CNN
© 2015 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

This article has been updated since its date of publication. It was amended with the background information on Ben Carson and his book.

Banned Books Awareness: “Harriet the Spy”


harrietthespy_200-9efd97ced1fc296511563193e9938dceab17ffe3-s2-c85In 1960s America there weren’t many mysteries solved by powerful female detectives. The choice was between Nancy Drew (who was often overshadowed by the Hardy Boys) and Harriet M. Welsch, better known as Harriet the Spy. It was hard not to like Harriet or to laugh at the whimsical quips she would jot down in her iconic notebook like: “MY MOTHER IS ALWAYS SAYING PINKY WHITEHEAD’S WHOLE PROBLEM IS HIS MOTHER. DOES HIS MOTHER HATE HIM? IF I HAD HIM I’D HATE HIM.” Looking back, those stories were read with childhood fascination and an attention span that rarely roamed beyond the immediate entertainment value; but as an adult it becomes clearer how these two seemingly similar characters were actually illustrating a shifting view in culture in regards to the role of women and in children and children’s literature as a whole. Nancy was the polite and respectful girl next door, while Harriet was impetuous and couldn’t care less about keeping up a lady’s appearance. Nancy would solve crimes to bring closure to the mystery and the perpetrators to justice, Harriet did so for no other reason than the thrill and delinquent pleasure of doing what wasn’t supposed to be done by “good little girls”. Harriet wrote about her adventures and the people and places in her Manhattan setting with a derisiveness that was negative and arrogant yet so refreshingly hilarious that you are forced to laugh and nod your head in agreement. Not surprisingly, her against-the-grain attitude has had some people in a frenzy since her first adventure was published in 1964 and led to her being one of the most-banned and challenged literary characters of the last half century. The book debuted on a 1964 list of “The Year’s Best Juveniles” in The New York Times Book Review. One reviewer in 1965 called the book “a brilliantly written, unsparing realistic story, a superb portrait of an extraordinary child” and another found that it “captures the feelings, thoughts and situations of a modern city child with remarkable clarity and dimension”. It won a Sequoyah Book Award in 1967 and, in 2005, ex-CIA officer Lindsay Moran cited the series of books as an inspiration for her career. Anita Silvey, author of 100 Best Books for Children, stated that Harriet was controversial in part because she was a flawed character. There were critics drawn to her charm, but other critics hated the book. Some schools even banned it. Harriet saw what she saw and spoke her mind. She even threw temper tantrums and had to visit a psychiatrist. Such subversive (yet completely relatable behavior) was not to be tolerated and certainly not endorsed. Along with Are You There God?, Blubber, and Where the Sidewalk Ends, the book was challenged at a 1983 school board meeting in Xenia, Ohio. Opponents viewed it as encouraging children to be disrespectful, teaching children to “lie, spy, talk back, and curse.” Kathleen Horning, the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, reflects on the “tomboy story”. “There was a whole genre called the ‘tomboy story’ where a girl rebels in that way, but at the end everything is wonderful because she really is a girl and she gets very feminine,” remembers Horning. She was a tomboy who didn’t want to reform. Later on, she realized she was a lesbian. What does that have to do with Harriet the Spy? “A lot”, says Horning. The book’s author, Louise Fitzhugh, was also gay, and although Harriet’s sexuality is never referenced or hinted at in any way in the book, her clothes and bravado sent a message to some kids who felt different and didn’t know why. Many lesbians, from the 1960s to today, have publically identified with Harriet due to her being an “outsider” dressing like a boy. Opponents claim that Fitzhugh was secretly pushing a gay agenda through use of characters like the “Boy with the Purple Socks,” arguing that he was gay for no other reason than the color purple being associated with the gay community. Harriet’s friend, Sport, is also considered counterculture from 1960s gender norms due to the fact that he cooks, cleans, and carries out other household tasks due to his absentee mother and stay-at-home father. Horning added that, “If you were growing up in the sixties when you really didn’t have any other people like you; Harriet was it. What the book told us is that we could be ourselves and survive.” It’s easy to see why some adults would be concerned with her rebellious nature, but when they make claims of seditious commentary based solely on the color of someone’s socks it becomes crystal clear that some people have far too much time on their hands. It’s a book, after all, but talk about reading between the lines. If it weren’t for Harriet, the strong female leads of the 1990s and new millennium simply wouldn’t have existed. Buffy, for example, was the most popular and most comparable character to directly result from Harriet and was as beloved by girls in the ‘90s as Harriet was by their parents. Therein lies a perfect bridge between the generations and source of open and honest discourse. That’s what good literature does- entertain first and encourage discussion later. It’s a lesson some just can’t seem to comprehend.   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, NPR, Daily Mail, Christian Science Monitor © 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

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