Most-loved books often most-banned

Literature: Potter, many classics are among most-challenged in libraries and schools.

September 29, 2000|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Burning witches is a thing of the past, but burning books about witches may yet have its heyday, at least metaphorically.

Flying to the top of the "most challenged" books list for 1999 are the would-be witches and wizards of the best-selling Harry Potter series. Since Saturday, libraries and bookstores across the country have participated in Banned Books Week, posting lists of books targeted for removal because of "sexually explicit" and "anti-family" content, among other offenses.

"Once a year," says Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, "We use (this) week to re-alert the public that the freedom to read is absolutely vital to this constitutional republic. It's a question of who is going to control the information we need to be self-governing. Our answer? The people."

Author J.K. Rowling's inclusion on this list puts her smack dab in the middle of literary heavyweights like J.D. Salinger, Madeleine L'Engle and Aldous Huxley, whose books have been included in the past. The first three Harry Potter books drew complaints from parents and others concerned over the prominence of wizardry and magic in the series. Objections came from at least 13 states, with some imposing short-lived restrictions such as requiring special parental permission to check out books or removing them from displays.

"There are 40 million copies of these books out there, kids are giving up TV and video games to read and people want to remove them? Wake up!" says Krug.

But others take a different view. "Focus on the Family sees Banned Books Week as a fraud, to put it directly," says Dick Carpenter, education policy analyst for the group, a 25-year-old Christian organization based in Colorado.

"We believe it's parents' constitutional right to say what's not appropriate for their family," says Carpenter. "Freedom of speech goes in all directions." He adds, "We're not talking about content that's protected by the constitution, which is political ideology. We're talking about often violent or sexually explicit books that parents don't think are appropriate for their child."

Last year, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom received a total of 472 reports of challenged titles -- formal, written complaints filed with a library or school about a book's content or appropriateness. Over the past decade nearly 6,000 challenges were reported to or recorded by the organization.

Krug estimates that between 2 and 5 percent of those challenges result in removals. "A book gets its `day in court' through hearings where all sides can be heard. That's why so few books are removed. When a community learns about it, they stand up and say, `No, you're not going to take our choice away from us.'"

Teachers are often targeted in tandem with the "offensive" literature. "Getting embroiled in controversy distracts them from their other duties," says Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, which counts among its board members banned-book poster girl Judy Blume. "Once a book is targeted everybody thinks twice, three times to teach it."

Bertin says, "We are teaching children a strange lesson in democracy. It encourages a bully mentality that says if you're noisy enough about something it'll go away. It's a dangerous example of how not to resolve differences in opinion and discuss sensitive issues."

Jean Fritz, a recent speaker at the recent Baltimore Book Festival, encountered this attitude when one of her books was banned by the Carroll County school system in 1995.

School board president Joseph D. Mish Jr. objected to a passage about a fourth-century book burning in Fritz's "Around the World in a Hundred Years: Henry the Navigator -- Magellan." Mish said this unfairly asserted Christian intellectual suppression, backed up by Fritz's words -- "Christians did not believe in scholarship." He interpreted it as "anti-Christian."

Fritz, who was born in China to missionary parents (and raised there until she was 13), says, "If my father heard that, he would turn over in his grave!"

Children seem to take to her colorful details better than some adults. According to Fritz, who lives in New York, "And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?" galloped right into controversy when Texas school board members took issue with her quoting British soldiers yelling at Revere, "Damn you, Stop!" (The Massachusetts Historical Society was able to back Fritz up on the accuracy of the statement.)

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