Return of the Book Banners

by WALTER BRASCH

Parents demanded it be banned.

School superintendents placed it in restricted sections of their libraries.

It is the most challenged book four of the past five years, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

“It” is a 32-page illustrated children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, with illustrations by Henry Cole. The book is based upon the real story of Roy and Silo, two male penguins, who had formed a six-year bond at New York City’s Central Park Zoo, and who “adopted” a fertilized egg and raised the chick until she could be on her own.

Gays saw the story as a positive reinforcement of their lifestyle. Riding to rescue America from homosexuality were the biddies against perversion. Gay love is against the Bible, they wailed; the book isn’t suitable for the delicate minds of children, they cried as they pushed libraries and schools to remove it from their shelves or at the very least make it restricted.

The penguins may have been gay—or maybe they weren’t. It’s not unusual for animals to form close bonds with others of their same sex. But the issue is far greater than whether or not the penguins were gay or if the book promoted homosexuality as a valid lifestyle. People have an inherent need to defend their own values, lifestyles, and worldviews by attacking others who have a different set of beliefs. Banning or destroying free speech and the freedom to publish is one of the ways people believe they can protect their own lifestyles.

During the first decade of the 21st century, the most challenged books, according to the ALA, were J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, apparently because some people believe fictionalized witchcraft is a dagger into the soul of organized religion. Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series was the 10th most challenged in 2010. Perhaps some parents weren’t comfortable with their adolescents having to make a choice between werewolves and vampires.

Among the most challenged books is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the vicious satire about firemen burning books to save humanity. Other books that are consistently among the ALA’s list of most challenged are Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Chocolate War (Robert Cormier), Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou), Forever(Judy Blume), and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain), regarded by most major literary scholars as the finest American novel.

Name a classic, and it’s probably on the list of the most challenged books. Conservatives, especially fundamental religious conservatives, tend to challenge more books. But, challenges aren’t confined to any one political ideology. Liberals are frequently at the forefront of challenging books that may not agree with their own social philosophies. The feminist movement, while giving the nation a better awareness of the rights of women, wanted to ban Playboy and all works that depicted what they believed were unflattering images if women. Liberals have also attacked the works of Joel Chandler Harris (the Br’er Rabbit series), without understanding history, folklore, or the intent of the journalist-author, who was well-regarded as liberal for his era.

Although there are dozens of reasons why people say they want to restrict or ban a book, the one reason that threads its way through all of them is that the book challenges conventional authority or features a character who is perceived to be “different,” who may give readers ideas that many see as “dangerous.”

The belief there are works that are “dangerous” is why governments create and enforce laws that restrict publication. In colonial America, as in almost all countries and territories at that time, the monarchy required every book to be licensed, to be read by a government official or committee to determine if the book was suitable for the people. If so, it received a royal license. If not, it could not be printed.

In 1644, two decades before his epic poem Paradise Lost was published, John Milton wrote a pamphlet, to be distributed to members of Parliament, against a recently-enacted licensing law. In defiance of the law, the pamphlet was published without license. Using Biblical references and pointing out that the Greek and Roman civilizations didn’t license books, Milton argued, “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable create [in] God’s image,” he told Parliament, “but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself, kills the image of God.” He concluded his pamphlet with a plea, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

A century later, Sir William Blackstone, one of England’s foremost jurists and legal scholars, argued against prior restraint, the right of governments to block publication of any work they found offensive for any reason.

The arguments of Milton and Blackstone became the basis of the foundation of a new country, to be known as the United States of America, and the establishment of the First Amendment.

Every year, at the end of September, the American Library Association sponsors Banned Book Week, and publishes a summary of book challenges. And every year, it is made more obvious that those who want to ban books, sometimes building bonfires and throwing books upon them as did Nazi Germany, fail to understand the principles of why this nation was created.

Walter Brasch’s latest book is Before the First Snow, a story of America’s counterculture as seen through the eyes of a “flower child” and the reporter who covered her life for three decades.

 

Will Falk moved to the West Coast from Milwaukee, WI where he was a public defender.

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