Friday, June 26, 2009

No. 26: The Stupids by Harry Allard

When I travel to Europe, I always try to bring a couple boxes of Kinder Eggs home with me. Not for sale in the US, Kinder Eggs are hollow egg-shaped chocolates with little toy surprises inside. They are the bomb. They are also illegal in America because the toys contained in their hollow chocolatey goodness are too tiny to meet strict child safety guidelines mandated by whichever government agency regulates these things.

After purchasing several boxes of Kinder Lord of the Rings eggs (limited edition! total score!) and Barbie Eggs in a supermarket in Vienna, Austria, my friend, Laura, and I were sort of forced to explain the embarrassing Kinder ban to our European friends. Our friend Alex's Viennese mother in particular had a hard time grasping what could possibly be harmful about a Kinder Egg. Laura summed it up by saying that our government believes kids in America are too stupid to know better than to stick Kinder toys up their noses and if it's true, then our kids probably are too stupid to play with them.

I do actually have a point with all this.

The rationale for banning Kinder Eggs reminds me of the reasons why people ban The Stupids series by Harry Allard. Let's get really honest about this, Gentle Readers... If our kids in America are too stupid to understand that The Stupids aren't meant to be taken seriously, then they probably are (for real) too stupid to read the books.

Which is a shame because the Stupids are hysterical! ...and, of course, very stupid. This is one family truly walking through the world in a clue-free state. Even the simplest tasks like eating breakfast (which they do in the shower) elude them. In one scene, Mrs. Stupid makes herself a new dress by strapping live chickens all over her body. If I were 5-years old, this would be high humor to me. There are subtler things -- like a framed picture of a bucket with the caption "Lake Stupid" underneath it -- that will appeal to adults too.

The first book in the series The Stupids Have a Ball, gets banned because the Stupids throw a costume party to celebrate their children failing every subject in school (including recess). Its critics say this promotes negative behavior and reinforces low self esteem. Another book in the series The Stupids Die gets banned due to objections about the word "die" in its title. No, I am not kidding. I also discovered in my research that parents these days are teaching their kids that the word "stupid" is a bad word, similar to sh*t or the f-bomb. I'm picturing those parents leading the charge to ban the Stupids.

Sounds stupid, doesn't it? Now, excuse me while I go stick my Kinder Aragorn up my nose.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Supplemental Karmic Post for America: A Canadian Horror Story

Once upon a time in Canada (which is a whole separate country from America), there were no cute shoes to be found in any of the stores and all the people had to wear ugly stupid shoes. Da-Da-Dum!

Take that Margaret Atwood!

Monday, June 22, 2009

No. 37: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is the end of all happiness. I used to think that the movie Cold Mountain (which made me want to throw myself off a cliff) was the end of all happiness, but now I know better. Cold Mountain, meet The Handmaid's Tale. You've been dethroned.

Set it a post apocalyptic-ish America (now called Gilead and run by Christian zealots), the world is massively infertile. Women who can still bear children, or "handmaids," are valuable commodities and are given to high ranking couples to produce children for them. The book is narrated by Offred (literally "Of-Fred, or "belonging to Fred"), a handmaid whose pragmatic response to the turmoil in her society is both spooky and compelling. The book is depressing as hell and portions of it are squirm inducing in the extreme. It's also brilliant.

Part of why it's so upsetting is that it's plausible. If the conditions that scary Atwood imagines existed (and we smashed our Constitution into bite sized chunks and fed it to our dogs) The Handmaid's Tale isn't that far fetched.

Critics claim the book is depressing. Yeah, but so is The Scarlet Letter and I had to read that. It's also cited as too sexually explicit for minors. Sex in Gilead isn't fun for anyone, readers or participants. It's only for procreation and the way they do it is the grossest, least sexy, most squick-worthy Ménage à Trois, like, ever. Critics also take issue with the book's treatment of women (whose lives are the suck), Christianity (depicted at its ugly extreme), and believe it or not, Islam (the women are veiled and polygamy is accepted). Gentle Readers, I submit that these very complaints are the point of this book.

