Censorship and Rape in the American Heartland

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The residents of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, are no strangers to the practice of censorship. In 2006 they witnessed attempts to ban such works as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Sonya Sones’ One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies. Now the English faculty at Fond du Lac High School is asking that district administrators get rid of their new censorship policy in the wake of the latest controversy to spark in the community.

16 members of the school’s English department signed and presented a 22-page statement supporting an open forum for student expression in response to Superintendent of Schools James Sebert and high school Principal Jon Wiltzius establishing a new policy, known as “School Guidelines Determined by the Principal regarding Student Publications,” that states all materials created by students are subject to review and possible refusal.

Fond Du Lac High School’s Cardinal Columns magazine made national news when the administration took exception to some of the content published in the February 2014 edition- namely an article entitled “The Rape Joke”, written by senior Tanvi Kumar. The article was an investigation into the rape culture in the school that included anonymous stories from three rape victims.

School officials also disapproved of an editorial that advised students of their right not to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.

The faculty statement reads in part: “Such guidelines are not only a clear path toward censorship of student expression but also drastically alter the relationship between school publications and the administration and break sharply with roughly 100 years of district precedent regarding such publication.

“We believe that the story itself stands as an exemplar of high-quality, responsible journalism that has helped countless readers feel supported, speak up, seek help, and come together in a way that has undoubtedly resulted in a more positive environment in our school.”

I read Kumar’s article and I have to agree that it was the most heart-pulling, jaw-dropping, and best piece of journalism that I’ve read in a while. What’s even more amazing is that it came from a student. If she keeps up that level of mastery we’ll all be hearing a lot more from her in the future.

The statement also asks that the superintendent and board either abandon the new guidelines or put them on hold “until new guidelines or a new policy may be drafted in collaboration with the students, community, and experts in the field.”

An anti-censorship petition posted online at change.org specifically calls upon Sebert to reverse the administrative mandate. Every time someone signs the petition an automatic email is sent to Sebert’s email. As of today there are over 5,300 signatures in support of the Cardinal Columns staff, including a signature from myself. That’s a lot of voices going to his inbox- but will they be heard or just tossed in the recycle bin?

When The Reporter contacted Sebert, Wiltzius, and School Board President Elizabeth Hayes for reaction to the teachers’ request to revisit the guidelines, Sebert issued the following statement:

“I believe that the guidelines are a reasonable expectation for a school-sponsored publication. The district has a responsibility to protect the educational process, environment, and the interests of all students.”

He declined an interview on the matter.

Cardinal Columns co-editor-in-chief, Rachel Schneider, says, “It’s great the teachers are willing to take a stand for the students because they should have the opportunity to express themselves.” She added that students plan to attend a 5 p.m. school board meeting on Monday to address board members directly.

Matthew Smith, Fond du Lac High School print journalism teacher and adviser to the Cardinal Columns staff, is among those who signed the statement. He points out a clause in the statement that says: “The existence of a policy of prior review has been found to increase the possibility of a school district being found legally liable for articles that are libelous or invade privacy, as evidenced by a report by the Student Law Center.”

School Board Vice President Susan Jones said she is for free speech as long as it isn’t offensive and she believes the issue should be revisited. She commented that Kumar’s article was “really well done” and that some teachers were even reading the article aloud in their classroom, holding it up as a piece of journalistic excellence.

“This is what democracy is all about, this is America and these kids are pretty mature. It’s a big issue in the high school and we should all be concerned about what is going on.”

Sebert and Wiltzius listed concerns about content printed in Cardinal Columns, including the possibility that the subject matter might not be appropriate for immature audiences, the photos might be too suggestive or edgy, that some students may have had their rights violated, that the cover could reflect poorly on the school, and that the issue may not include enough of a “positive focus”.

Well, let’s be honest. If there exists a status quo of rape in the school then the administration has nothing to be positive about and praise should go out to Kumar for exposing it to parents and others in the community.

One issue was with a picture on the inside cover that shows a woman described as “lying lifeless” in the middle of cardboard boxes. On that page the editors explain their cover photo selection process and why they rejected that image for the cover.

