Book Banning In My Own Back Yard

Well, close enough. The title of this post contains a slight geographical exaggeration, given that I live more than 30 miles from Glendale, California, but we are neighbors in the Los-Angeles-Suburban-Sprawl sense. Other than that, it’s pretty accurate.

Earlier this week, Adrienne Van Houten posted at Moms LA about the Glendale Unified School District’s efforts to keep Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood out of an AP English classroom. District approval is required before any teacher can add a book to the curriculum; according to the LA Times’ Jacket Copy blog, teacher Holly Ciotti was stunned by the school board’s opposition to her request to teach the book to her honors-level 11th-graders.

Maybe she shouldn’t have been taken aback; In Cold Blood, a modern classic of narrative nonfiction as well as a landmark in the true-crime genre, has been banned before – most recently, from a high-school AP English curriculum in Georgia. (It was later reinstated.) If you’re curious about why the book’s so controversial, Kim has a “Virtual Read-Out” excerpt posted at at Sophisticated Dorkiness.

Struck by the ironic – or, perhaps, completely appropriate – timing of this story’s breaking at the beginning of Banned Books Week, I contributed a BBW background post to Moms LA yesterday:

“The American Library Association (ALA) and its partners have been calling attention to the issue of censorship and celebrating the freedom to read during the last week of September every year since 1982. ‘Freedom to read’ also includes the freedom not to read books that we might find objectionable, of course…but in a free society, the individual should be the one who exercises those freedoms and makes those choices, not some self-appointed educational or morality police. 

“It’s entirely reasonable for parents to be the ones to exercise those rights on behalf of their own young children regarding what they read in their own homes, of course. But as children get older, the parents’ role – as well as the schools’ – should shift toward giving kids the tools to discern what’s worth reading for themselves. It’s harder to develop that discernment when options are limited and critical thinking is discouraged; and sometimes, what’s worth reading just might ‘convey shocking, controversial or unpopular ideas.’

“Banned Books Week calls attention to the fact that the freedom to read gets challenged every day of the year.”

The ALA’s annual updates to its lists of banned and challenged books always inspire some surprised reactions, particularly when very popular works and respected classics make appearances.

At From Left to Write Book Club, Taylor talked about a few frequently-challenged books that she and her kids have read together and loved. (Did you know that the penguin-parenting picture book And Tango Makes Three is nonfiction?)’s Books editor Sassymonkey is featuring a different banned book every day this week; her post on the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird has provoked the biggest response by far.

The books that show up on the ALA lists tend to vary widely in subjects, themes, and objective literary merit. However, they’ve all been challenged because they pose a challenge – to ideas about religion, politics, morality and ethics, and the structure and habits of society. And if a society – or an individual – means to grow, it’s necessary to challenge those ideas.

I haven’t been able to read banned books during this year’s Banned Books Week, but I’ve been following the conversations and reading about a lot of them. Last year, with the help of LibraryThing’s catalog of works tagged “banned books,” I identified books in the top 150 that I’ve read at some point in my life – some I currently own, some I read years ago (or at least prior to blogging), and one I just re-read. For the record, I don’t make a point of seeking out and reading banned or censored books just because they’re banned, although sometimes, the attempt to censor a book will be what captures my attention. (And some authors are well aware of that allure.) At the same time, I also know there are themes and topics that just don’t appeal to me, and quality of writing notwithstanding, if I choose not to read a particular book, that will be the reason why, not because it’s been opposed by some educational or morality police. That choice should remain mine – and yours.

I do not support censorship. I don’t believe in delegating my right to decide what I can and can’t read to anyone else. I have the tools to make those decisions for myself, and I believe we all have the right to those tools. I also believe that providing them is one of the functions of our educational system. The Glendale Unified School Board will vote next week on whether to allow Holly Ciotta to teach In Cold Blood to her 11th-graders. I hope that they’ll let her do her job – giving those tools of discernment to her students so that they’re able to face the challenges.

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