News: Banned Books Week: Thoughts from Lisa Grabenstetter

Monday, October 12, 2009

NO!GUD contributor Lisa Grabenstetter writes: The American Library Association's 'Banned Books Week' was September 26th through October 3rd this year. As you can see, I'm a little late coming to it. Nevertheless, I think it an important topic to arrive at--no matter how tardily.

The vast majority of banned books are children's books, and they're challenged for the very fact of being written for children. Somewhere, somewhen, some people came up with the idea that children's brains are infinitely malleable. Yet, furthermore, every single impression worked into a child is unchanging and indelible. That's right. You, reader, who were afraid at age five that flying skull monsters would come out of the toilet to eat you every time you flushed*: you still leave the door unlocked for a swift getaway. We know it. Time, age, experience? They are nothing to the fact that you read about toilet monsters once!

This is how many book banners would appear to think.

So, permanently scarred by The Toilet Monster Compendium, you are now lobbying to get it removed from your local library. It is simply not enough that you advise all of your friends not to read it, and tell them not to let their children read it. Not enough that you let nary a copy cross the threshold of your own home. No, you must prevent all those innocents who may ever want to check it out from your local library from doing so, too!

Banning alone, though, is an ineffective strategy. It may cover all those who have no other recourse but to borrow the book from the library, but it leaves all other options for acquiring the book wide open. How will you prevent impressionable children (or their well-meaning relatives) buying The Toilet Monster Compendium? Or borrowing it from a friend? How about that big-budget Hollywood adaptation with Crispin Glover in the title role? Worse, controversy is a more surefire way to make a book (or movie, or picture) skyrocket in popularity.

So what is a budding mind-controller to do?

Find a group of people who can be led into being equally offended by The Toilet Monster Compendium, and gain their support. Even if none of them have ever read it, and the reason they're offended has absolutely nothing to do with the reasons you're still terrified of brightly-gleaming porcelain, this can be an effective strategy. Not only will you be more likely to get the book banned, due to sheer force of numbers, but the involvement of more people means you can cover more fronts. While you're campaigning to get Toilet Monster removed from the public library, someone else can be working on the second-grade curriculum, and the local bookstores. You can hold midnight book-burnings in protest, gaining media attention and encouraging other branches of the group to challenge the book as well.

A friend of mine actually removed his kid from the religious school she was attending over a scenario quite similar to this. Now, he was of the religion this school represented... hence having his child attend in the first place. But then the school voted to unilaterally ban the book The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) by Phillip Pullman from school grounds. They sent home notices with students, warning parents not to allow their children to read the book or see the movie. When my friend asked the principal whether he had ever read the book himself, the principal responded that he had not. He was having it banned because of a protest within his religion against the book, timed to coincide with the release of the movie, and due to some anti-religious content they had told him the book contained. My friend asked around, and found that none of the school's deciding board had read the book: they'd written the notice and instated the ban entirely on the word of some other members of their religion. My friend did the logical thing: he bought several dozen copies of the book, and handed them to those in charge. When they upheld the ban, he pulled his daughter out and sent her to a secular school. Also, he took her to see a movie.

But there you go! Look how much trouble my friend had to go through to try and defend a book he loved from the ignorance of an entire elementary school. Adhere your Toilet Monster-banning agenda to that of a populous group like a religion, and otherwise rational people will avoid the book like the plague--out of sheer laziness. Probably the only human trait that can trump curiosity.

A person is told vociferously and often that, if they were only to read this book they will be offended--truly, deeply, heartrendingly offended. There is no possible way they could enjoy anything about this book... they will only be offended! Easy to just take that message away with them without going to the trouble of reading the book, or even just looking up relevant quotes in context. So when someone else asks them how they feel about the book, well... they are offended! Truly.

And there you have your strategy. Get people so pumped up that they will defend banning a book solely on hearsay.

Now, you might encounter some people who suggest to you that many things will happen to you in the course of your life. These people will tell you that a single book read as a child is usually pretty inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, and that if you really didn't like The Toilet Monster Compendium, you should move on and read other books--not try and prevent everyone reading the book ever again, for any reason. Humans change and develop, they will tell you, learning to measure the world and forming opinions based on a multitude of stimuli.

Basically, they are telling you that most people grow up.

So that is my take on book banning. Happy belated Banned Book Week, and may your quest for knowledge take you to many surprising, controversial, and fascinating places!

*The librarian at the school I attended in first grade told my class that, when she was our age, she had been afraid of monsters coming out of the toilet when she flushed. Thinking this was funny, I told my little sister the story when I got home. She took it seriously, and the fear of monsters (or monstrous ghosts) rising from the toilet when she flushed plagued her for years. Yet another of my siblings' childhood traumas that was actually my fault!

(Editor's note: And no books involved!)

Lisa Grabenstetter's artworks Writing the Harvest and The Catoblepas appeared in GUD Issue 4.

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posted by Debbie

2 comments; 3 subscribers

Tuesday, October 13, 2009 / 10:58:22
Oh this book banning makes me so mad - for all the reasons you describe above, but also because of the fundamentally flawed assumption that children will only have access to childrens books and never consume anything written for adults. When I was a child I used to read everything I could lay my grubby paws on, and that included a lot of books written for adults. I'm talking about Daphne Du Maurier, Virginia Andrews one summer - no idea why, but I have a memory of it being in a holiday cottage and reading away - and stacks of Asimov and Ray Bradbury, some of which is decidedly chilling, and not explicitly for the children's market. Does that mean that the book banners will want parents to lock away books not designed for children/approved by them? Urgh. The story about the religious school has made me miserable, but thank goodness that father had some sense. Ok, rant over...
Wednesday, October 14, 2009 / 12:05:12
Banning really steams me, as well! I had a lot of difficulty not turning this blog post into an all-out rant. :)
Some people do try to ban adult books for "inappropriate content", unfortunately, often for reasons of "graphic sexual content", or if it advocates politics that they do not agree with. Often the reason given is that it could "easily fall into the hands of children", or because it is part of a high school curriculum.
I've even read proposals for instituting content rating systems for books, just as there are for movies and videogames.

Even more disturbing in my opinion, though, is that some people would want to ban books for the purpose of keeping them out of the hands of other adults. Bad as the "we must protect the children!" mentality is, the rationale for keeping any book away from an adult, who can presumable filter content in more mature manner than kids, is truly scary.
I might not agree with the content of some books, but trying to deny everyone else the right to read them? Seriously problematic.

-Lisa Grabenstetter

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