In a recent video about the new school guidelines made by broadcast journalism students Wiltzius is asked if predators also need to give consent before journalists can report on their alleged offense and he answered: “Both alleged victims and alleged perpetrators- both have rights.”

Vincent Filak, associate professor in the department of journalism at the University of Oshkosh, has been following the controversy. He said the approach Wiltzius appears to be taking regarding the policy is disturbing.

“I don’t know Jon Wiltzius personally, but his statements on the video paint a disingenuous picture of this policy and how it can be enforced. In one breath, he’s saying that he would offer suggestions or ‘just tweak’ things he thought were problematic or controversial. In the next breath, he admits that students have certain rights, including the right not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, but that this is the kind of thing that shouldn’t be part of the school paper. Under this policy, he would not be merely offering suggestions as he says, given that suggestions can be ignored or freely accepted. Instead, he would have the power to remove content he does not like, leaving the students without the right to publish as they see fit. That’s censorship.

“The intent of the superintendent and Mr. Wiltzius might be good in their own minds, but from the perspective of someone who values a free and unfettered press, this is a horrible policy that can lead to disastrous consequences.”

Filak said he would be joining the students at the school board meeting Monday.

The debate has incited a flood of comments on the magazine’s Twitter account @cardinalcolumns and Kumar’s personal account @Tanviiikumar, where she spoke up in a publicly-posted letter to Sebert. In it she states the article had “a lasting effect on this student body and inspired many people” and that she was repulsed by the behavior exhibited by people in the high school, pointing to a supposedly student-run Twitter account called “Ethan the Rapist,” that pokes fun at a very specific rape incident and rape in general.

“This story is not false, defamatory, libelous, vulgar, or profane. Unless you view survivors of horrendous atrocities speaking out against a culture that oppresses them as ‘profane,’ or ‘vulgar’ rather than revolutionary or novel,” she wrote.

School Board President Elizabeth Hayes said she objected to the headline “The Rape Joke” because people might not understand it, as well as the article on the Pledge of Allegiance.

“This publication is supported by taxpayer funds and it should be held to a high standard,” Hayes said. “And we should also be encouraging students to hold high standards of respect.”

First of all, if there are members of the student body whom think it okay to joke about rape on a daily basis and engage in such behavior then this school has a lot of work to do regarding “standards of respect.”

Additionally, those public taxpayers, as well as the students at the school, are citizens of the United States of America and they have a right to express themselves freely; readers also have a right to choose whether they want to engage in the conversations that those thoughts stimulate. If there are restrictions to the rights set forth in the First Amendment to the Constitution, then exactly what kind of a society are citizens pledging allegiance to? If it is one in which rape is a norm and those who dare speak out in defiance of it are silenced, then it isn’t one in which I would want to live, and neither should you.

 

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 http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/

Sources: Fond Du Lac Reporter, The Northwestern
© 2014 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

The Downward Spiral of American Educational Standards

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Everybody makes typing or spelling errors on occasion. Yes, even I do. I actually appreciate when others point out a mistake I make in a status update or article. I acknowledge it, fix it, and try not to be so careless in the future. If I’m going to play grammar cop I should know better. After all, I have built myself a glass house and the internet is full of people ready to throw the first stone.

I find it especially heinous when journalists and news stations make these errors, though. These are supposed to be professionals who spent time and money specifically studying grammar and language and are paid to know better. They have a multitude of professional staff all in the business of effective and professional communication, including paid copy editors who are expected to proofread things before they are printed or aired. If not, then they have failed at their assigned tasks and should be fired. These are supposed masters of the written language and the people at the top of the list of those who should know better.

I was watching last night’s episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the opening news segment included a story about America’s educational standing along with other nations. The results of the study were bad enough, and a very depressing snapshot of our educational standards in its own right, but it all became crystal clear just how low the bar has fallen.

Read on and Share the Knowledge:

http://deepforestproductions.com/blog/?p=1479

Louisiana Lawmaker Says to Defund Libraries and ‘Send Users Back to Mexico’

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This column has discussed book after book that has been banned and/or challenged for various reasons. Most incidents are the result of ignorance and intolerance, others may even be innocently well-intentioned; but what happens when entire libraries are threatened in order to serve the arrogant hatred of racism from ignorant individuals to push a political agenda?

