I know, I know, you were hoping for a post by JRL, but he's way behind on his book group Shakespeare so it's me again. This morning I set up a little Banned Books display (a little late to the party, since BB Week was in September) in the book store window, full of the usual: Huckleberry Finn, Harry Potter, In the Night Kitchen, etc. Minutes after I'd finished, a guy came marching in, asking, "So WHO tried banning Harry Potter??" Erm, I didn't know, so I had to Google it for him. Someone in Zeeland, Michigan, it turns out. Oh, also a lady in Pennsylvania. "Hmm," he said, before striding out again, umbrella beneath his arm. Perhaps he was disappointed that it wasn't George Bush, or the mayor of Ithaca.
It makes me wonder if maybe we're giving the overwrought, book-fearing loonies of the world a bit too much attention. Asking a school to remove a book because it shows a cartoon penis (as in the case with Sendak's In the Night Kitchen) maybe be ridiculous, galling, and even offensive, but it's hardly a human rights crime*. If a crazed librarian decided to stock my kids' school library with hard core porn and copies of Soldier of Fortune magazine, I might raise a teeny objection. Not every book is suitable for children, in fact, and it isn't surprising that not everyone agrees where the line is. My own mother once complained to my school about the book A Taste of Blackberries, in which a character is stung to death by bees, because I cried for a week after reading it (and still can't see the book today without feeling a bit queasy). I'm glad my poor mom never showed up on those lists.
The real problem, of course, is parents trying to impose their religious values onto public school systems. Such impositions should not be allowed to happen, and fortunately they rarely are. But the Banned Books discussion is not framed that way; instead, the misguided attempts to remove books with too much (or the wrong kind of) sex or witchcraft or swearing are described as violations of intellectual freedom. Perhaps they shouldn't be given so much credit.
The Cities of Refuge project (formerly Cities of Asylum) gives refuge to writers who really have been banned -- Ithaca is currently hosting Sarah Mkhonza, who was threatened and assaulted in her native Swaziland for criticizing the government in her newspaper columns. Iranian writer Reza Daneshvar, here from 2003 to 2006, was jailed for writing a novel about the 1953 coup. Other exiled writers are staying in Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and Santa Fe. It would be a great thing if other cities followed suit and brought even more writers here to have some time and space to write freely.
*Anyway, there's an easy solution to the cartoon penis, as the librarian at my elementary school discovered: she cut out a tiny pair of paper undies and taped them onto the naked child in the school's copy of In the Night Kitchen.