The 1994 Banned Books Week will be observed Sept. 24 through Oct. 1. The annual event calls attention to the dangers of censorship and encourages support for the freedom to read. Libraries and schools throughout the United States will display books that have been censored and materials on banning books and offer media presentations.
Censorship of novels, picture books and poetry has been an issue since books have been available for the public to read. In the beginning of education in the Western world, two values were held as foundation: the individual in the classroom and the commitment to truth. These values did not conflict because education was recognized as an arm of the churches, synagogues and parishes. In fact, school classes were often held within the walls and protection of the religious orders.Later when schools were made secular or "outside the church," the first value - education for the masses - brought little conflict. It was the second value that caused the problems. Some people have wanted the religious truth and ideologies to remain what Judith Krug of ALA calls a "puritanical utopia." Others protest loudly that the separation of church and school is not wide enough. Still others have a problem with the definition of truth itself, which ranges from personal ideologies and the great classics to no restrictions at all.
Whatever the definition of truth, there are major conflicts in communities and schools with nearly 500 incidents of censorship of books annually. Utah has not been immune; in fact, there have been five attempts at censorship this year: Dixie High School in St. George, Payson Middle School, Providence Elementary School in Cache County, and West High School and Granite High School in the Salt Lake area. While the resolutions may not satisfy everyone, lawsuits probably will not result.
That is not the case in a small Kansas town over the book "The Learning Tree" by Gordon Parks (Harper & Row, 1963). Reviewers recommended it for adolescent readers, some advocating that it could help boys relate to relevant situations more than some other books that were on required reading lists.
"He thought, `What are grasshoppers for anyway, and snakes and mosquitoes and flies and worms, wasps, potato bugs and things? Seems they ain't much good to the world, but God put 'em here. Seems they got as much rights as we have to live. If the grasshopper didn't eat the crops, they'd starve. No worse'n us killin' hogs and chickens so we don't go hungry. Hogs and chickens and cows and rabbits and squirrels, possums and such must hate us as much as we hate mosquitoes and gnats and flies . . . The Ten Commandments say we oughtn't kill, then we go home from church and wring a chicken's neck for dinner. . . . Too much for me to figger out,' he said aloud."
This is one of the passages that Cassie Grove read and found offensive to her religious beliefs. Her mother read the book and found the whole book offensive. Cassie was assigned another novel and given permission to leave the room during discussions of "The Learning Tree." She opted to stay in the room.
A school district evaluation committee reviewed the novel and found it "an appropriate element in the sophomore English curriculum." The Grove family appealed, but the district refused to remove the book from the reading list.
The Grove family filed a lawsuit saying the book violated the religious clauses of the First Amendment. "It's a textbook, not a library book. . . . I would not be concerned at all if the book . . . were on the library shelves. . . . I think it's an appropriate book in a voluntary setting. But when it becomes a required text, it must be seen in a different light and from a different legal perspective."
A judge ruled that the censorship on "The Learning Tree" did not create a legal problem that the court should solve. The Grove family went to the court of appeals.
The appellate judge ruled as the first, that the school district did not violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, stating that Cassie had not been forced to read the book, had been given an alternative assignment, had been excused from class and that in his view the book did not support or oppose any religion.
This decision (even though it is ongoing) is a win for the "right-to-know," but the fallout has been damaging to a polarized local community as well as reaching a wider public. For example, because this case was noted in national and international publications, Moral Majority has taken it as a campaign in other locales. "The Learning Tree" immediately became a best-seller.
Some of the most frequently banned books include "Of Mice and Men," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "Slaughterhouse-Five," "The Color Purple," "Catcher in the Rye," "The Grapes of Wrath" and "A Separate Peace."
For young readers Judy Blume's books receive the most complaints. Her "Are You There God, It's Me Margaret" leads the list, followed by "Little Red Riding Hood," "The Pigman," "How to Eat Fried Worms," "Light in the Attic" (poetry) and "In the Night Kitchen."
Banned Books Week is co-sponsored by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the National Association of College Stores. It is endorsed by the Center for the Books of the Library of Congress.