Judy Blume

Thursday, September 28, 2000

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded Sept. 28, 2000, in New York.

Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment and free expression. I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, and this is a special edition of the program in recognition of “Banned Books Week.” It features three very special guests. They include Judy Blume, one of this country’s most popular and most frequently censored authors; Carolivia Herron, whose critically-acclaimed book, Nappy Hair, was challenged in a Brooklyn school; and Cammie Mannino, a bookseller who took a stand against censorship. Welcome to all of you. I have to begin with Judy. You know, there are these lists every year about the most banned books. Each and every year, you’re in the top five. You’re sort of the Beatles of banned books. How did you obtain this status, and what are you doing wrong?

Judy Blume: Uh-oh, you know, you’re asking the wrong person. It’s never the — the person who wrote the books is always surprised. You have to ask the people who ban the books. I can go back to 1980, and I can say to you — of course, I remember, you know, what was it? It was a shock to me. It was anything to do with sexuality, which, for my characters, was puberty; any language that people found offensive, sometimes lack of moral tone, whatever that is. I think it has to do with hitting the kids — I didn’t hit them over the head with right and wrong. Gosh, what else?

Paulson: Were you writing a different kind of book than existed in 1968, before you began writing?

Blume: Well, I never thought about that, you know? I mean, I was a young woman who sat down to write books and to be as honest and truthful as I could be. I remembered very well what it was like to be in sixth grade. And that was when I started. It never occurred to me in my wildest dreams one, that people would actually read my books or write to me about them, and two — I mean, the idea of banning a book. This is America. It was such a shock to me, and I had nowhere to turn. I didn’t have the publishers behind me. No one was doing anything. It was all, “We don’t talk about this.” It was shocking and sad.

Paulson: And you had like a ten-year period of successful books before the censorship kicked in. Wasn’t it the ‘80s that you really began to see —

Blume:1980 was — was — yes, yes. But there had been some. I mean, there was a woman who called me after Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was published. She just looked me up in the phone book, and she said, “Are you the one who wrote that book?” And I was really excited, and I said, “Yes.” And she called me a Communist, and she hung up. So, you know, there we are.

Paulson: Well, your experiences were markedly different from the experiences surrounding a book called Nappy Hair. And we’ve got a copy of it here, because this author was under attack. But more directly, a teacher was under attack.

Carolivia Herron: Yes.

Paulson: And one of those wonderful stories that the author runs to the rescue. Could you talk a little bit about Nappy Hair, what the book’s about, and how you first heard about, kind of, the outrage directed towards this book?

Herron: Yes, the book actually started out as a recording of my Uncle Richard telling the story of my own nappy hair. It’s a very personal story. This story has been growing since I was a little girl and was born with the nappiest hair in my family. And I was teaching at Harvard, a course in oral poetry, and I just recorded it to share with the class. I had, actually, no intention of making this children’s book out of it. But I shared it with an African-American audience. They loved it so much, I decided to go for a children’s book because of popular demand. So you could imagine how surprising it was to have it — have somebody disagree with it and telling me — I was told, you know, that I sold my race down the river and that sort of thing. But the actual — what happened, I was teaching in California. I was looking at television or something in the evening and got a phone call. This voice: “Hello, are you Carolivia Herron,” the same sort of thing. “Yes.” And, “Did you write this book called Nappy Hair?” And the same sort of, “Oh, boy, what’s coming up next?” You know, some invitation to do this. “Yes.” “Did you hear what happened?” And there’s a strange sound in her voice — it was Ruth Sherman, the teacher, the white teacher who had been chased out of the classroom for reading this book to her class of African-American and Latino children. She had shared the book in September. It was November. One parent became upset, returned to the school with 50 people, called all the major networks — so they had cameras out in front of the school — and went into the school and chased her out into the cameras so that you actually got the pictures going around the world in about ten minutes. And she — and this was her voice that night. She said everybody told her not to call me. She found me on the Internet, but she was determined to call me, because she wanted to know, “What did I do wrong?”

Paulson: There were a couple of interesting twists, too, in that they weren’t objecting to the book so much as the photocopies of the book, which meant they were looking at pictures that were much more dark and contrasted.