That’s what happened this week, as the Golden Meadow Public Library contended with what has to be the most sordid censorship effort to ever occur in the United States. There was a “special election” held to defund the public library in order to use the funds to build a new jail. What makes this more odious was the reasoning behind it:

“They’re teaching Mexicans how to speak English. Let that son of a bitch go back to Mexico. There’s just so many things they’re doing that I don’t agree with. …Them junkies and hippies and food stamps [recipients] and all, they use the library to look at drugs and food stamps [on the Internet]. I see them do it.”

That’s an exact quote from Lindel Toups, chair of the Parish Council in Lafourche, Louisiana, said in reference to Biblioteca Hispana, a Hispanic-language segment of the Golden Meadow library branch. Toups wants to redirect money that has already been voted by the people to fund the library- an institution dedicated to educating people of all ages, helps them find jobs in a damaged economy, connects them to social services, and a place of self-discovery and community identity- to build a new jail.  To do that he held a special election yesterday in an area that is still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Lafourche Parish is west of New Orleans.

Nearly 1,200 people voted early on yesterday’s ballot proposal, a number that Tammy Wendelschaefer, deputy registrar of the Lafourche Registrar of Voters, described as “very high.”

“I think it’s the controversy of the issue,” she said.

Supporters of the plan claim that the revenue stream is the one way to finance a new $25 million jail without raising taxes on parish citizens and they point to the library’s continually-growing budget as evidence that the system is collecting more money than it needs.

To be fair, the existing jail does have serious issues. It is overcrowded and badly damaged do to its age, but most agree that defunding libraries is not the answer to those infrastructure problems.

Library officials were quick to refute those claims and say that increased spending, done at deficit levels by drawing from a fund balance, is necessary to make up for self-inflicted spending cuts. They also noted that seven years ago the system voluntarily reduced its tax rates by 2 mills- double the amount posed on this weekend’s ballot.

Public debate on this issue has been sharp and, at times, quite personal. Nevertheless, the parish council placed the proposition on the ballot via a 5-3-1 vote.  Three councilmen opposed it and one was absent.

Not surprising, Toups served as the chair of the “New Jail Committee,” established in 2011 to help secure funding for a new facility. He said the library’s revenue is a “logical choice”, but this just seems like a callous means to an end.

“They’ve got too much money,” Toups said. “We’re giving the public the chance to raise the jail money without raising taxes. Any blind man can see that.”

But it’s more insidious than that.

Toups does not personally or philosophically agree with the library’s evolving role in the community, which influenced his repulsive quote.

Toups says that he doesn’t remember making those comments, and “that little writer just wanted to make a name for himself.” That rather condescending comment was in reference to Tri-Parish Times reporter, Eric Besson, who, according to Toups, “apparently picked up on informal comments made after a meeting without saying he was using the comments for a story.”

Toups isn’t the first politician to burn himself from a “hot mic” episode, nor will he be the last.

So how did the election turn out?

The results are in and the anti-library measure in Lafourche was defeated with 53% voting against the measure, thanks mainly to a social media campaign by John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary.org, to educate and inform the public on the issue.

About 43% of households in Lafourche Parish lack internet access at home, but more than half of its residents hold library cards, and they consistently vote in favor of milages for libraries. That could have been enough in its own right to bring citizens to the polls, but it was Toups’ blatantly unrestrained racial comments that riled library supporters, prompting many in the community to suspect his motivations for using library funds to build the jail.

Before the victory celebrations begin, though, there is a very sobering reality to consider that the ballot initiative was only rejected by barely a five to four margin- a move that would have quickly and surely sent the library system into deficit.

53%

That’s not much, when you really stand back and look at it. Had only a handful of voters chose differently things could have gone the other way. This is also a very distressing commentary on voter apathy, in general. What if supporters of the library had not taken the time to go to the polls? This is proof that every vote does count and that every ballot proposal has a long-term impact on the people, no matter how mundane those effects may seem in the short-term.

Today the voice of the people was heard, but what about tomorrow?

