Tuesday, February 22, 2011

banned books (Oct 4, 2006)

Current mood: determined

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me personally that I hate the concept of censorship. Sure, you may find something objectionable, and you have every right to voice your opinion about its being objectionable, but you have no right to prevent anyone else from reading something.

This especially applies in schools, to my way of thinking. I'll even go so far as to say that the more objectionable something is, the more it needs discussion in schools.

This being Banned Books Week, my local library set out a small collection of titles very commonly found on someone's no-no list. Of the 10 or so, I had personally read six, so of course I had to pick up one I was not familiar with, just to help rectify the situation.

That book, Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher, has proven to be an absolutely wonderful story. It was so good, I decided to read it out loud to my two teens. For those unfamiliar with the story, it is told first-person by a multi-ethnic teenager in a bigoted, all-white town in the Pacific NW. Briefly, the guy's an athlete, but until now has vowed never to be affiliated with any organized school sport, since the school and community take sports far too seriously for anyone's good. When a couple of football stars gang up on a mentally retarded kid for wearing the jacket his big brother (who died in an accident) earned playing football a couple of years before, T.J., the main character, defends him, and vows that the kid, as sorry a case as there ever was, will someday earn his own such jacket. In so doing, T.J. fights racism, holier-than-thou-ness, raging hormones, raging stupidity, stalkers, abusers, unmitigated greed, and sexism that doesn't shy away from rape.

The book routinely gets savaged by so-called-Christians who object to a lot of words they deem offensive. Most of it is plain old swear words everyone knows, and which most people use to some extent. The book really is full of such words, and beyond that, conveys a large amount of human nastiness using slang and minor vulgarisms. OK, yeah, it's there (yawn) so what? So what, is that the book is so often lambasted, the author, Chris Crutcher, devotes a section of his website to the matter of censorship, that book in particular.

Here's what I don't get: The so-called-Christians get so uppity over profanity, but they somehow have little to say about the topics that the book was designed to highlight, namely in this case dealing with real life problems caused by racism, and the plight of the little guy in the face of overwhelming odds. It should also be noted that Crutcher is a therapist in private practice, and on his website makes quite clear that much of the story's substance came from real life situations.

In one scene, in a therapist's office, a very young child, maybe five, acts out some of the hatred she lives with, throwing African-American dolls across the room with fury, swearing up a streak that would catch even a drunken longshoreman's attention.

Side note: My own kids could not bring themselves to read this part of the book aloud. They're not taken to cursing openly. I see this as different, that they are reading the text of a book of fiction; they are not being asked to curse someone or to add said words to their routine vocabulary. Does that make me want to change my mind about reading it in schools? Not one bit.

Still, I do not see this as grounds to ban a book! Note, again, that I made sure that my kids read the book. We read a lot of books aloud. This one, though, since I am comfortable using such language, and since I know I do read aloud very well (not bragging, just reporting the news), I am doing most of the out-loud reading. My job as a parent, then, is to make sure the kids know what's going on, can handle discussing it, and have a way to deal with it themselves personally should the same or a similar situation happen to them.

So here is my challenge to those who object to the book: First, read it. Second, read it again for content, for tone, for making sure you know what all the swear words and vulgarities mean in the context they are used. Third, read it yet again, making sure you know the significance of each paragraph, each sentence, each word in the book, as applied to the story therein. Live this book; get it under your fingernails; make it part of you; make it so that you are T.J. and can see where he and everyone else is coming from at all times.

Thus informed, now try to rewrite just that one scene with the girl, midway through Chapter 5, using language that you find appropriate. Do so, but make painfully clear all of the following:
* How Heidi distinguishes white dolls from African-American dolls
* How Heidi treats the African-American dolls
* Why Heidi treats the African-American dolls in this way
* Why it is that Heidi feels it necessary to make this distinction
* Why it is that T.J.'s terminology to describe the dolls -- which does use words you can say in church -- is not sufficient in Heidi's eyes
* And remember, you are re-telling the story here, you are the author, trying to convey real angst, real racism, from the eyes of a five-year-old who has known nothing but that since birth. You may not change the story, just re-tell it in words that you find acceptable.

I say it cannot be done. I further say that even if it can be done at all, that the result will be not worth reading. Revisit the situation T.J. is in, and make sure that all emotional bases are covered, that T.J. gets Heidi's messages about the dolls, all without watering down the impact that the message has on him.

But back to reality: Stop trying! Stop trying to censor books! Get used to the idea that bad language does not make a story bad! Get used to the idea that real life has bad language in it. I am not asking you to use profanity, but at least tolerate it when someone else does use it. More importantly -- far more importantly -- listen to the substance of what is going on, not the words. We read these stories, we have our children read these stories, so that they do not end up like Mike or Rich or any of the others whose racism, prejudices and other preconceived ideas make life so miserable for the people around them.

So, yes, I feel that Whale Talk should be at least permissible reading on a wide scale in every school in the land.


Footnote: My daughter [Note: then in grade 7], in a hallway conversation with a teacher, mentioned that she's reading this book. "Isn't that one of the banned books?" the teacher asked. "Oh yes! Those are always the best stories!"

1 comment:

bus15237 said...

Original comments on the blog from 2006:

Stu - awesome assessment. If everyone took that kind of interest in their child's education, I might still be a teacher....... Can you post the list? I'd like to check them out. I'm an avid reader and enjoy the challenge of reading what others recommend. Otherwise too many books to choose from. Added it to my Good Reads list.
thanks for the suggestion!

3 years ago

Stuart Strickland
Go here for the American Library Association's latest list. I'm proud to say I've read four of the [2006] top 10, and, even better, managed to read one before I knew it was on the banned list.