Herron: Much darker.

Paulson: And the people who objected to it were generally African-American parents?

Herron: Were 100% African Americans. I don’t think any other group complained about it. And I think the darkness of the photocopies was one of the — what I consider the three problems. The second has to do with the fact that the teacher is white, and the third is the true core of the problem: the word nappy being a black-on-black insult in many African-American families and communities. My family didn’t do it, my immediate family. But I can remember people saying, you know, “Get your nappy headed self over here. You can’t go outside with those naps on your head,” that sort of thing. And little girls hearing that all your life, of course, by the time you get to be a teenager or an adult, you don’t want to hear the word nappy again.

Paulson: And the wonderful story — the rest of the story is the way you actually jumped in and defended this.

Herron: Oh, yes, I was in New York within 48 hours. I actually went to Brooklyn and could not get into the school when I tried to talk to the people there. Then I went on several television appearances. And I went anywhere, anytime to defend her, no matter what it took. And, indeed, I ended up having to leave my position there, because I felt that it was too important. The gift to be a writer is too great, and you can’t say, “Well, I have this requirement to do this other small thing.” And it was very hard, but I had to leave what I was doing.

Paulson: You’ve been an educator at prestigious institutions. What does it tell you? What does it say when parents rise up in anger about that kind of content being taught in a classroom?

Herron: I’d like to know — first of all, they didn’t read the book. And it’s so hard to — what can you say when they don’t read it? And I can — on one hand, they say, “Well, why should we read it? We think it’s a bad book, so we don’t want to spend our money on it.” And so they don’t read it, and then they protest it, and they feel like they don’t — the people who tell them what the book is like are not telling them the truth. And they feel like they don’t want to spend any money on a book that they may not like. But there’s a library. There are all kinds of ways to find out, you know, the content of a book. And it means that people are rather ignorant, quite frankly. I mean, what else can you say? I actually met the very person, the one parent who was complaining about the book.

Blume: I was going to ask how that happened in the first place. Was it a child who went home and said, “We heard a story today in school”?

Herron: No, the teacher photocopied the book. The children — realize these children could not read at all. They were third graders who could not read. And Ruth did everything she could to get ‘em to read. She got this book. And because it’s a call and response book, each child got to answer back their own little part, do a little dance, you know, and all the kind of fancy stuff. And they loved the book so much, they begged for a copy. And that’s where the problem began. She made a photocopy. Every child had one. It just so happened that one parent saw a photocopy, and that began the problem.

Paulson: So, there’s a lesson here: Obey the copyright laws.

(LAUGHTER)

Herron: Well, you know, that’s problematic for me, a $17 book and a poor little school. What can you expect a teacher to do, of course, after all?

Paulson: So you were ahead of Napster; that was — your files were being downloaded to young people.

(LAUGHTER)

Herron: Yeah, mm-hmm.

Paulson: There are a lot of heroes on this stage. (TO HERRON) And in your case, you fight for a teacher who taught your book. (TO CAMMIE MANNINO) In your case, you decide to defend a book that had been banned from a local school. And it couldn’t have been, necessarily, a safe position to take as a businesswoman in town. How does a bookseller get involved in defending a book?