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 http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/

Sources: EveryLibrary.org, Tri-Parish Times, Huffington Post, LA Times
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Lord of the Flies”

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William Golding’s debut novel follows a group of British schoolboys whose plane crashes on the shore of an uninhabited island. As well intentioned their attempt to cope with the situation and govern themselves may have been they instead regress to primal instincts and the mentality of humanity’s earliest hunter societies.

Published in 1954, Lord of the Flies wasn’t a huge success in the United States, selling only 3,000 copies before going out of print. By the early 1960’s, though, it was a best seller and required reading in grade schools and universities across the country. It was also adapted for the screen in 1963 and 1990. In 2005, it was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best novels of the century.

The story makes vague hints about taking place during a nuclear war, which was a common fear during the political Red Scare of the 1950’s. Due to its rather stark and dystopian exploration of human nature it has also been quite controversial, especially in regards to its commentary on putting the self before the common good- which is the book’s central theme. The conflict between civilization- living by rules, peacefully and in harmony- and the human impulse to control others shapes most of the interactions and dialog; related themes include the conflict between rational and emotional reactions, and morality and immorality. Thus, it finds itself at #8 on the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned classics.

Examples include being challenged in the Dallas, Texas, Independent School District’s high school libraries in 1974 and the Sully Buttes, South Dakota high school in 1981.

Also in 1981, it was challenged at the Owen, North Carolina high school because the book was “demoralizing, in that it implies that man is little more than an animal.”

It was considered “inappropriate reading” in a Marana, Arizona, high school in 1983 and a year later challenged in the Olney, Texas, Independent School District for “excessive violence and bad language”.

A special committee of the Toronto Board of Education ruled on June 23, 1988, that the novel is “racist” and recommended that it be removed from all schools after members of the black community argued about a reference to “niggers” in the book and complained that it vilified blacks.

The Waterloo, Iowa, and Duval County, Florida, schools dealt with a challenge in 1992 because of profanity, “lurid passages about sex”, and “statements defamatory to minorities, God, women, and the disabled.”

The complaints argued that Lord of the Flies contained subversive indictments against the Christian Church. As proof of their claims, protesters sited that the book attempts to show that religion was not a factor in the creation or maintenance of civilization because the religious boys in the group were the ones who led the children down a path of superstition and violence using a sense of “rightness” as their justification for their actions.

Moving on to the 21st century, it was challenged, but retained, in the ninth-grade accelerated English reading list in Bloomfield, New York, in 2000.

The innocence of putting the boys on a plane and sending them off to a place safe from the ongoing war is taken through an ironic twist when an unfortunate incident sends the plane down on the island. There, cut off from the guidance of adults, they still follow a warrior mentality and show just how far we as a species have to go to be truly “civilized”. Therein lays the masterpiece of Golding’s work.

We may live in a world with modern conveniences and luxury, and consider ourselves the pillars of culture and sophistication, but when the lights go out and we are cut off from those tools of the modern world we show just how basic our instincts really are. The hardest lesson in wisdom is not in examining the outside, physical world and the actions of others, but by taking a long cold look into our own psyche.

Parents can claim that banning this book will shield and protect their children from these subjects and that the world is a place of perfection and harmony. The religious can claim all the righteousness they want. However, the true nature of these subjects isn’t in that they exist, but the fact that we simply don’t want to acknowledge or own up to the fact that they exist within ourselves.

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 http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/

Sources: Wikipedia, American Library Association
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “The Invisible Man”

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Another Banned Books Week has come and gone here in the “Land of the Free”. It comes with a mix of emotions for those at the center of the stand against censorship because this is an issue that exists 365 days a year, not just 7. While it is true that “any press is good press” during the week, sometimes that media attention can turn bittersweet.

This year there was a lot of attention because the Randolph County Board of Education ignorantly chose that week to entrench itself in a censorship effort against Ralph Ellison’s 1952 classic, The Invisible Man. The issue was so heated that it was covered by many news organizations around the world.

Among its various sociological commentaries it touched on such issues as the social and intellectual problems of Blacks in the early twentieth century, Black nationalism, the relationship between Black identity and Marxism, the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington, and the concepts of individuality and personal identity.

