The Witches

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Ban This Book: An Uncensored Look At The Lorax And Other Dangerous Books

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The movie adaptation of The Lorax opens on March 2nd, Dr. Seuss’ birthday. His yellow-mustached crusader now appears on countless billboards and buses, and stars in environmentally conscious ads. I’m pleased that the grumpy guy is getting so much attention. He speaks for the trees (the Truffula Trees!), and the Humming-Fish, and the Swomee-Swans, and the Brown Bar-ba-loots. A good creature. An important message. A powerful ally in the fight against Gluppity-Glupp and smogulous smoke, the byproducts of Thneed overproduction.

So it upset me when I heard that in 1989 a group of parents tried to censor The Lorax. They took out a full-page newspaper ad accusing second-grade teachers of brainwashing students. Who would do that? Only someone who doesn’t understand the value of free speech, right?

Before laying into logger Bill Bailey of Laytonville, Calif., and his supporters, I’m going to ask you to consider a different book — Alfie’s Home, published four years after The Lorax came under fire. It tells the story of a boy named Alfie whose father is “working all the time, and when he’s at home, he screams a lot.” Into this paternal void steps Uncle Pete: “One night when he was holding me, he started touching my private parts. Over time, he taught me to touch and play with his. It felt very strange, scary, and a little good too.”

Young Alfie comes to believe he is gay, a “confusion” exacerbated by “the other guys” at school who call him names like “‘Sissy, ‘Faggot,’ ‘Queer,’ ‘Homo.’” But the book ends on what it presents as a positive note. Alfie seeks counseling and learns that he was merely looking for closeness with other boys to fill the need for “Dad’s love.” Everyone lives happily ever after, including Alfie’s parents, who, thanks to the same African-American counselor, manage to cultivate a loving relationship with each other and their son.

Needless to say, Alfie’s Home (by “ex-gay” Richard A. Cohen) does not appear in many libraries, much less on second-grade required reading lists (as The Lorax did for the Laytonville Unified School District). For me that’s far from a regrettable absence. But why? Am I a closet censor, ready to suppress repugnant ideologies while trumpeting the importance of Banned Books Week?

The short answer is yes. Fortunately, books I find disgusting simply don’t get purchased by libraries or required by schools, saving me, and other like-minded individuals, from the embarrassing and hypocritical task of challenging them.

My home town of Chicago does not have its public school library catalogue online, but a search of the New York and Portland catalogues shows multiple copies of And Tango Makes Three (and Tres Con Tango), a picture-book about two male chinstrap penguins who raise an egg together at New York’s Central Park Zoo. According to the ALA, And Tango Makes Three was the most challenged book from 2006 to 2010 (except for 2009 when it came it second). Tango is great as far as I’m concerned, but not everyone feels the same way. You know who I mean — the people, generally conservative, who rail against everything from Roald Dahl’s The Witches to Judy Blume. Religion is often in the mix — one group of censorial parents and students in Oceanside, Calif., was actually called the “God Squad.” (A classic battle: D.T. Suzuki’s Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings was challenged in Canton, Mich., because “this book details the teachings of the religion of Buddhism in such a way that the reader could very likely embrace its teachings and choose this as his religion.”)

Alfie’s Home never made the ALA’s list of most challenged books. Not because liberals are happy to see it sharing shelf space with The Lorax, though, but rather because libraries aren’t willing to stock it, and teachers would never assign it if they did. For good reason, too. There’s an easy, non-ideological argument to be made against Alfie’s Home — aesthetically, it’s a disaster. To quote the School Library Journal review: “Everything about this book screams fake. The illustrations are flat and garish in their simplicity, lacking any personality or appeal. If the generic illustrations aren’t a complete turnoff, the saccharine tone of the writing gives further challenge to credibility. If readers were able to ignore the presentation, there is still the message of the text to choke them. A boy from a dysfunctional family who is abused throughout his childhood and into his teens sees a counselor and everything is suddenly wonderful.”