Cammie Mannino: Well, it was kind of an interesting way. I — what was happening was that a teacher in the seventh grade — teaching seventh grade English and Social Studies — was using the book Shabanu by Suzanne Fisher Staples, a Newberry Honor book, to teach to seventh graders who were doing a unit on the Near East. And 90 children read the book, and it was a very successful book. She was a very imaginative, very strong teacher. And one parent objected to the book. Page 223 — you know how that goes — had a reference on it to something vaguely sexual that made her — she said made her daughter uncomfortable. She was making her daughter read the book aloud to her in the seventh grade, which was a little unusual. When the book was — when she protested to the principal, the principal basically panicked and caved. And instead of following the procedures that the school district had at one time set up for dealing with contested books, she began passing the book around to colleagues and friends at the central office, you know, and said, “Would you read page 223?” and “What should I do about it?” And nasty phone calls started coming in to the teacher, etc. At five minutes to eight in the morning, the teacher would get these threatening phone calls, saying, “You are” — you know, “We’re going to do something about you, because you’re teaching pornography.” And what happened ultimately — the way I found out about it was, first I got a phone call from the school district with a very strange, abstract question, which was, “Is it legal to rip pages out of a book?” And I said, “Well, there is the First Amendment. That’s one law that I think would apply, but basically, it’s an ethics issue.” And I heard this in kind of an abstract way, and I didn’t know what book it was about at the time. They asked me whether I thought maybe it was a good idea — they had a book that was controversial, and they thought maybe they wouldn’t have the children read the ending, and then they would imagine their own ending. And I didn’t think that was going to be educationally very sound. That was the last I heard about it. Well, during the summer, the teacher came to me and said, “I need a book to teach to seventh graders about the Near East.” And, I said, “What about Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind?” She said, “Let me tell you about Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind.“ That’s how I found out the book had been censored. So at that point, I began a two-year campaign to wear down the school administration till they finally got so sick of me that they finally ended up putting the book back in the curriculum. And it was quite a process. At the end of it, the author, Suzanne Fisher Staples, who has her books censored like Judy’s all the time, I e-mailed her to tell her that it was back in the curriculum. And she wrote me this wonderful e-mail in which she was — she said, “I’m weeping into my computer, because this is the first time I have ever had any of my books reinstated in a curriculum after being censored.”

Paulson: I have a question for you. I can understand that you went to battle because of one line that offended one person. But there’s also been criticism of the book from the Islamic community —

Mannino: Mm-hmm, yes. I addressed that too, actually.

Paulson: As being a stereotype. If that had been the criticism, would you have fought with less vigor?

Mannino: No, because I think I could have answered that. I think that what happens when we — there’s a bunch of things that happen when a book gets challenged that way. I actually — what I would do and what I have done, actually, in the course and process of this thing that I did with the schools was — I talked to Suzanne Fisher Staples about that criticism and to see what she would say. And her answer was, I think, applicable in so many situations. She said, “This is not a book about Islam. This is not a book about Muslims. This is a book about one family in one small culture in the Cholistan Desert in Pakistan. And it can’t be used to teach about all Muslims or all people of Pakistan, even.” And she said that’s true of every author. Every author is writing about one family and their — just like Carolivia’s book — it’s one family and their experience, and it’s not meant — certainly it has universal meaning, but it’s not supposed to — it’s a story. It’s meant to tell the story of that family. And I learned a lot from Suzanne, listening and thinking about that, that I, maybe, have made the mistake in the past, too, of recommending books without thinking that I was trying to generalize too much about what it could teach. She said, “To say that this book is a book about the Muslim world, for instance, would be to say that Faulkner is the only example of America that we can get from American literature, that that speaks for every American. It doesn’t; it speaks for a culture within America, a language within America, a part of America. But it doesn’t — is not pretending to speak for the American culture.” Or, she said, “Imagine if we said that Faulkner represented all Christians because it so happened that the people in his book happened to be Christian people.” It’s a family; it’s a story.

Paulson: As a bookseller, what happens when a book is challenged? Does that sell more copies or fewer?

Mannino: Well, in this case, it didn’t have any impact. I would imagine that it would — in general, it would sell more is my guess.

Paulson: In the case of Nappy Hair, —

Mannino: I’m sure Carolivia would know.

Herron: Yeah.

Mannino: That was certainly the case with your book. People came in immediately. I had copies, hooray, hooray. But people came in right away asking for it who I don’t think knew about it before.

Herron: Right.

Paulson: So, how many copies before the controversy and how many after?

Herron: It sold 13,000 copies a day before the controversy, which was in late November. And on January 1st, it was up to 100,000.

(AUDIENCE — “WOW!”)

Mannino: And that really reinforces, Carolivia —

Herron: Astonishing.

Mannino: Yeah, hooray, hooray, yes.

Herron: Every country has its own Siberia, and that’s our Siberia, yeah.

Blume: Nevertheless, we would rather not —

Herron: It’s true. Isn’t it funny?