Invisible Man won the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction in 1953 and in 1998, the Modern Library ranked it nineteenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time magazine included the novel in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

It should come as little surprise, then, that it would come under fire in a state known for numerous censorship efforts. Leave it to good old North Carolina to, once again, demonstrate that the United States Constitution, reason, and logic all stop at its borders. That magical land where, upon crossing its border, one is instantly transported back 150 years in their mentality.

The RCBE voted 5-2 to officially ban the classic novel from all school libraries because, as Board member, Gary Mason, put it, “I didn’t find any literary value.” Scores of critics would vehemently disagree.

Invisible Man is told, in confession form, by an unnamed narrator whose bright future is erased by racism. It also bluntly and accurately uses the language of the period in which it was written. “I am an invisible man,” the novel begins. “No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe…”

The decision came after- you guessed it- a lone parent filed a 12-page complaint because she found the book’s contents too inappropriate for her 11th-grade child. She also cited its “lack of innocence, language, and sexual content.” The student, along with other juniors, were asked to read a book over the summer (Honors students were assigned to read two), with the choices being Ellison’s Invisible Man, Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin, and Passing, by Nella Larsen; all of which deal with race and identity.

The parent, Kimiyutta Parson, feels that the book is too much for anyone to read, not just her daughter. In her lengthy complaint, she said that, “the narrator writes in the first person, emphasizing his individual experiences and his feelings about the events portrayed in his life. This novel is not so innocent; instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers. You must respect all religions and point of views when it comes to the parents and what they feel is age appropriate for their young children to read, without their knowledge. This book is freely in your library for them to read.”

After nine days of state, national, and even international heat, the County reversed its decision and reinstated the book, an act that usually requires legislation from the state level.

This isn’t the first time Invisible Man has come under the scorn of censors. According to the American Library Association, it is one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century that have been challenged or banned.

Previously, excerpts from the novel were banned in Butler, Pennsylvania in 1975; that same year it was removed from the high school English reading list in St. Francis, Wisconsin.

It was challenged and retained in the Yakima, Washington schools in 1994 after a five-month dispute over what advanced high school students should and should not be allowed to read in the classroom after two parents raised concerns about profanity and images of violence and sexuality in the book and requested that it be removed from the reading list.

Michael Gill, psychology instructor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania- 300 miles east of Butler, said it best:

“In a free, democratic society it is essential that citizens are able to turn a critical eye on our society and identify areas for progress and improvement! Books that encourage such critical examination are often banned… we cannot let that happen! Some good examples of banned or almost-banned books in this category: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison; 1984, by George Orwell; The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair; Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Read all of these!”

 

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 http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/

Sources: Wikipedia, American Library Association, LA Times, Asheboro Courier-Tribune, The Times-News, Christian Science Monitor, Lehigh University
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him”

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Texas-born Tomás Rivera’s coming-of-age story of a Mexican boy’s life in a migrant family in the 1940s and 1950s, with its themes of family life and tensions, is apparently too much for the parents of a Clarke County seventh-grader and they want the book banned.

They demanded that the Clarke County Board of Education overturn Superintendent Philip Lanoue’s decision not to remove the award-winning book from an Athens, Georgia school.

In an email detailing the complaint, Deputy Superintendent Noris Price stated, “We think the themes speak directly to many of our students. We suggest that if teachers use this book, to include a permission slip along with it so parents are aware of potential language issues or violence.”

Such a compromise is not satisfactory to the parents of the student, though, according to a formal “request for reconsideration of material” they filed in April.

In that complaint, the parents argue that “any possible value is lost with offensive language,” such as a profanity-laced outburst from a man frustrated by unjust treatment and conditions migrant workers endure- in good times, migrant pay is $15 a day for adults, half that for children. “At the impressionable age of middle schoolers, purposely exposing them to this language may seem like an endorsement of it,” (sic) the complaint contended.

Please, I heard worse language sitting in study hall.

Lanoue wrote to the parents on May 9th to say the book would remain available to students with parental consent.

