Begun, The Book Bans Have

Well, it's begun.

Urbandale, thanks to a vaguely written law and in an overenthusiastic display of censorship aimed at avoiding litigation has removed up to around 400 books from its school library. What's especially troubling about this is that no one at the school apparently ran this by the school board, which is really shady- but in striking a blow for quality education in the state of Iowa, many of the titles are included on the high school AP reading list, so well done. 

When I was growing up, the Scholastic Book Fair was the highlight of the school year. We were all zealots for Book It and jonesing to get that free, personal pan pizza from Pizza Hut, but today's kids are as every parent knows by now, obsessed with screens. The Medium Spawn is doing okay-- he's pretty fixated on Dog Man right now, so we've got to work on expanding his tastes a bit, but he actually likes books. The Younger Spawn is a fan of Captain Underpants and Wee, Younger, and Medium all insist on getting read to every night before they go to bed.

Eldest Spawn, however, is not a reader. It's like pulling teeth and while that's fine-- because not every kid is a reader and you've got to take your kids as they come, a little bit more reading and making it somewhat of a habit to the point where it's not like a root canal to get him to pick up a book, would be extremely helpful. 

Dear Reader, let me assure you that I am not kidding: short of coming home with a copy of Penthouse Letters from the school library (and I would definitely raise an eyebrow if that happened), I would be absolutely fine with the Eldest Spawn bringing home whatever book he wanted too if he did so voluntarily because he wanted to read the book. 

In a culture that is obsessed with screens and where children are assaulted with screen time at all hours of the damn day, we should be encouraging them to pick up books whenever and wherever we can. 

That being said: as a parent, have I raised an eyebrow or two at some of the examples I've seen online? Yes, I have. If Medium Spawn brought home a book that talked about the erogenous zones of men, I would have questions- any sane parent would, but at what point does it become the parents' responsibility versus that of the school? Don't get me wrong: it's hard out there for a parent in the modern world. You've got content streams coming at you like a firehouse and just policing what they watch is a part-time job, but it is part of the job description. Whether you're all in and hardcore about it or whether you're more relaxed about it, you want to know what kind of content your child is consuming. Your child should not be bringing home books in a vacuum. And if they are, that's not the job of any level of government to fix.

The tendency among parents- especially Conservative-leaning ones to demand the government perform the basic functions of parents isn't new and it's always enraged me. From Tipper Gore and the V-Chip debates of the 90s to now, parents collectively seem to be whining "It's too hard, you do it."

No, you do it. I'm not perfect when it comes to enforcing screen time limits and I freely admit that I get lazy about it and have to retrench every few weeks, but I have hidden remotes before. I have blocked YouTube on my television before (granted, they figured out a way around it, but I will not be deterred, damn it) and I have hidden the Switch before. Is the job of parenting in today's world hard? Absolutely. Can I understand if you don't want to give 100% every day? Oh, you have no idea how much I can understand that feeling some days. 

In short, I get it. But at the same time, parents, this is what happens when we point at the government and say, "No, you do it." We get lists like this.

Who all is catching strays in the Urbandale school library?

Margaret Atwood (The Handmaids Tale)
James Baldwin- yes, that James Baldwin (Go Tell It On The Mountain)

Judy Blume (really? Judy Blume?)- Geez, there's a lot of Judy Blume on this list, Urbandale and I especially like how you're accepting the ridiculous premise that if students don't talk or read about their periods, they won't actually have them- because, Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret, is sure enough, on this list.

Stephen Chobsky (The Perks of Being A Wallflower)

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying: Urbandale, what the actual fuck. Faulkner? We're banning Faulkner now? Don't get me wrong, I did not connect with Faulkner, but give the guy his flowers, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and he's one of the greatest American Writers EVER. His books should not be banned in any high school in America if you really love America, which apparently you don't. 

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Neil Gaiman, American Gods (Have y'all read this book, Urbandale? It's a good book.)

Allen Ginsberg,  Howl and Other Poems: *deep sigh* Urbandale, you're making me stand up for poetry. I hate you for that. But again, one of our greatest poets. If you love America, you can't ban Ginsberg.

John Green catches a trifecta for Looking for Alaska, The Fault In Our Stars, and Papertowns, so good job there. 

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell To Arms: Again, Urbandale, I have to ask: what the actual fuck?

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (I've got this somewhere on a bookshelf, apparently I need to read it to see why Urbandale is banning it.)

Zora Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

E.L James, Fifty Shades of Grey: THIS IS THE ONLY BOOK THAT BELONGS ON THIS LIST. Children shouldn't be exposed to bad writing.

