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To Kill Our Heritage

I was appalled this week to learn that a school board in Mississippi is removing Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird from the 8th grade curriculum because, according to the Associated Press, “the district received complaints that some of the book's language ‘makes people uncomfortable.’"

Really? It makes people uncomfortable? I believe that was exactly Harper Lee’s purpose when she wrote it in 1960. I remember reading it in junior high in 1972, and being changed by it; I was for the first time really impassioned about social justice. It therefore galls me that some five decades later adults with nefarious motives are depriving children of Pulitzer prize-winning literature written from the perspective of a child that confronts sensitive issues, teaches courage and compassion without the fairytale ending more typical of novels for this age group. Kids need to be enthralled by injustice in order to become adults who fight against it.

Turns out Ms. Lee was quite used to this type of ban. Her book was constantly under threat of being banned by various civic/local government entities from the time it was published. Those who looked to censure were often successful, but come on - it’s 2017! You can order pornography on your TV by talking into your remote control. I think curbing the reading habits of junior-high schoolers is a bit like putting your finger in the dike to stem the tide. It didn’t work for the little Dutch boy either, in spite of the fairy-tale's ending.

Researching books that have been banned opened up a Pandora’s box of artistic suppression. Some of them were more surprising than others. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned in 1884 for offensive language and racism, and Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was banned in the 1930s for being racist, violent and using offensive language. These bans in particular make Mississippi’s removal this year of To Kill a Mockingbird all the more ironic and a sad statement of the recent shift in our society.

In the ‘50s, JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was challenged for its profanity, blasphemous acts and offensive statements. It was an instant best-seller among the youth of the day as it encapsulated teenage angst, alienation and rebellion. It regained world-wide attention after the 1980 assassination in New York of John Lennon, although these days, its notoriety overshadows its literary brilliance, which is a shame. In 2005 Time magazine listed it as of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.

Controversy can certainly work as a catalyst. I clearly remember the banning of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1980, which the media salaciously covered for weeks on end. The offending passages eventually led to a fatwah being issued for the assassination of Rushdie and a bounty placed on his head. After this his book sales skyrocketed. Like many, I “Rushdied” to buy a copy to see what all the fuss was about, and can confirm, after three solid attempts to get the gist of it all, put it aside knowing I was unlikely to ever read anything by Rushdie again. It turns out good literature may be banned, but a ban does not necessarily equate to good literature. Nearly four decades later, the man continues to make a career off of this one moment of notoriety. Maybe I'm being harsh, and should give his work another shot.

Finishing on a lighter note, I’m sure you’ve read that JK Rowling’s remarkable Harry Potter series has been challenged (and occasionally banned) by do-gooders who believe that it goes against Biblical teachings because of its magical and wizardry content. I can only assume these challenges come from adults who haven’t bothered to read the books and discovered that the main theme is good overcoming evil. Rowling is probably responsible for introducing an entire generation of kids to the joy of reading who would not have otherwise bothered to pick up a book in favor of a Gameboy, so in my humble opinion, we should be building statues to honor of the woman, rather than denigrating her.

But Harry Potter wasn’t my favorite banned book story I stumbled upon. It was Martin Handford’s Where’s Waldo. And while I appreciate Where’s Waldo isn’t exactly literature - hell, it isn't literature at all - it turns out that some eagle-eyed parent didn’t find Waldo on a page. No…..they discovered a side boob. I kid you not! In the beach scene page of the 1987 version of the book someone managed to pick out an errant side boobie. And tried to ban the book because of it.

And as there’s literally nothing more you can say about that, so I’ll leave you with that visual until next week. In the meantime, if you want to share your favorite banned book, feel free!

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