“This decision is based on the recommendation that one paragraph does not overpower the other literary elements that (Rivera’s) book can offer our students,” he said.

The son of Spanish-speaking migrant workers, Rivera would later become an author, poet, college professor, and administrator- a career that culminated in becoming chancellor of the University of California at Riverside when he died in 1984 at the age of 48.

 “…y no se lo tragó la tierra”- translated into English variously as “This Migrant Earth” or “…and the Earth Did Not Devour Him” won the first Quinto Sol literary award in 1970. A California publisher, to encourage and promote Chicano authors, established the award. A movie adaptation of the novel was released in 1995.

The Clarke County school board was scheduled to hear the appeal at its regular monthly meeting last Wednesday.

At the first sign of controversy, they caved. They didn’t even attempt to delay the matter by assigning it to a committee for investigation, or gaining community or parent insight. They simply tucked their tails between their legs and voted in a half-hearted motion to “urge Superintendent Lanoue to reconsider” the logical compromise of giving informed parents the opportunity of opting out and instead just removing the book completely.

We all know what it means when the higher-ups want you to “reconsider” something- they have their eye on you and the pressure is on to change your mind so that you end up the bad guy and they save face.

This sets a very bad precedent.

If a school board so quickly adds an agenda item upon request from a single individual or family, what’s next? It’s clear that anything a parent objects to or has an issue with goes straight to the board level for immediate response, where the powers that be cower to public fear and sheepishly consent to demands without so much as a candid debate.

David Huff, vice president of the school board, was one of two members to oppose the ban.

He said that the board should be focusing on bigger issues, such as improving graduation rates, cutting-edge technology, and the future of education, not short-term political distractions.

He’s absolutely right.

Once you start obsessing over individual words and paragraphs and getting caught up in scrutinizing class reading lists just to satisfy the whims and insecurities of individual parents you’re micromanaging your teaching staff and taking attention away from more important matters like planning and policies that are beneficial for all schools.

I’m not saying that the voice of these parents doesn’t matter or that their concerns don’t have merit, but there’s more than one child in any given school.

What of those other parents? Don’t they get a say in the matter? In fact, if that’s how it’s going to be, just remove the teachers altogether and have the parents dictate curriculum for their children and yours. Soon classrooms will be a bickering minefield of parents. Too many hands in the cookie jar, as it were. Yeah, that’s logical.

Why stop there? How about they decide on what color the hallways are painted, how many bike racks go in front of each door- or which door, and what brand of toilet to install in the bathroom.

Banning books might seem like an easy way to avoid controversy and attention, but all it really does is open a can of worms that slowly eats away at democracy and free-choice.

So, where does it end?

** Author’s Note: In another on-going incident of censorship, the book has also been included in the many titles remove in Arizona as part of that state’s ban on books dealing with ethnic studies, which sparked outrage and “caravan” events around the country, known as Librotraficante, aimed at smuggling books into Tucson schools.

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 http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/

Sources: Athens Banner-Herald
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Captain Underpants”

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Most of us aren’t surprised by “Fifty Shades of Grey” being the fourth most-challenged book of 2012, but would you expect a children’s book to make number one?

Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” has been repeatedly banned or challenged due to concerns over offensive language and charges of being “unsuited for age group.”

“It’s pretty exciting to be on a list that frequently features Mark Twain, Harper Lee, and Maya Angelou,” Pilkey said in a recent statement to the Huffington Post. “But I worry that some parents might see this list and discourage their kids from reading [it], even though they have not had a chance to read the books themselves.”

The Office for Intellectual Freedom received 464 challenges last year- a 25 percent jump from 2011, but still low compared to the 1980s and ‘90s.

The “Captain Underpants” books have long been debated among parents and educators. Some praise the books because they encourage boys to read, others criticize them for having toilet humor and an irreverent attitude; the title character is a superhero created by two fourth graders about their cantankerous principal, Mr. Krupp.

The series’ premise is a simple one. It follows the adventures of two mischievous class clowns, George Beard and Harold Hutchins, who have inadvertently turned grumpy Mr. Krupp into a tighty-whitey-wearing, cape-bearing superhero. With help from the boys, he defends the world from evil characters such as Professor Poopypants, Dr. Diaper, the Naughty Cafeteria Ladies, and the Wicked Wedgie Woman.