James Joyce, Ulysses: Come on now, I demand numbers on this one, Urbandale. How many kids have checked out James Joyce in the past year? You don't need to ban this one, celebrate the brave student that attempts to tackle it.

D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover: (I've got this one too. Man, my reading list is getting longer and longer.) Pop quiz, Urbandale: why did Lady Chatterley need a lover? And if you know the answer, perhaps it could give some historical insight into how badly World War I fucked up an entire continent of people. 

Stephanie Meyer, Twilight (Book 4): Urbandale, what? Books 1-3 are okay?

Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer: Ah, one of the usual suspects when it comes to these lists, but again, see James Joyce above. Celebrate the kid that actually wants to check out Henry Miller and again, you probably don't need to ban this one either.

Toni Morrison catches a trifecta as well with The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon. (Gee, I wonder why you're banning these books, Urbandale? I'm scratching my head.)

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita: Oddly, you're on firmer ground here, Urbandale. If you've got Dostoevsky, Chekov, and Tolstoy lurking on your bookshelves, I might be inclined to let you have this one.

George Orwell, 1984: oh the irony...

Jodi Picoult catches a trifecta with My Sister's Keeper, Mercy, and Nineteen Minutes. Haven't read any of her stuff, but really? 

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis: For fuck's sake Urbandale, I'm pretty sure I read this in Honors English in 10th Grade. Either way, it's a damn good book.

William Styron, Sophie's Choice

Alice Walker, The Color Purple: I need to re-read this as this book is the book that nearly got me a failing grade one trimester in American Literature, but it too, does not belong on this list.

Tony Kushner, Angels in America

Albert Camus, The Stranger: I said with Henry Miller, I said it with James Joyce, I'll say it with Camus: if there's a student checking out this book, throw a party, don't ban it. 

Maya Angelou, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: Just... why?


This doesn't even cover the pictures book and the younger grade books, but this list is absolutely appalling. I have had to listen and read so many internet takes and snide comments about 'Liberal Snowflakes' who want to ban Mark Twain and Harper Lee for various reasons, but as with all things Culture War-related, we're trapped in a vicious spiral, of 'everything you can do, I can do twice as hard and ten times as worse.' Orwell and Huxley should be required reading. Faulkner and Hemingway should be as well- I'm actually surprised they didn't take out Steinbeck along the way. 

We have to repeal this law. A message needs to be sent and every Representative and Senator that voted for this would, in a perfect world, lose their jobs at the earliest possible opportunity. But since we don't live in a perfect world, I will ask for the following:
  • No more anonymity. If you want to challenge a book, put your name and address down so everyone can see it.
  • I am a Parent in this state. I don't expect to have a say in what other parents do in their states, so if you're not a resident of the state of Iowa, you don't get to challenge books in Iowa. Period. 
  • I'll go one step further, as much as I hate to do it: if you don't live in the school district you're challenging, you don't get to challenge a book either. Yes, that means that if School District A wants to remove books from their shelves, they would be allowed to do so, but School District A (let's say in Sioux City) shouldn't get to decide what School District B does (let's say in Iowa City) and vice versa. Communities pay property taxes on these schools. People vote in school board elections to govern these schools. The power and the choice rests with them. Not with Des Moines.
  • Every school district that removes a book from its shelves, whether it's public or private, should be required to show data on how often that book was checked out for the previous school year. I can't rule out some kids picking up Sophie's Choice, for instance, but I don't think kids are exactly lining up to do so. I think if that data is published, we'll find out that this has much less to do with actual students and much more to do with adults.
What's really frustrating about all of this is that the State Department of Education is refusing to provide any sort of guidance to school districts on how to implement this law, so they're just sort of left in the dark-- personally, I would say without guidance from the state, everything is staying on my shelves, if I was any given school district- though I'm sure most will at least attempt to comply to shield themselves from the inevitable litigation.

Another unintended consequence of all this: there are school districts in rural Iowa that share a library with the local public one-- so not only are you impacting what books kids can read in school, you're catching public libraries in the crossfire as well.

I do not understand this. It makes me very, very angry when I think about it too much, but how is this not very simple: if you don't like a book, don't fucking read it!

(Shout out to Annie's Foundation, which is tracking a lot of this as it unfolds. I had no idea this was a thing and it's kind of sad that it is, but I think if we're doing a year-end donation for charity, I might see about sending them some money.)

I hope the fact that Urbandale did this without apparently telling their school board about it undoes a lot of the damage- especially for the books that are on the AP Reading List. But in this environment, it's never been more important to vote in school board elections and most importantly of all, pay attention.

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