Thursday, October 4, 2012

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read

Banned Books Week occurs this year from September 30 to October 6.  As a former English teacher of thirty-four years, I have often taught challenged or banned books in a public high school. Some of my favorite banned books are The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Native Son. If you are not sure you know the titles of banned books, check out this website. And this is only one list of classics that American public school grads often read. The list sometimes includes the Kurt Vonnegut book, Breakfast of Champions. I won't ever forget Vonnegut's novel because it allowed me to experience a parental book challenge.

This challenge lasted six weeks and the flames were fueled by the local media. The parents of a high school junior in my American Literature class wanted the book taken out of the library because it was "pornography and trash" and not suitable for children. They also wanted to form a committee of parents to go into all the district libraries and throw out books they deemed "trash." 

Without ever talking to me, the parents launched a media blitz giving newspapers information about the situation and even arranging an on-air interview at a television station an hour north of us. They contacted the principal, superintendent, and the school board, but not me. Their viewpoint was that they were taxpaying citizens who should be able to decide what books were healthy for their own child as well as everyone else's children. 

Fortunately, our school library had a policy for selecting books and our district had a policy of steps for those wanting to challenge materials. These steps included the school librarian checking with numerous book review sources, as well as the ALA, to see if this book was considered suitable reading for high school students. She decided it was. The National Council of Teachers of English chimed in as well as the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. All viewed the Vonnegut book as suitable.

Halfway through the storm one of the college students who worked at the local newspaper decided to call Kurt Vonnegut, author of Breakfast of Champions, and get his view on the issue. Needless to say, the conversation was hilarious and Vonnegut was shocked they were not going after Slaughterhouse-5. This emboldened me to write a letter to the author and I added some of the more inflammatory newspaper clippings.

The end of the challenge came when the school board voted neither to ban the book from the library nor to allow parents to go into the school libraries and take out books. 

A week later I received a wonderful gift. Kurt Vonnegut had received my letter and clippings and wrote me the funniest letter in return, commenting on his view of book censorship.

The entire story of the book challenge, including excerpts from the media, Vonnegut's letter, and details about the whole book incident, can be found in the longest chapter of my book, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks), available from Amazon or In addition, on October 31, 2012, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, will become available. Vonnegut's correspondence includes numerous letters--many of them humorous--regarding his feelings about censorship.

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