But what about a much, much better book, Regina Doman’s Angel in the Waters? Exquisitely illustrated by Ben Hatke (whose Zita the Spacegirl does appear in the New York and Portland catalogues), the book is a poetic paean to human development, starting at the moment of conception: “In the beginning, I was./I was for a long time. Then things began to happen.” Why don’t the Portland and New York libraries stock any copies of Angel? And why isn’t it on any school reading lists?

There are a number of plausible reasons: educators just aren’t familiar with it, or don’t think it is popular enough to purchase. Let me suggest an additional reason — many librarians and teachers don’t want young, impressionable children reading about anthropomorphized fetuses that have an “Angel” and talk in the first person. Nor do they want to reinforce the (false?) notion that babies somehow remember their early time in the womb: “Sometimes, when I am in my bath, I remember the waters, and swimming.” It feels too much like pro-life indoctrination, no matter how nice the writing and illustrations. (At least that’s how it feels to me.)

The fact is, when censorship fits with one’s values, even the staunchest defenders of free speech are willing to bend the rules. Take the ALA, perhaps the most vociferous opponents of censorship in America. Through the Association for Library Service to Children, they administer the prestigious Newbery Medal, awarded to countless banned and challenged classics. In 2007, The New York Times reported how the ALA cried censorship when some librarians foresaw pressure from parents and refused to purchase 2007 Newbery winner The Higher Power of Lucky. The reason? “Scrotum” appears on the first page of the book. Presumably requests to publish a bowdlerized version without the offensive word would have met with similar disapprobation. Conservative mores getting in the way of free speech yet again.

What’s strange, however, is that the Newbery award is still allowed on the cover of Hugh Lofting’s The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle. Both Dell Yearling and HarperCollins published Voyages in a highly censored form of the 1922 award-winning original (and the same is true of its predecessor, The Story of Dr. Dolittle.) Concerned with racially insensitive material, editors at each publishing house saw fit to expunge potentially offensive slurs, rewrite or delete stereotypical depictions of Africans, and replace illustrations of black characters.

None of this is described explicitly as censorship. In the afterword to HarperCollins’ The Story of Dr. Dolittle, the editorial changes are referred to as “gentle revision.” And in the afterword to the Dell Yearling version of Voyages, Christopher Lofting, the author’s son, writes: “Book banning or censorship is not an American tradition! To change the original could be interpreted as censorship. Then again, so could a decision to deny children access to an entire series of classics on the basis of isolated passing references.” There are references in both editions to the certain approval of Hugh Lofting, were he only alive to give it. (KSU professor Philip Nel has an excellent discussion of Dr. Dolittle, along with Roald Dahl’s Oompa-Loompas, who used to be African pygmies.)

Of course, if you worry less about racism or homophobia and more about anti-religious indoctrination or anti-capitalist sentiment, there will be an entirely different set of books you want off readings lists, and themes you want out of books. Which brings us back to logger (actually logging equipment manufacturer) Bill Bailey and The Lorax. According to People magazine, Bailey found out about the book when his son Sammy came home, distraught. “If you cut down a tree,” Sammy told his father, “then it’s just like someone coming in and taking away your home.” Ouch.

Now it’s clear to me The Lorax isn’t an anti-logging book so much as a plea for the environment. Theodore Geisel agrees: “The Lorax doesn’t say lumbering is immoral. I live in a house made of wood and write books printed on paper. It’s a book about going easy on what we’ve got. It’s antipollution and antigreed.” But that’s not really the point. Angel in the Waters might not be meant to convince young children that abortion is evil. Nevertheless, imagine a woman deciding whether or not to have an abortion. Her seven-year-old daughter comes home from school one day and tells her that, from the very moment of conception, babies can think and have angels. One of her classmates told her how some parents murder those babies. Is that true, she asks? Do people really murder their babies and their angels?

If I were that mother, I would be devastated. And if I found out Angel in the Waters was somehow behind my child’s questions, there’s a good chance I’d ask for it to be removed from a required reading list. Depending on how upset I was, I might even challenge its presence in the library. And I’d rationalize that challenge: “It’s not censorship. It’s separation of church and state. This is a public school, religion shouldn’t be taught here, especially not to very young children.” (I wouldn’t think too hard about the religious overtones of A Wrinkle in Time, and whether ecumenical spirituality still belongs in schools.)