Here's the deal, America. The Handmaid's Tale is a cautionary tale about fundamentalist totalitarianism, fascism, backlash against feminism, and all kinds of other nasty things that could happen if we all stopped caring about... basically everything. Should a 12-year old read it? No. Should a 17-year old read it? Sure. It's got mature themes but aren't the late teens the point in life when kids are supposed to start thinking expansively and examine their world? If the answer to that is "No," then stock libraries with nothing but Hello Kitty and I'll go watch TV.

I do have one major complaint about this book (and notice that I'm complaining and not screaming "burn this book" to anyone who will listen). Atwood, a Canadian, set her story in America. In case you didn't know it, those are totally different countries (one in which Atwood lives and the other in which she doesn't). I say, keep your dystopian nightmarish future society vibes in your own country. Seriously. Don't you think we have enough to worry about already? Among the war in Iraq, idiot white supremacists opening fire at the Holocaust museum, the OctoMom and all kinds of other crazy crap we're quite busy. Fending off your mental super whammy, is really not on our national agenda. To balance the cosmic scales, I am going to have to write a scary story and set it in Canada. The things I do for you people.

Friday, June 19, 2009

No. 13: Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Gentle Readers, I think it's time I tell you about my first crush. (Pretend like the music from Summer Place is swelling in the background. It makes the story better.) His name was Brian and we went to first grade together. I don't remember much about him except for the time he let me lift his lunchbox and it was really heavy. Then he moved away and I never saw him again. OK... it's not as good a story as I thought. Instead, let's talk about my first literary crush. His name was Holden Caulfield and he was just tortured. I knew if I could only meet him, he'd see that I wasn't a phony and I could save him from himself.

Holden, as I'm sure you know unless you've been living under a rock since birth, is the main character from J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, first published in 1951 and making foolish girls swoon ever since. If Holden were a real boy, he'd have black eyes, not just from getting beaten up by a bellman, but also from all the times he's been banned. The main reasons for the book's censorship are profanity (shocker! Holden = potty mouth), immorality and inappropriate sexual situations (among other things, Holden hires a hooker but is too angst filled to do anything with her), homosexuality (Holden's male teacher likes him a little too much) and (my favorite!) promotion of communism. The communism claim is a little vague but in 1978, parents in Washington state claimed that Holden's rebelliousness was part of a communist attempt to gain a foothold in American schools (or something).* Honestly, I think some people just don't get Holden.

Now that I'm older, I kind of see why. Holden can be a bit of a drag. When a teenage boy is too sad to have sex with a hooker, something is definitely wrong with the poor kid. Since we've already discussed how bad puberty sucks, I'll leave it alone. To his critics I say Holden is not beyond redemption, and point to his love for his sister Phoebe as proof. When I think about Holden now, I like to think that he got that job catching kids in the rye.

One last personal note to Billy Collins, I'm not the girl who left egg salad stains in his Marginalia, but I wish I was.

* To read more about this enticing ban, check out 100 Banned Books by Karolides, Bald, & Sova.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Challenged versus Banned

I thought I'd just pause for a moment and explain the difference between "challenged" and "banned," in case you're confused, Gentle Readers. Challenged just means that someone (almost always a parent) has asked someone else (almost always a librarian but sometimes a school board, book store, church, or government official) to remove a book from circulation. Banned means that the challenge was successful.

I point this out because the terms have different legal meanings. The case law surrounding censorship and book banning is long and complex. I'm neither qualified nor interested in laying it all out here. There are some excellent books available on the topic (if they haven't been banned yet, that is) if you really want to learn more. I recommend Banned in the USA, A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries by Herbert Foerstel.

In writing this blog, I've learned that challenges happen all the time but official bannings are (thankfully!) less common. The thing worth remembering amid all this fuss is that just because someone asked a librarian to remove a book, it doesn't mean that the librarian did it.