The boys are also constantly pulling off silly pranks, such as turning a sign that says, “Please Wash Your Hands after Using the Toilet” into one that reads “Please Wash Your Hands in the Toilet.”

“I don’t see these books as encouraging disrespect for authority. Perhaps they demonstrate the value of questioning authority,” Pilkey said. “Some of the authority figures in the books are villains. They are bullies and they do vicious things.”

Pilkey said his semi-autobiographical characters are based in part on teachers and principals he had between second and fifth grade- some of whom were villains who got away with it because they were authority figures.

“None of the children in my school, including me, thought to question them,” he said. “So, I do feel there is real value in showing kids that not all authority figures are good or kind or honorable.”

The president of Scholastic’s trade division, Ellie Berger, said in a statement that the appearance of Captain Underpants on the 2012 ALA list coincides with the publication of Dav Pilkey’s first new book in six years and the series’ return to national bestseller lists. Both, she says, are evidence that this bestselling series continues to inspire a love of reading (and underpants) for a new generation of kids.

The series has been a mainstay at the top of the list of formal complaints filed with libraries or schools requesting that the books be removed because of inappropriateness for over a decade.

Some notable incidents include the Riverside Unified School District in California and the school superintendent of the Maple Hill School in Naugatuck, Connecticut who sought to ban the series in 2001 due to concerns that it caused unruly behavior among children.

By 2002, it was the sixth most frequently challenged book according to the American Library Association.

In 2003 it was banned for insensitivity and being “unsuited to age group,” as well as for “encouraging children to disobey authority.”

Offensive language and modeling bad behavior were the top reasons for challenges to the series in 2005 and, in 2006, it was challenged for anti-family content, being unsuited to age group, and violence.

Three 17-year-old girls were told to leave New York’s Long Beach High School in 2006 when they showed up on Superhero Day dressed as the Captain.

The girls wore beige leotards and nude stockings under white briefs and red capes, but Principal Nicholas Restivo wasn’t laughing. He said he knew that they weren’t naked, but that it “appeared that way,” so he sent them home to change.

One of the girls, honor student Chelsea Horowitz, said that she didn’t understand the fuss. “They’re not see-through or anything.”

In spite of the ongoing controversy, the widely popular book series that began in 1997 has grown to include 10 titles and 3 spin-offs and won a Disney Adventures Kids’ Choice Award in 2007. DreamWorks Animation acquired rights to the series to make an animated feature film adaptation.

Captain Underpants has battled talking toilets and the infamous Professor Poopypants, but in the end his most challenging arch-nemesis seems to be adults with no sense of humor.

 

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 http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/

Sources: The Huffington Post, Marshall University, American Library Association, NBC News, New York Sun
© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “Persepolis”

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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 http://bbark.deepforestproductions.com/

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

Banned Books Awareness: Censorship is really about an escape from the truth

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TwainLiterature marks the times. Whether an epic historical fiction or a dime store yarn, a novel reflects the time in which it is published as much as it does the period it is set in.

The intricacy and subject matter of the literature we enjoy also evolves with us as we learn and grow; from the days of A Cat in the Hat, through A Wrinkle in Time, to Tom Sawyer, Harry Potter, and beyond to when, as adults, we can look fondly at those stories from our youth while we enthrall ourselves in the latest whodunit by John Grisham, or peer into the saucy side of life with Fifty Shades of Grey.

The Harry Potter series, for example, grew to become more complex with each new title. The characters, the challenges, and the themes evolved along with the reader through the years at Hogwarts building to the grand climax. Those who were fortunate to grow up alongside the release of each book hold a special affinity for the series.

So how would those readers, many of whom are now young adults, feel if someone came along and decided to start rewriting the series with the red pen of political correctness?

You see, all of the titles mentioned so far in this column have one thing in common- they’ve all been censored or banned.