Stanley Fish likes to remind us there is no such thing as free speech, even in America, and points out that censorship in the colloquial sense happens all the time: “Censorship occurs whenever we don’t say or write something because we fear adverse consequences, or because we feel that what we would like to say is inappropriate in the circumstances, or because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (This is often called self-censorship. I call it civilized behavior.)” When a library rejects a book, or a school deems material inappropriate for a reading list, it is a form of censorship that is widespread and inevitable, which Fish calls “judgment.” Such censorship can be based on aesthetics — this book is bad, truth — this book is wrong, or ethics — this book is Wrong.

(Interestingly, Dr. Seuss engaged in a bit of self-censorship based on truth and ethics. After pressure from research associates in the Ohio Sea Grant program, he acknowledged the clean-up of Lake Erie by removing the third of these lines from The Lorax: “They’ll walk on their fins and get woefully weary/in search of some water that isn’t so smeary./I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie.” He also felt the need to remove racial stereotypes from And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street: “I had a gentleman with a pigtail. I colored him yellow and called him a Chinaman. That’s the way thing were fifty years ago. In later editions I refer to him as a Chinese man. I have taken the color out of the gentleman and removed the pigtail and now he looks like an Irishman.”)

Since the dominant ideology of the ALA, librarians, educators, and publishing houses lines up with my own, de facto censorship occurs via their judgments without any effort on my part, and I don’t have to risk looking intolerant or hypocritical. It helps, too, that most skilled children’s book authors are liberal (you’d think there would be more “pro-life” children’s books, given that over 50 percent of the population identifies as such.)

I still believe those of my own political persuasion are far less draconian in their intolerance. I would never call for the New York or Portland public school libraries to remove their copies of Left Behind: The Kids, a juvenile version of the best-selling series about the Rapture. But it is important to acknowledge the role that ideology does (and must) play in the make-up of library collections and reading lists, and the content of children’s books in general. Conservatives frustrated with the dominance of “liberal” children’s literature should tone down their censorial rhetoric, and instead start producing high-quality books that emphasize values important to them, like Angel in the Waters. If nothing else, it would force people like me to make tough decisions, instead of sitting back and dismissing bigoted trash like Alfie’s Home. What if there were a well-executed picture-book about a child who realizes society will collapse without strong belief in God? Or about a homeless man who deserved it, because he was lazy?

And for even-handed people who want to temper the message of The Lorax with the underrepresented perspective of Bill Bailey, let me recommend Terri Birkett’s The Truax, published jointly by the Hardwood Forest Foundation and the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association in 1994. It features a grumpy environmentalist named Guardbark, who asks tough questions of a good and decent logger named the Truax: “‘BIODIVERSITY. Now there is a word./A Science-y, Frogbirdy word I have heard.’/He thought for a moment and then he went on,/‘Will THIS still be there when the trees have been sawn?’” The Truax has answers, and if you read it with your child before watching The Lorax maybe you can do justice to the impossible ideal of free and neutral speech.

My friends who have children won’t let me read it to theirs, though, so you’ll have to tell me how that works out.

The Way We Used to Walk the Dog

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As had become our Saturday morning summer routine, my friend and I were sitting on the benches outside of our local café nursing iced coffees and watching the neighborhood go by.

“That’s a weird outfit,” Anshu said, nodding in the direction of a man whose printed belt matched his printed shoes, which matched his printed hat.

“Is it just me or are there more lesbians around here than there used to be?” I responded.

“Maybe.” She chewed on her straw. “Remember that time in college when it snowed two feet? I want it to be cold like that now.”

I nodded. We were silent, taking in the traffic and the people coming and going and the small dog that was tied to a signpost and the woman who was having a battle of the wills with her bike lock.

Anshu’s eyes then landed on a girl—about nine or ten—sitting with her mother on the bench beside us, oblivious to everything, her nose in a book.

“She’s reading The Witches,” Anshu said, nudging me and nodding in the child’s direction. “I can see the words ‘Norwegian Witch’ from here.”

I looked over. Sure enough, I could read the large, child-sized font from where I sat as well. I looked again at Anshu, who is not known for her soft side. I could almost reach out with my bare hands and grab hold of her desire to be picked up out of her own body and replaced into that of the girl’s.