So, give it up for librarians, everyone! Kurt Vonnegut said it better than me so I'll let him take over from here...

"And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries." - Kurt Vonnegut, I Love You, Madame Librarian, 2004.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rights of Man by Thomas Paine

These are the times that try men’s souls. I’ve been watching the news coming out of Iran and find my soul being tried, Gentle Readers. So I’m breaking from my tradition of writing about recent book bannings and am instead, reaching back about 200 years or so. Today’s topic is a man well known to all Americans who went to Burlington Elementary School and possibly even our rival school, South Point No. 2 (but who really knows what went on in that place?). I’m talking about Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense (1776), The American Crisis (1776), and Rights of Man (1791). Paine was smart enough to publish Common Sense (a brochure containing powerful and persuasive arguments for American independence from England) in the US, so it was never banned. By 1791, Paine was living in England (why? why? why?) when he published Rights of Man. It is among the most banned political works in history.

Here’s the basic gist of it (and I am truly boiling it down here because there’s a lot of stuff about why governments exist and the social covenant of the governed, etc.): Governments can exist through: 1) superstition and be led by priests; 2) force and be led by conquerors; or 3) reason and be led by the will of the people. He then goes on to dispute the inherent right of any specific leader or family to rule and points a big finger at the English aristocracy, saying that they fall into Category Two. Then, our boy Paine cites some examples of Category Three countries that are better than England and lists both France and America. England was all “Oh yeah? Well, so’s your face!” and proceeded to issue a warrant for his arrest. Paine escaped arrest by fleeing to France but was tried in absentia and found guilty of libel and high treason. The English court sentenced Paine with death should he ever enter England again, which he didn’t. All copies of the Rights of Man found in England were routinely seized and burned for years after its publication.

It seems silly, doesn’t it? That a simple concept like governance at the consent of the governed should cause such an uproar? To us it does because we’ve had 200 years to get used to it. We are very very lucky in America. We had brave people who rose up and said “You know what? Your Category Two system is bad. We’re going to try something different over here. We’re going to take our shot at being a Category Three country. Go away and leave us alone.”

I guess every oppressed nation has its time where the people stand up and say “Enough!” I look at what’s happening in Iran and wonder if now is their moment. If it is, I wish them well. Freedom isn’t free and the road is long and hard. Look no further than Thomas Paine himself to learn that lesson. Because he never failed to speak his mind, at the end of his life Paine was labeled a blasphemer and worse. He survived a murder attempt and was ultimately stripped of his right to vote. A century later, Teddy Roosevelt referred to him as “a filthy little atheist.” Hard to believe isn’t it?

Unfortunately, I think Iran has the dubious distinction of being both a Category One and Two country. I’m no political scholar but I imagine that will make their freedom twice as hard to achieve. If this doesn’t turn out to be Iran’s moment, I hope their brave citizens who are so very publicly saying “Enough” survive it.

No 40: What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Girls by Lynda Madaras (and No. 61: same title, Book for Boys)

Welcome back to another issue of the Daily Banning. Let’s talk about our preteen years. Remember that terrible time? Everything about your body was changing. You felt awkward, stinky, hairy, uncoordinated, zitty, cranky, and generally clueless. …and all you wanted in the whole world was to be cool. It’s called puberty, Gentle Readers, and it wasn’t just you. It sucked for everybody. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have a user’s manual that explained what was going on? Enter Lynda Madaras, California sex education teacher, and her What’s Happening to My Body? books for girls and boys. At this point in our discussions, you shouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that these books (targeted at kids aged 8 to 15) have been banned due to inappropriate sexual content.

The books hit the scene in the early 1980s and have been updated multiple times since then. Madaras talks straightforwardly about menstruation, reproduction, breasts, emotional changes, body hair, pimples, masturbation, and what’s going on puberty-wise with the opposite sex. Newer releases for girls contain additional information about eating disorders, unwanted attention because of early development, information on eating right, exercise, AIDS, STDs, and birth control. Based on my research it looks like the boy’s version is similar but also addresses growth spurts, erections, and voice changes.

