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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Banned Books from My Childhood

As I contemplated which book I should write about in recognition of Banned Books Week, I realized I needed a little help. Enter the Banned Books Resource Guide by Robert P. Doyle. I consulted the 2007 edition of the guide, which lists 1,724 books that have been challenged and/or removed from libraries at some point. As I browsed the extensive list, I ran across some authors who were childhood favorites of mine, including R.L. Stine and Louis Sachar. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of these two before, but their books were wildly popular when I was in elementary and middle school back in the early and mid-1990s. I’d never looked at the banned book list before, and I was surprised to find them there. I’d read them as a child, and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to ban them. But as I spent more time thinking about them and familiarizing myself with their plots again, I could see how some parents might have problems with their kids reading them.

Let me tell you a little about the books. Two of the banned books are Louis Sachar’s Sideways Stories from Wayside School and its sequel Wayside School is Falling Down. There’s a third book, Wayside School Gets a Little Stranger, but it didn’t make the list. The books are a collection of short stories about the students, a school that was accidentally built sideways, with one classroom on each floor so that the school ends up being 30 stories high.  The stories in the books are laugh-out-loud funny, and many feature students dealing with supernatural situations or other weird scenarios. According to the Banned Books Resource Guide, Sideways Stories was challenged in Arizona in 1992 for showing the dark side of religion through the occult, the Devil, and Satanism. I don’t remember there being any mentions of Satan in the book, but there is a teacher who turns her students into apples, if that counts. Wayside School, the sequel, was removed from a list of suggested readings for an elementary reading program in Wisconsin in 1995 because the book contains passages condoning destruction of school property, disgraceful manners, disrespectful representation of professionals, improper English, and promotion of peer pressure.

The reasons for challenging Sachar’s books seem like a reach, but I can’t say that about R.L. Stine’s books. Stine’s books, most notably those from his very popular "Fear Street" and "Goosebumps" series, are horror/thriller novels. While the "Goosebumps" books often feature pre-teens in supernatural or fantasy situations, the "Fear Street" books feature older teens and usually revolve around murder mysteries. Books from both series have been challenged several times. The "Goosebumps" series was challenged throughout the 1990s for featuring: satanic symbolism, disturbing scenes and dialogue, satanic gestures, descriptions of dogs as menacing and attacking, spells or chants, violence, vandalism, graphic description of an ugly mask, demonic possession, promoting mischief, reference to Satan and his goals, a disturbing scene describing a death, a scene that tells of a child disappearing from a birthday party, graphic content, and references to the occult.  It was also challenged because "children under the age of 12 may not be able to handle the frightening content of the books."

The "Fear Street" books had a tendency to get gory, so I guess it really shouldn’t be a surprise that some parents might take issue with them, especially if younger kids got a hold of them. There’s a reason that Stine has been regarded as the “Stephen King of children’s literature.” They often include vivid descriptions of murders and/or murder scenes. Some of them are real chillers. Interestingly, though, the challenges to the series aren't necessarily because of the violence.  While several "Fear Street" titles were challenged at an elementary school library in Arkansas because they include graphic descriptions of boys intimidating and killing girls, one book was removed from a Georgia middle school library in 2003 because the book "deals with complex issues teenagers confront."

The fact that some adults have issues with these books hasn’t stopped kids and young adults from reading them. Sachar and Stine were popular with kids when I was younger, and they’re still popular with kids today. Some of the action may be intense, and I can see the logic behind some of the challenges, especially where Stine is concerned.  "Goosebumps" is meant for middle-schoolers, so the argument could be made that the idea of a controlling, talking dummy in Night of the Living Dummy might be a little scary for younger kids.  And while "Fear Street" seems advanced for the elementary set in both tone and topic, some of the kids may be mature enough to handle reading about psychotic ghosts and serial killer cheerleaders.  But the individual parents should make the decision about what’s appropriate for their kids. It doesn’t seem fair that one person or group can make that decision for everyone.

Doyle, Robert P. Banned Books: 2007 Resource Book, American Library Association, 2007.

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