March 04, 2006

Building character, banning books

Camille at Book Moot and Gregory at Gotta Book both wrote yesterday about the school board book police in California who approved the removal of 23 books from a list of books to consider purchasing for the school library. Among the books are some of the usual suspects like Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and a couple of Artemis Fowl titles, but also some more unusual and you'd think innocuous ones like Clifford the Big Red Dog, Disney's Christmas Storybook, and Princess School: Beauty Is a Beast. Not for the most part classic or even good literature, and in some cases not even literature at all. HOWEVER, and these are a couple of big howevers, 1) as Camille points out, "Generally, books sit very quietly on the shelves," and 2) take a look at the criteria on which the decisions were based: "Trustees said one rejected book contained an unsavory hero who made a bad role model for children; another was about a warlock, which they said was inappropriate; and" -- hang on to your hats, this is my favorite part -- "others were books with which they were unfamiliar and didn't know whether they promoted good character or conflicted with textbooks."

Good character, eh? I suppose that does away with quite a few books on our shelves, including many of my favorite characters: the anti-social loner Harriet (at the least off her meds, and very possible pathological); the headstrong, strongwilled, and frequently disobedient duo of Laura Ingalls and Caddie Woodlawn; several brother-sister teams, including Fern who lacks self-control and opposes her father and her gun-toting brother Avery (both moments vividly illustrated, too, for Pete's sake), and fugitives Claudia and Jamie (who's a gambler to boot); not to mention the poster children for bad behavior, Peter Pan and Pinocchio, and the poster children for banned books, Tom and Huck. And what about an entire family of disrespectful, nosy, rude, ungrateful children, so otherwise beloved by those otherwise not so wild about Harry, who go poking around where they're not supposed to, considering the fact that they're guests in someone else's home?

I take that back. My favorite part is the quote from one trustee, a retired teacher no less, who said the latest Harry Potter book was rejected because it is, purely and simply, fantasy: "We want books to be things that children would be able to relate to in real life." Which definitely finishes off any books on school library shelves with talking pigs and spiders, flying children, giant peaches, fantastic foxes, phantom tollbooths, flying carpets, magic seeds, mice who drive, swans who play musical instruments, and boatloads of dragons and fairies. You'd better throw in talking lions and fauns, too, not to mention man-eating whales and burning bushes while you're at it. What a dismal, limited view (or should that be vista?) of childhood and real life is to be had at, er, Vista San Gabriel.

And while I fall in the Charlotte Mason camp about twaddle, which in my book covers things like Disney's Christmas Storybook, I tend to think that such concerns are far, far overshadowed by two enormous, wrong lessons the Antelope Valley students are learning from the board's decisions. First, that it's correct to judge a book by its cover, disapproving of a title with which one isn't even familiar; is it too much to expect these trustees, even the ones who aren't former teachers, to read the books bothering them? It's not as if these are doorstop tomes such as War and Peace that might be expected to tax bears of little brain and their ilk. We're talking Princess School, people, which isn't much longer or more taxing than the average shopping list. And second, that a library shouldn't include any books that conflict with textbooks, which with a few exceptions tend to be committee-written, dumbed down, boring, uneducational, politically correct drivel. Is this really what they want the school's children to be learning? Any Antelope Valley parents who take this lying down are doing their kids a tremendous disservice.

"Report a Challenge", anyone?

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