Here We Go Again


August 26, 1993|By ANNE WERPS

In a 1982 decision, Pico v. Island Trees, the Supreme Court ruled that ''local school boards cannot ban books from school libraries merely because they dislike the ideas expressed in them.''

Steven Pico, the plaintiff in the case, spoke a few years ago at a conference of the Missouri Association of School Librarians. He said, ''Over and over again, the facts in these incidents are the same: The books are not read in their entirety, . . . the opinions of professionals are ignored, the attitudes of students are never sought and those who disagree are ostracized or forced to leave. Thus the decision-making power rests in the hands of lay people who often have no formal education. And the criteria for judging literary merit become moral and political instead of educational.''

How quickly we forget. Last spring, a group of parents and teachers in the Fairfax Public Schools in Virginia brought pressure on the school board to remove ''Jump Ship To Freedom,'' from the school libraries. The book tells the story of a young slave in Connecticut in 1787. The authors, James and Christopher Collier, have written several fine books, one of them a Newbery Honor book. Christopher Collier is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut. But the book is said not to belong in elementary-school libraries because it reinforces negative Afro-American stereotypes.

According to Linda Hunt, coordinator of library and information services in the Fairfax schools, ''the authors depict the way things were, not the way things should be. That has caused the problem. But if we start removing all the historical fiction because we don't like the way things were, we might end up with very little historical fiction in our libraries.''

Professionals involved in literature review who recommend books for use in school libraries have guidelines. Gender- and race-sensitive factors are critical. Suppose we objected to every historical novel that depicts women in traditional roles or make women seem less intelligent than men? Such vigilance about sexism in literature could soon lead to many empty shelves in our libraries. Where do we draw the line between being race- and gender-sensitive and historical revisionism?

The complaint in Fairfax was that the children might read only part of the book. Parents feared that children might not be able to put things into context. What a lost opportunity for adults and children to explore a book together and discuss it! Why not assist in ''putting it into context'' by reading aloud together? This could be a rich and rewarding experience for parents and children.

Teachers, aware of the problems of taking things out of context, could read sensitive books to their classes and a wealth of learning experiences could ensue: analysis, questions, reflection, discussion. Isn't this a crucial role of books in school?

Maybe parents don't worry as much as I think. Maybe they are unconcerned about libraries having books. Maybe they are content to let their children play video games and watch television, where they won't be exposed to dangerous ideas, and parents won't have to answer tough questions. It's one way to be sure you won't have to sit down and engage your child in a meaningful but sometimes difficult conversation.

Fortunately, in Fairfax County the school board decided to keep the book. Some school districts may not be so lucky. In other communities across the nation, the battle to ''protect'' our children's minds from dangerous ideas continues. Next stop, your community? Here we go again.

Anne Werps is a reading specialist in the Baltimore County schools.

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