Imagine spending a snowy afternoon comfortably under a blanket, coffee at the side, and ready to embrace yourself in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer once again. It’s a timeless classic enjoyed both as a kid and as an adult. Unforgettable scenes such as when Tom swindles out of painting Aunt Polly’s fence by convincing everyone foolish enough to walk by that it’s an honor to spend a Saturday that way was just genius and I would wonder if I would get away with something like that. Not only did he get out of doing the work himself, but he also profits from it, winning a pocketful of such riches as a dead rat on a string, a half-eaten apple, a knife handle, and four pieces of orange peel.

Hey, don’t knock it. As a boy, I would have been happy with that kind of loot.

But just as you’re about to smile at the scene of Tom’s payoff you notice something that shocks your brain out of the 1840’s and back to the sad world that is 2013. You read it again just to be sure, and you come to the realization that this edition has been marred by the dreaded red pen of censorship. This edition’s description of the enslaved boy, Jim, has been changed to “Aunt Polly’s little helper.”

You have to be kidding me. It’s not like Jim had a choice in the matter or even took enjoyment out of “helping” Aunt Polly.

The editors of this edition have taken offense to Twain’s description of Jim as “a small colored boy” and the various uses of the word “nigger” by omitting them completely and replacing them with bland terms one would expect to hear on a local channel’s broadcast of The Breakfast Club at 1 pm on a Saturday: “I’m a hot dog? No, you’re a hot dog.” It just don’t have the same emotional depth, does it?

What’s next? Are they going to walk into the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence and slap a pair of shorts on Michelangelo’s statue of David?

They do realize that Tom Sawyer was written and set in the mid 1800’s, right?

Being close-minded and hypocritical in 2013 does not erase the fact that people were chained and held as property, forced to work in unsanitary and inhospitable conditions in a land that was supposed to be the home of the free and the brave.

Margaret Garner fled Kentucky with her family to Ohio, a “free” state; but thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, owners could cross into such states and take their “property” back. Garner and her children were trapped in a house near Cincinnati, but before the plantation owners could get their hands on Garner’s 2-year-old daughter, she cut the girl’s throat with a knife because it’s better to die free than live as a slave.

Garner became the fictional Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Beloved. Oh, that book has a long history of being challenged and banned, too, so as to protect our children from the ‘horrors’ of the truth of our dark past.

A mother in Virginia has become the latest to wield the red pen, demanding that school officials ban the book because it gave her son- a senior in an advanced placement English class- nightmares after reading it.

High school students not only should have the mental capacity to discuss the moral implications of these subjects, but they should be encouraged to do so. Pretending it didn’t exist does nothing to honor the legacy of those who died, and it certainly doesn’t prevent such atrocities from happening again or learning from our mistakes.

If your son can’t handle an AP English assignment without nightmares then maybe they shouldn’t be in the class at all. Perhaps they also aren’t ready for college, nor the very real world of adulthood for that matter.

If a parent objects to their child reading something, that’s all fine and dandy; but it’s a whole new ball game if they think others shouldn’t be allowed to read it either. Who are they really protecting? It’s not the students, that’s for sure. They’re protecting themselves and the rose-colored glasses permanently attached to their eyes that hide the closed mind behind them.

Good literature sparks debate. Controversial books spark debate. Sometimes the debate is on the accuracy or validity of the subject presented, and sometimes the debate is whether or not it’s a good book for children to read and, if so, at what age.

But if the only view of the world outside the classroom window they are allowed to see is watered down, sanitized, and devoid of passion, purpose, and integrity, what quality of education have they really received? If simply reading a book can give them nightmares, then what therapy-inducing horrors will they be unable to face once they finally are allowed to leave their mommy’s side?

Literature is supposed to entertain, inspire, and initiate dialogue. The classroom is there to provide a structured environment for students to learn about these issues, develop critical thinking and debate skills, and apply that knowledge to the situations they will face throughout life. It is imperative to understand the past before you can prepare for the future.

If these overprotective parents are so concerned with the mental frailty of not just their children but everyone else’s, then I better not hear them complain when their sons are 40 years old and screaming upstairs from their little cave in the basement for more meatloaf.

 

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 http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html

© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions

Banned Books Awareness: “The Glass Castle”

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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 http://www.deepforestproductions.com/BBARK.html

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