“I love Roald Dahl,” Anshu was growing more misty-eyed by the second. “I wonder if her mother gave her the book?”

“I don’t know,” I said noncommittally and eyeing the girl’s mother who, like us moments earlier, seemed preoccupied by the intricacies of traffic patterns.

Anshu was on a roll: “James and the Giant Peach, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Twits. Do you remember The Twits?”

I smiled. I wanted her to keep indulging the nostalgia.

From there we traded childhood reading habits. Anshu had grown up Indian-American in Seattle and I had grown up Just Plain American in Virginia, but our formative literary lives had been the same. We remembered bringing books to the dinner table and we remembered being told to put them away and participate in conversation. There were the flashlights snuck into bed for reading after lights out. I was indignant all over again about Amy stealing Laurie out from under Jo even if Jo didn’t care. Anshu described running across her backyard in Seattle the way she imagined Anne ran across the fields of Prince Edward Island towards Green Gables. We both remembered how, when we walked our family dogs, we would leave the house with a leash in one hand, a book in the other. The walks, which without a novel seemed endless and boring, would be over and we’d be back at our front doors—dogs relieved, parents satisfied—before we had even had a chance to look around and take note of the clouds, the weather, our fellow dog walkers, trash days, “For Sale” signs, the Volvos parked in driveways.

I wondered whether these experiences were some of the things that had led us to be, at thirty, sitting together on a bench in Brooklyn: single, childless roommates.

If we are lucky we are read to before we read to ourselves. That is where it all originates. For me, the beginning of the story went like this:

Dinner is over. It was creamed asparagus on toast and I had seconds. Dad is doing the dishes and my sister is upstairs in her room finishing her homework. The dog is licking the dishes sitting pre-washed but still dirty in the dishwasher. It is almost my bedtime, but first mom will read a chapter aloud. Every night for almost two months we have been sitting down together on the couch at this time and, as dusk gathers outside, she has been reading me Little Women. Before starting, she reaches an arm around me. There’s a part of her that is a would-be actress and so she is good at reading, doing distinct voices for different characters in their various situations: Meg leaving home, Jo cutting her hair, Beth exclaiming over that piano, Amy telling Jo she’s fallen for Laurie, Marmee in the arm chair by the fire reading letters from their father on the front.

At the end of each chapter, my mother gets quiet and still for a moment. By now it is completely dark outside and I can’t believe how quickly the time has passed. I can’t even see the trees in the front yard. Then: “Bedtime,” she announces decisively. I protest. Just a few more pages. One more chapter. But my mother grew up in the fifties on a chicken farm in rural Maine and has the get-on-with-it attitude of that time and place. “No, it’s off to bed with you,” she says taking her arm from around me and closing the book. “Another chapter tomorrow night.”

And so it would be until there were no more chapters because the little women had all grown up.

If there is one thing that can consistently reduce even the most hardened cynic to a sentimental softie, it is the books she read as a child.

Of course, we still read, my friends and I. We read on the subway and on the couch or in bed just as we used to do. But it’s not the same: the subway ride ends, the couch inspires naptime, a flashlight under the covers is absurd. I certainly can’t remember the last time I heard someone say, “I was walking down the street reading a book when….”

The closest I’ve come to witnessing such a scenario was last summer when a friend and I were going hiking. She had her nose in the trail map and we had yet to leave the parking lot or break a sweat when—not looking where she was going—she fell off the curb, cutting herself so badly she ended up needing to go to the hospital and foregoing the hike. In the time between now and when we last walked the dog and read a novel at the same time, it seems we’ve lost the ability to read and walk simultaneously. These days, I put dinnertime ahead of reading and fit the latter in where I can and when I feel like it. Often, until I am directly confronted with the sight of a girl and her book—a sight outside the purview of my current routines—it can slip my mind that I, too, used to read like that. To love reading like that.

As it was with our first loves, we fall hard for our first books. When we were with them the rest of the world fell away. And as with our first loves, we will never let go of ourselves like that again. I’ve asked myself when it was I read for the last time as a child, but the question is as pointless as asking when me and my first love lost what it was we once had. The answer is probably nothing more than, “One day the magic was there and the next day it wasn’t.” At some point I just took the dog for a walk without a novel, looked around, and either the things around me had changed or I had.