Blume: — be censored. And what I’m hearing here is very interesting, because we’re hearing two examples of books that were challenged because they offended this group or that group. And I’m not talking about page 200 and whatever —

Mannino: Right.

Blume: And whatever that reference to sexuality is — which is different. I mean, this is a growing problem. I see it as a growing problem where it was once — you know, the extreme religious right that came after my books. It’s as if everyone now has permission. Well, I don’t like that, and that’s offensive to my child. And so it’s — instead of going away, it’s really growing. And it’s coming from all sides now, which is a difference.

Paulson: We talk about censorship and — that causes sales. That probably is not the case with somebody like yourself, an established author. People sort of know what they’ll get. And, in fact, I would think there’d be some pressure to publish a safe Judy Blume book. Is there ever a temptation to self-censor?

Blume: Self-censor is very dangerous. And I think the more we are aware, as authors, of “Uh-oh, this is going to get me in trouble,” it’s dangerous. I’m really happy that I wrote what I wrote before I knew about any of this. But I certainly have the experience of being asked on several occasions — two that I can think of — of taking something out of a book by a beloved editor.

Paulson: And what’d you do?

Blume: This is so hard. The first time, I did it. And I felt so awful about it and I still do to this day, because I knew that it was right — emotionally right for my character. The second time, it was one word. And I could have changed that one word. The only word, by the way, the “f” word in this book, spoken by a very, very angry 15-year-old, an extremely articulate 15-year-old in an articulate family so that the word was very powerful when he used that. I was told that if I changed that word, I wouldn’t lose all the book club sales. You talk about more sales. No, no, no. It’s less sales, because the book clubs will not touch your book. One word. If I changed it to another word that started with “f,” no problem. I don’t know what we’re supposed to say here. We’re on camera. And I thought about it. I looked it up in the dictionary; “a meaningless word intensifier” is what it said. I talked to my grown son. I said, “I don’t know what to do.” And he said, “You are Judy Blume. You stand for honesty and truth. How could you even consider changing it?” And so I didn’t, and so we lost all the book club sales. And it was mentioned in reviews, in school journals so that teachers would know if they ordered this book there was a word in it. It just — it boggles the mind —

Paulson: Very expensive word.

Blume: — that this is where we are. This is a recent — a more recently published book than some of the others.

Paulson: You know, another trend we hear of today that you didn’t see early in your career is a concern, I think, about the occult, witches, the supernatural, and, of course, the backlash against Harry Potter. What do you make of that? Any thoughts on that?

Mannino: Well, I think it’s — there was a very interesting article, actually, in the Horn Book — in the May/June edition of this year of Horn Book, in which a conservative Christian tried to explain to all of us why this was a problem. And it was a very good article, because it kind of helped me to at least step back long enough, take a deep breath and understand that for some people witchcraft is real, you know? It is the working of the devil in the world. And “putting your child in the way of witchcraft is putting them in front,” she said, “of a bus about to hit them.” I think that was a good, useful article, and she did it in a very calm voice. But I think what the problem is, is that we don’t have people at the front lines — and, you know — and this includes publishers, booksellers, librarians. We don’t have enough people in the front lines who will say, “Well, fine you know, your child — we will make sure that your child does not read that book. But there are a lot of children for whom that literature is wonderfully feeding and wonderfully creative.” And Harry Potter has been, in so many ways a — just a — well, I’ve said it before — just a golden chance for us to talk to children about the First Amendment, because they love the book in a deep, you know, passionate kind of way that makes them understand how important it is to have that feeding. I think Madeleine L’Engle has talked about this many times, ‘cause she certainly experienced it years ago with A Wrinkle in Time. Same thing, a kind of backlash against fantasy. And there are people for whom that is a problem. But the problem is that they want the rest of us to adhere to the same worldview. That’s where it becomes problematical.

Blume: For years, it’s been — long, long, long before Harry Potter, I would go out and speak about the three “S’s.” It was sexuality, swearwords and Satan. And that’s been true for a very long time. People would ban — choose to ban books. Satan’s been there.

Paulson: The other issue, beyond the three “S’s,” I think, is an issue about — well, sensitivity, a fourth — (TO HERRON) in that your book raised concerns among African-American parents who thought it was stereotypical. We also see a book like Huckleberry Finn being banned because of the racial epithet. What’s your take on that?

