Popular children’s author relates ’3 S’s’ of book censorship

Monday, October 2, 2000

NEW YORK — Popularity can often lead to censorship and
controversy, particularly in children’s literature.

Author Judy Blume, whose stories about awkward adolescence are
cherished by thousands of children and adults around the country, knows this
fact better than most.

The author of the best-sellers Forever and Tales of a
Fourth Grade Nothing
is also the author of five of “the 100 most
frequently challenged books of the decade” of the 1990s. That makes her the
author who appears most often on the list, which was released earlier this year
by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

And she has a strong sense of why that is, she said during a panel
discussion last week, “Censors and the Schools: The Battle over Children’s
Literature” at the First Amendment Center. The pattern of targeting books adds
up to three “S” words: sexuality, swearing and Satan, she noted.

“Long, long, long, long before
Potter, I would go out and speak about the three S’s,” she said “And that’s
been true for a very long time. People would choose to ban books —
Satan’s been there.”

Charges of Satanism have surfaced with the enormous popularity of J.K.
Rowling’s Harry Potter series about a young wizard. But sexual content is the
biggest complaint about Blume’s books, according to the author.

“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,” Blume said.

Blume’s five books on the list of the 100 most-challenged books of the
1990s are: Forever (7),
Blubber (30),
Deenie (42),
Are You There, God? It’s Me,
(60)and Tiger

“It was a shock to me,” she said about reactions to her books in the
1980s. “The person who wrote the books is always surprised.”

Back then, Blume said, “I had nowhere to turn. I didn’t have (the
American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression) making Muggles for
Margaret. I felt completely alone. 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.”

The panel discussion, taped during Banned Books Week for The Freedom
Forum’s “Speaking Freely” television program, heard another vivid instance of
censorship from Detroit bookseller Cammie Mannino.

Mannino recounted how she had devoted a significant amount of her time
defending the right of students in her local school district to read Suzanne
Fisher Staples’ novel Shabanu, Daughter of the
, which deals with an 11-year-old girl who runs away rather
than marrying a man her family has chosen.

A teacher in Mannino’s local district had wanted to teach
Shabanu to her class, she said, but
foes of the book called it pornography because of one page that alluded to
sexuality. Because of the controversy, the book was not allowed into the

“The decision was made on one line of the book that bothered one
rather uptight parent instead of the other 89 kids who enjoyed the book and got
a lot out of it,” Mannino said.

“At that point, I began a two-year campaign to wear down the school
administration until they finally got so sick of me that they finally ended up
putting the book back into the curriculum. It was quite a process.

“I e-mailed (Staples) to tell her it was back in the curriculum,”
Mannino added. “She wrote me this wonderful e-mail in which 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.’”

A similar instance of censorship catapulted author and professor
Carolivia Herron into a much-heated controversy.

After a teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., read Herron’s book
Nappy Hair to her class, one upset
parent called the local TV networks and with 50 other people ran the teacher
out of the school, right into the cameras.

Herron had recorded her uncle telling the story of her nappy hair and
had played it for students in an oral poetry class at Harvard. The
African-American students loved the story so much that Herron decided to turn
it into a children’s book.

“I shared it with an African-American audience,” she told the panel.
“They loved it so much. I decided to go for a children’s book because of
popular demand. So you can imagine how surprising it was to have somebody
disagreeing with it, and telling me, I was told, that I sold my race down the
river, and that sort of thing.”

Herron couldn’t understand why her book stirred such controversy, and,
she said, neither could Ruth Sherman, the Brooklyn teacher who was run out of
her school for reading Nappy Hair to
her class.

“(Sherman) said everyone told her not to call me,” Herron said. “But
she was determined to call me because she wanted to know ‘What did I do

Herron said the three major problems that probably led to the Brooklyn
incident were: the photocopies teachers made for the students were too dark;
Sherman was white; and the word “nappy” was considered to be a black-on-black
insult in many African-American communities.

Since the Brooklyn incident, Herron has traveled “anywhere, anytime”
to defend a teacher’s right to use the book, and also to defend her right as an
author to publish the story. The incident also propelled sales of her book.
Before the controversy, she had sold 13,000 copies. Afterwards, her sales shot
up to 100,000.

But that was not the reaction that mattered, she said. It was the
principle that was paramount.

“I ended up having to leave my position because I felt that it was too
important,” said Herron, who was by then an English professor at California
State University. “The gift to be a writer is too great. You can’t say, ‘Well,
I have this requirement to do this other small thing.’ It was very hard, but I
had to leave what I was doing.”

Panel moderator Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment
Center, pointed out that the controversy surrounding Herron’s book underscored
a fourth “S” word.

“The other issue beyond the three S’s, I think, is an issue of
sensitivity,” Paulson said. “(Herron’s book) raises concerns among
African-American parents who thought it was stereotypical. We also see a book
like Huckleberry Finn being banned because of a racial epithet.”

Herron agreed. “The ‘N’ word can hurt so bad that there needs to be
some education before you can get into (Huckleberry Finn),” she said. “And
again my wonderful father, when I first read that book, he sort of sat me down
and told me what the book was doing and that sort of thing. I admired the book
so much that . . . when I was in high school and college, I would dramatize the
part of (black slave character) Jim to try to get people to see what I thought
was actually going on.”

Education, the panel agreed, is the only way children will be able to
process what they’re reading without misunderstandings and misconceptions.

“Harry Potter has been in so many ways a golden chance for us to talk
to children about the First Amendment because they love the book in a deep,
passionate kind of way that makes them understand how important it is to have
that feeding,” Mannino said.

And book challengers must also stop judging a book by its author, she

“(The challengers) don’t judge the product,” she said. “They’re
looking at the author. Is the author black? In the case of Huckleberry Finn,
since the author is not black, then it’s not permissible (to use the ‘N’

Blume added a different perspective. “When you talk about books about
race, the books that are most often challenged … are African-American
authors writing authentically about the experience of growing up
African-American with true language,” she said, a fact that rang true to Herron
and her book Nappy Hair.

At that point, Paulson played devil’s advocate.

“We tend to demonize people who want to censor,” he said. “There is a
sense that these are 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 said, “A thoughtful parent coming into school to talk about
something is always welcome. It’s the zealot that we all jump away from.”

Mannino pointed out that most books with meaningful content have the
potential to be offensive.

“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 everyone yawning but no one will be offended,” she said.

For Blume, creating meaningful content has always been a priority. But
sometimes she’s faced with dilemmas about what to include in her books and what
not to include. This self-censorship can be dangerous, she said.

“I’ve certainly had the experience of being asked on several
occasions to take something out of a book by a beloved editor,” she said.

She recalled a recent conversation with her editor who told her that
if she omitted the “F” word, which appeared only once in a book she did not
name, she wouldn’t lose all the sales from book clubs.

She was so conflicted on what to do until she talked to her grown son.

“He said, ‘You are Judy Blume. You stand for honesty and truth. How
can you even consider changing it?’” she recalled.

“And so I didn’t.”

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