Censorship takes center stage 'Empty Shelves': UMBC presents a dramatic reading of censored authors to illustrate the extent of book banning at libraries nationwide.

Education Beat

January 28, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

YOU ARE ABOUT to hear an abbreviated list of books that have been banned or challenged in libraries across the United States."

With those words, Anna Soderberg, a student at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, launched a performance of "Empty Shelves," a play -- more accurately, a reading -- about the efforts made across America to keep words out of the hands and heads of students.

Ms. Soderberg and six other UMBC student actors then offered a dramatic reading of censored authors in alphabetical order, from Ralph D. Abernathy to Laurence Yep, with a return at the end to Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," the most famous

anti-censorship work in modern American literature.

Wendy Salkind, the chair of UMBC's theater department, who conceived and directed the production, made most items short and simple. Example: "Jeanne Betancourt, 'Sweet Sixteen and Never,' challenged in Howard County, 1991, because of the book's graphic depiction of a teen-age romance. Judy Blume, 'Blubber,' removed from all library shelves in the Montgomery County elementary schools, 1980."

Another example: "The Brothers Grimm, 'Hansel and Gretel,' challenged at the Mount Diablo, Calif., school district, 1992, because it teaches children that it is acceptable to kill witches and paints witches as child-eating monsters."

Or consider these reasons for banning books, all from "Empty Shelves": They "show the devil as a friendly force;" they "promote a dangerous and ungodly lifestyle from which children must be protected;" they are "depressing" and a "real bummer."

Shel Silverstein's "A Light in the Attic," one of several works excerpted in "Empty Shelves," was challenged in California because it "encourages children to break dishes so they won't have to dry them."

"Empty Shelves" was first performed several weeks ago at UMBC's spectacular new Kuhn Library, an ideal venue for an anti-censorship work. Now the play is on the road in area high schools.

It got its first school showing last week in Towson at a magnet school grandiloquently named the Carver Center for Arts and Technology.

About 100 Carver students studying theater and the literary arts saw the production in a dark, high-ceilinged theater called the "Black Box."

Ms. Salkind introduced the actors, saying that when she started researching censorship, she thought most of it had occurred in "places like North Dakota." But, she said, she'd encountered plenty of examples from "our own back yard."

In a question-and-answer session afterward, none of the students defended a community's right to ban books under certain circumstances.

Some of the books in "Empty Shelves" had been challenged or banned in cities and towns where majority opinion might dictate against the word "nigger" in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," for example, or the rape described vividly in Alice Walker's "The Color Purple."

Censorship is one of America's most perplexing issues because the feelings of the few usually clash with those of the many, and one person's dirty word is another's literary necessity.

One student noted in the question-and-answer period that the majority of works cited in "Empty Shelves" were merely challenged, not actually removed. (One book, a family health encyclopedia containing drawings of sexual intercourse positions, was removed but "maintained for staff use only.")

Ms. Salkind said "Empty Shelves" was intended not as an exhaustive list of censorship attempts but as a way of describing how powerful books are. You have to ask yourself if there's such a thing as just a little bit of censorship."

A group of students interviewed about the play agreed that book banning isn't a major problem, at least in Baltimore County. They said several of the works in "Empty Shelves" are required reading at Carver.

Selecting books for school classrooms and libraries is a matter of local option in Maryland, and Howard County, the district most often cited in "Empty Shelves," no doubt invites challenges by displaying proposed books each year and inviting public discussion.

For Ben Wacks, a 16-year-old junior at Carver, "Empty Shelves" was an invitation to "go out and read the books," a reaction that often follows censorship -- and that must perplex the censors no end.

Montgomery melting pot

Blair Lee IV is a Montgomery County developer and columnist who takes great pride in twitting Baltimore. This week, Mr. Lee provided Education Beat with some telling statistics about his own county.

Of the 46,000 newcomers to Montgomery since the 1990 census, he said, 85 percent are minorities and 50 percent are foreign-born, many requiring expensive language instruction in county schools.

Montgomery, Mr. Lee said, is becoming an urban melting pot, with all of the implications for education that go with it.

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