Herron: Oh, boy, what a mess we get into with all those. I have a final paper by one of my students in Chico who loves this book Nappy Hair, telling how wonderful this book is and how could people love a book like Huckleberry Finn and teach that when there’s a book like Nappy Hair to look at? And the very same sentences where he was saying he has the right to have this book, saying we shouldn’t have the right for Huckleberry Finn. The “n” word can hurt so bad that there needs to be some — a little bit of education before you get into it. And again, my wonderful father — when I first read that book, he sort of sat me down and told me, you know, what the book was doing and all this sort of thing. And I admired the book so much that I actually went around — when I was in high school and in college, I would dramatize the part of Jim to try to get people to see what was really — what I felt was really going on. I’m very much — I mean, hey, you know, Samuel Clemens.

Mannino: Let’s hear it for Mark Twain.

Herron: He’s wonderful. I can’t stand the thought that people are going to throw out Huckleberry Finn and put Nappy Hair in. You know, that’s not the way.

Paulson: Let me ask — one of the things people who work in the area of fighting off censorship, we tend to demonize people who want to censor. There is a sense that, you know, these are the people who walk into walls, and they’re not well-read, and they’re just determined to shut out the world. But are there times when a parent could go to a school administrator and say, “Look, my son or daughter is reading this in the fourth grade, and it’s really not appropriate”? Would that always be wrong?

Blume: I think a thoughtful parent coming into school to talk about something is always welcome. It’s the zealot that we all jump away from. Thoughtfulness is appreciated always. Is it, then, that teacher’s job to change the book? I don’t know.

Mannino: Well, I’m hoping that the decision — people make bad decisions. I mean, not every book that’s taught in the public schools is a wonderful book. I mean, I think we can all agree to that. There are books — I mean, I’ve known people who’ve read Goosebumps books aloud to third grade, and I think, you know, I’d let them read ‘em themselves. That doesn’t seem, to me, to make a very good read aloud. I agree with Judy. I mean, I think if someone came in and said, “You know, I really want to question whether this is really appropriate for somebody in the fourth grade.” I would want to talk about that. And it would depend on what the person said that I might not teach that book again. But they would have to be awfully convincing if I’d thought — which we would hope ahead of time teachers had — about appropriateness before they selected the book. I find my bigger problem with teachers is not taking risks, but, you know, it’s that they’re not taking risks. Not that they are and getting in trouble. It’s that they’re censoring before the book ever reaches the child. I’m getting teachers saying, “Well, now, I really can’t take that book, because it has a witch on the cover. I really can’t take that book, because I’ve heard it has this or that in it.” And, in fact, I just had it last week. I mean, I have it almost weekly, that I deal with this in one way or another, either with a parent or with a teacher. And so what I’m worried about is a sort of blanding out. And when the teacher that taught Shabanu, who was the most wonderful woman — I mean, she should really be here. She was the genius behind how the book was taught. When at the very end of this process, someone — the final salvo with somebody at the administration calling her in and saying to her, “Well, why would you want to teach a controversial book?” And she had the most wonderful response. She said, “Well, can you name any book that is meaningful and meaty that I could teach that wouldn’t be controversial to someone?” You know, any book that really has content — someone is going to be offended by it. It’s only the most bland kind of literature, the kind of formulaic literature with no voice and no character and no whatever that’s going to meet the test of — everybody’s going to be yawning, but no one will be offended.

Blume: I do want to speak on behalf of the publishers for a moment, because after years and years and years of running scared — and I’m not saying that they still aren’t scared, but I do — I think I see a new dawn coming, where they’ve had it. They’ve had enough, and they are beginning to be willing to take some risks again. And I think, maybe, the Harry Potter controversy — or maybe they’ve just seen how well Scholastic has done with it.

(LAUGHTER)

Blume: But I hope that I do see this, that the fear is lessening and they’re beginning to stand up.

Paulson: A wonderful conversation. Thank you all for joining us today. I’m Ken Paulson. Back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment and free expression. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”

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