Monday, September 28, 2009

Picture Books Get Banned, Too

In getting ready for this week, I looked over lists of banned and challenged books. I was looking for titles I’ve never read and challenges I’d forgotten, and titles I didn’t know had ever caused a ruckus.

I expected to see the Harry Potter books (witchcraft and sorcery), Judy Blume (sex), and recent Newbery Award Winner THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY (the word ‘scrotum’ caused an uproar). And then there were titles that surprised me—that literally made me exclaim out loud. Picture books caused most of my confusion.

In picture books, I knew that Sendak’s Caldecott Honor book IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN continues to cause a stir because Mickey spends much of the book naked (as I explained to a friend ‘you can’t show his pee-pee!’) I had already heard that AND TANGO MAKES THREE held the top-spot on the challenged books list for the third year in a row (this title about a same-sex penguin couple has been challenged internationally.) It was no surprise at all that THE STUPIDS is challenged time and again because there is objection to the use of the word ‘stupid’ and a claim that the series promotes negative behavior.

And then came the surprises. As I saw each of the following titles on the list I tried to figure out why they were challenged before I read the explanation. In every instance, when I had one at all, my guess was wrong.

Dr. Seuss is acclaimed for his early readers and his ability to address complex issues in accessible parables. THE LORAX introduces a creature fighting to defend the trees, the creatures who live among them, and the land itself from an unnecessary corporate expansion. What could be offensive about this conservationist picture book? THE LORAX was challenged in California because the ‘I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees’ chant might defame the logging industry.

Caldecott Award Winner SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig has long been one of my favorites. I have always thought of this as a loving story of family and undying love. I thought that perhaps the magic which changes Sylvester from a donkey into a rock and back again might be considered witchcraft. But I was wrong. In 1977 the book was challenged in Illinois because in this world where all the characters are animals, the police officers are illustrated as pigs and that could be construed as defamatory to law enforcement.

I knew the KING AND KING had been challenged from coast to coast and overseas because of the homosexual relationship, but was someone really offended by the fact the Queen is a divorcee? A parent in California was.

My guess when I saw THE THREE LITTLE PIGS on a list was that it might be cited because of violence (particularly in early, traditional tellings) I didn't expect to find out the book was challenged as school reading because the pigs as food might be offensive to the Muslim community.

Suffice it to say, that picture books land on banned books lists is a reminder that no book is free from scrutiny. Every title is subject to unexpected interpretation. And most importantly, that every book we read over our lifetimes might someday require defense.

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