Over two hundred years ago, our forefathers shed blood on the virgin soil of North America, so that their children could grow strong free of oppression.
Over one hundred years ago, our forefathers toiled to ensure that this nation would be the most prosperous in the world, so their children might enjoy their precious liberties.
Over fifty years ago, our forefathers fought evil on foreign shores, lest our neighbors fall under a reign of tyranny and oppression.
What on earth has become of us?
Daily, we see, hear, and read how people everywhere want to rob us of even our most basic liberties, in the name of (morality|protecting our children|keeping someone's feelings from being hurt|pick your favourite, they aren't picky). Of particular interest to writers is the concerted effort by fanatic zealots from all corners of the globe who want to control what we can say, read, hear, and think.
Now, you would think that the first admentment covers this pretty well. Freedom of Speech means you can say what you want, and Freedom of the Press means you can print it. There are legal restrictions of course. You can't say something untrue about someone to cause them hardship (libel and slander), you can't yell "Fire" in a crowded theatre, that sort of thing. But no where, in any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution that I am aware, are you given the right to be free of offense.
Furtheremore, the people who want to keep you from reading certain works aren't worried about THEIR children, or protecting themselves. They want to control what *you* can read, see, and hear. They want to make sure that nothing is printed that violates THEIR point of view.
Let's examine some of the most frequently banned books of the 1990's. Make a note of every one you've read, and each one which had a profound effect on you at the time you read it:
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'engle
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Little Red Riding Hood by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
A Seperate Peace by John Knoles
The Grapes of Wrath by John Stienbeck
Grendel by John Gardner
Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemmingway
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
1984 by George Orwell
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Pretty impressive list, there. Is there a common theme in these books? I don't know, but I have read each one of them, and all of them are powerful, poignant, and true. Why are they banned? Because they each contain content that is scary to someone -- because it presents a point of view different from theirs. Or maybe it presents a group of people in an unpleasant light. Or maybe, worst of all, it causes people to think for themselves and challenge long held and seldom questioned beliefs, prejudices, and opinions. The point is that only YOU have a right to decide what you should read, and only you have a right to decide what your children should be allowed to read.
So what can we, as writers, as readers, and as citizens do about these things?
First of all, support your local library. I don't just mean check books out, though this is a fine and necessary thing. By support I mean be involved. Go to Library Board meetings. Volunteer time and money. Talk to the staff, the directors, and anyone who will listen and ensure they know that you support their efforts to provide the community with access to reading material of all kinds. If you don't actively involve yourself in how your local library is run, you may as well let the censors have the keys to the building.
Local politics is an inexact science, but there is one immutable fact throughout the land: those who show up to talk are the only ones who are heard. It can be a grueling fight, earning the animosity of those who would control what information and even what fiction you have access too. People who profess to be "good Christians" will direct hatred and vitrol towards you. It may not be for the timid.
One man who faced down the censors and won is author Tony Isabella. Tony lives in Medina, Ohio, home of American Library Association's 1998 Library of the Year. He has chronicled his fight with the "Vicious Coalition" of censors in his own daily column online and his weekly column in "Comic Buyer's Guide. You can read about it here.
Now, Tony is one of the genuine good guys, but even so, he's just one man and he can only stand up for one town. More people must get involved to ensure that public libraries everywhere continue to be available to serve the public with all its needs, not just the needs of a few individuals with dubious political or "moral" agendas.
The second, and arguably more important, thing we can do is to teach children to LOVE reading. It is not enough to show a child how to read -- we must also show them that reading opens the entire world. It doesn't matter if you don't have any children, I'm sure you know someone who does. I bet one lives down the street for you, that you've never even considered saying hello to, much less making a friend of or loaning a book to. Read this letter to Tony Isabella from a reader, which also appeared in Tony's online column:
Without my trips to the library as a child, I would never have traveled with Sinbad, never journeyed through Narnia, never explored Metropolis, never walked down the muddy roads of the Civil War, never known Emily Dickinson, never flown to Mars with Mr. Bass, never solved mysteries with the Hardy Boys, never opened King Tutankhamen's tomb, never traveled to the depths of the ocean, and certainly would never have traveled the dusty roads of Jerusalem and Palestine with the chosen 12. Beethoven and Mozart would have one less listener. And the places I went! Oz, Atlantis, the Old West, Rome, Greece. The list is endless.
In short, my world would be a far worse place to live in and my faith would be a tiny flame based only on my ability to accept what was given to me rather than my ability to think, reason, question and ultimately believe. Gee, all this from a library! Thanks!
As a child, I know that books helped me to cope with a great many difficulties, including the terrible burden of living in a small town with small horizons. Somewhere along the way, I also learned how to think for myself, to appreciate both the world I lived in and the world that lies beyond.
How to teach kids to read? Well, I'm not an expert, but here's some pretty good sounding advice from Spider Robinson:
In the end, we must count on ourselves to hold back the tide of suffocating zealotry masquerading as concern, let we find ourselves, in the end, alone on a wide, wide sea of ignorance, with no one to blame but ourselves because we didn't have the courage of our forefathers to stand up against tyranny and oppression, no matter what form it may take.
THOSE of us who are parents, however, can do some useful work. We can con our children into reading.
I offer two stratagems.
My mother's was, I think, artistically superior in that it required diabolical cleverness and fundamental dishonesty; it was, however, time- and labour-intensive. She would begin reading me a comic book; then, just as the Lone Ranger was hanging by his fingertips from the cliff, endangered-species stampede approaching, angry native peoples below. . . Mom would suddenly remember that she had to go sew the dishes or vacuum the cat.
By the age of 6, I had taught myself to read, out of pure frustration. So Mom sent me to the library with instructions to bring home a book. The librarian, God bless her, gave me a copy of Robert A. Heinlein's novel for children, Rocketship Galileo--and from that day on there was never any serious danger that I would be forced to work for a living. Mr. Heinlein wrote stories so intrinsically interesting that it was worth the trouble to stop and look up the odd word I didn't know. By age 7, I was tested as reading at college junior level.
The only problem is, you cannot simply hand the child the comic book; you must read 80 per cent of it to her, and then stop reading with pinpoint timing. With the best of intentions, you may not have that much time or energy to devote to the task of seducing your child.
If not, try the scheme my wife and I devised. From the day our daughter was old enough to have a defined "bedtime," we made it our firm policy that bedtime was bedtime, no excuses or exceptions--unless she was reading, in which case she could stay up as late as she pleased. The most precious prize any child can attain is a few minutes awareness past bedtime. She went for the bait like a hungry trout. . . and was invariably chosen as The Narrator in school plays because of her fluency in reading. Today she is one of those rare 22-year-olds who own as many books as they do CDs.
DOUBTLESS there are other schemes. But one thing I promise: If we leave the problem to government, or the educational system, or a mythical animal called society--to anyone but ourselves--we will effectively be surrendering the battle, and giving our children over into the hands of Geraldo Rivera. As Mr. Heinlein said in his immortal Stranger in a Strange Land, "Thou art God--and cannot decline the nomination." Our only options are to do a good job, or not.
And the consequences of a bad job will make the Crazy Years look good.
See you in sixty.
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