The diminishment of the intensity is an evolutionary imperative. We reach a point at which we no longer allow ourselves to read like that because if we did we would never get anything else done. We wouldn’t meet new people or remember to make those doctors appointments. If we still read with the intensity of an eight-year-old or loved with the intensity of a novice, at thirty we might forget to leave the house at all.

While the same could be said for boys—who I am sure have their own list of classics that conjure a unique common history—I am speaking here for girls. Girls and the books that taught them everything from how to reach out and touch something fuzzy to what it was like to get their periods and find an insane not-so-ex-wife in the attic. Just a list of titles is enough to conjure the timeline of an entire X-chromosomed American childhood: Pat the Bunny, The Runaway Bunny, Blueberries for Sal, The Lonely Doll, Miss Rumphius, Madeline, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, Ramona Quimby Age 8, The BFG, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Black Stallion, Misty of Chincoteague, Julie of the Wolves, Jacob Have I Loved, Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, Rebecca, Jane Eyre again, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre again, Ethan Frome

Somewhere around Ethan Frome is where the unselfconscious abandon began to dissipate in lieu of simply sincere appreciation and sometimes even a little critical distance. Whereas I can’t count the number of books I couldn’t put down in the first fifteen years of my life, I could name on two hands and feet the number of books I’ve felt that way about in my second fifteen years. But that fact does not make me sad or give me pause and not because I tell myself that if it were otherwise I would have ended up a hobo. What seems to matter most is that I had those first fifteen years to begin with.

My friends feel similarly. One formerly horse-crazy friend talks often about her childhood passion for the Marguerite Henry books. Another friend has an entire shelf devoted to her childhood library, and that’s where she turns on the days when she’s tempted to get in bed and never get out. Another friend has taken it all a step further than the rest of us and is getting a Ph.D. in Y.A. Literature, writing academic papers on Ramona and The Twits that she then presents at high-brow conferences across the country. These are the things we have carried with us and as such are the things we have to give away.

When I turned thirty this year, the same friend who had fallen off the curb and gone to the hospital gave me her three favorite Y.A. novels from childhood. A few months earlier, she and I had compared notes on what we’d read when we were young and she had learned that her favorites had not been on my early reading lists. When I told her I hadn’t read Caddie Woodlawn she said, “You haven’t?!” as if I just told her I had never brushed my teeth. With this birthday present she had wanted to rectify that—to her mind—gaping hole in my life.

I haven’t read the books she gave me just yet, but the fact that she gave them to me at all is just it: Not only do we hold these books we’ve read and characters we grew up with close, but we want to share them, to pass them on. As of my writing this, my friend who fell off the curb is also single and childless. I am not convinced I was the person she wanted to be giving books to that day.

When people have children, some are reluctant to admit it, but they have a secret preference in their hearts for a girl over a boy or vise versa and for a multitude of reasons. I am nowhere near the stage in life of being a parent myself, but when the time comes as I hope it one day will, I often think I want a girl. I want this because I recognize even now how much it will matter to me to know and understand how she is feeling and what she is learning and experiencing all for the first time. I know too how difficult it will be to access these complicated growing-up emotions of hers, ferreted as they will be inside a person not myself. To put a book that was once special to me into her hands and watch it become special to her is one way to do that. At least for a little while.

But before I send her off to read on her own, I want to be able to sit on the couch with her and do the voices of the characters. As it is with my mother, there is a would-be actress inside me, too. It will be getting dark outside and the spot on the couch where she and I will sit will be the only well-light place in the house. A husband will be doing the dishes and have a dog to keep him company and help with the grunt work. He won’t be watching because he wouldn’t want to intrude, but he will listen from the other room.

I will put my arm around her and start like this:

CHAPTER ONE: Playing Pilgrims

Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents, grumbled Jo, lying on the rug…

Seen from outside the window, she and I in the arms of the light beside the couch might make you think that here is where the entire world begins and ends.

[Image credit: Frank]

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