This banning is not well documented so my research options have been limited. Apparently, those challenging this series of books are reluctant to go on record. (Coward much?) I’ve found critics citing anatomical drawings, medical descriptions, and definitions of slang terms provided in the book as evidence of its age inappropriateness, but that’s about it.

I’ve written and deleted a lot of sarcastic comments here about how we shouldn’t tell kids anything at all about their bodies and watch how they deal with puberty because, hey... funny!, but it isn’t funny. Some kids don’t have responsible caring adults in their lives who they can talk to about this stuff. Wouldn’t it be kind of a double victory if a scared confused kid 1) went to a library; and 2) found out that they’re perfectly normal? …or at least the same kind of abnormal as everyone else.

No. 88: Where's Waldo? by Martin Handford. (No, I am not kidding).

Hello gentle readers. Welcome to another issue of The Daily Banning. Today, we’re going to talk about pornography. ...and really, you can’t talk about porn without talking about Where’s Waldo?.

The Where’s Waldo? books are the brainchild of British children's author and illustrator Martin Handford. The series debuted in 1987 and introduced readers to Waldo, a nattily dressed man, as he set off to explore the world. Waldo has a knack for ending up in crowded places with people (or objects) dressed almost exactly like him. (Incidentally ladies, this is a nightmare, yes? Going to a party and seeing someone else in my dress? Not good.) The point for the readers is to pick Waldo out of the crowd. Handford has sent Waldo all over the world and even off the world where it appears that instead of little green men, Mars is populated by aliens who look a lot like Waldo. Who knew?

Wait, where was I? Oh yes, porn. The original edition of Where’s Waldo? has been banned because a sunbather in an intricate beach scene has a partially exposed breast. I’ll wait a moment for your horror and outrage to wear off.

OK. I thought this must surely be an urban legend but have confirmed that it’s true. In the picture, a woman lying on her stomach has removed her bikini top to tan her back. In reaction to being dowsed with water, she's partially lifted up in surprise. As viewers we only see the woman from the back but under one of her arms, you can see half a boobie and possibly even (gasp!) a nipple.

The sunbather appears in a 1987 edition only and was removed in subsequent releases due to the controversy. (I'm posting the before and after photos at the bottom of this because if I were you, I'd want to see them. This may possibly make me a porn peddler. Please visit me in jail.) We fine, moral, Americans can rest easily knowing that our children are safe from nipples everywhere.

BTW... I think you should all check to see if you own that 1987 edition. It’s probably worth some money.

No 67: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

Slaughterhouse Five appears at number 67 of the American Library Association's list of Most Challenged Books (1990-2000) and holds a special place in my heart. It was assigned summer reading by Miami University (college old and grand) for all entering students my freshman year. I thought it was strange and wonderful. I was, of course, right.

Slaughterhouse Five has been the subject of MANY attempts at censorship since its publication in 1969. In fact, Slaughterhouse was challenged all the way to the US Supreme Court in 1982, (Island Trees School District v. Pico). In case you’re wondering, the Supreme Court upheld the right of students to read it and teachers to teach it. Its critics have called it "dangerous" because of violent, irreverent, profane, sexually explicit and anti-American content.

I could break each of those criticisms down one by one but that might be boring. Here’s the gist of it... Slaughterhouse is set during WWII. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is an American POW who survives the bombing of Dresden. That it doesn’t shy away from describing the civilian casualties of the attack (read: Americans who are supposed to be the good guys attacking a city and killing innocent people) has made its critics cranky for years. Toss in Vonnegut’s general irreverence, Sci-Fi themes, swearing soldiers, sex, and bashing of free will and you get a lot of pissed off people.

What can I say? Vonnegut is not for everyone but if you like your reading thought provoking and irreverent, you should check it out. It's worth noting that Slaughterhouse is one of the first literary acknowledgments that the Nazi Holocaust also targeted homosexual men.