Banned Books Week: A Time to Celebrate Intellectual Freedom

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Credits: Susan Van Kirk,

Banned Books Week occurs this year from September 30 to October 6. As a former English teacher of thirty-four years, I often taught challenged/banned books in a public high school. Some of my favorites were The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Native Son. Other banned books were on my list of “you should read this before you go to college” books. This list included the Kurt Vonnegut book, Breakfast of Champions. I won’t ever forget Vonnegut’s novel because it allowed me to experience a textbook example of a parental book challenge. During that episode, our school librarian and the local public library both played a huge role in supporting the idea that books should not be banned.

The whole brouhaha occurred in the small town of Monmouth, Illinois, with a high school of 500 students. It lasted approximately six weeks and the flames were fueled by the local media. The parents of a high school junior in my American Literature class wanted Breakfast of Champions taken out of the library because it was “pornography and trash” and not suitable for children.  They also wanted to form a committee of parents to go into all the district libraries and throw out books that they deemed “trash.” Their student had chosen the Vonnegut book from a list of suggested books to read for individual book reports. By the time she decided she didn’t understand it, the report was almost due. So I suggested she read some secondary sources about the book’s themes.

However, before she could do so, her parents discovered the book, decided it was inappropriate, and determined that they wanted to protect all the children of the district from reading it. They enlisted the local media, giving the newspapers information about the book and why they considered it to be pornographic. The parents also contacted the principal, superintendent, and school board.  They did not talk with me. Their viewpoint was that they were taxpaying citizens who should be able to decide what books were healthy for the school libraries. They were protecting their child as well as those of other families in the district.  Besides the local newspapers, they called on the help of a television station in a metropolitan area an hour north of us. The media coverage put a great deal of pressure on the school district. It is interesting to note that the television station did not contact me nor did two of the three newspapers covering the story locally.

Over the six weeks of media flurry, the school board received a great deal of mail, mostly on the anti-banning side of the issue. Interested citizens had a pro-banning meeting at the YMCA, and another group of citizens had an anti-banning meeting at the Warren County Public Library. The town was divided, but the numbers supporting their children’s intellectual freedom to read appeared to be winning out.

Fortunately, our school library had a policy for selecting books and our district had a policy of steps for those wanting to challenge teaching materials. The steps included the school librarian checking with numerous book review sources, as well as the ALA, to see if Breakfast of Champions was considered suitable reading for high school students. She decided it was. The principal also contacted the National Council of Teachers of English and the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and received their support for the suitability of the Vonnegut book.        

My own point of view was that I had to provide materials that were suitable and recommended for all students in the high school.  So if a family objected to material for their own student, I suggested alternative books that would convey the spirit of the assignment. But in the Vonnegut incident, the parents went right past me. It was my own belief that the Vonnegut book should be available for students who wanted to read it, and one set of parents should not prevent that. A number of my past students had read Breakfast of Champions and loved it.

Halfway through the storm, one of the college students who worked at the local newspaper decided to call Kurt Vonnegut and get his take on the issue. Needless to say, the conversation was hilarious and Vonnegut was shocked that they were not going after Slaughterhouse-5.  This emboldened me to write a letter to the author and I added some of the more inflammatory newspaper clippings.

The end of the “tempest in a teapot” came when the school board voted neither to ban the book from the library nor to allow parents to go into the school libraries and take out materials. Besides their support, throughout those six weeks I had the backing of both the superintendent and principal because they trusted my judgment. That, in itself, was a wonderful gift.

However, a second gift came in my school mailbox.  Kurt Vonnegut had received my letter/clippings, and wrote me the loveliest and funniest letter in return, commenting on book censorship. In part, he stated, “You and your students are lucky to be in Norman Rockwell’s America, where Jeffersonian debates are possible and usually entertaining. One community banned Slaughterhouse-5, and a reporter called me to find out what I had to say about it, and I said that the head of the School Committee was a piss-ant, and he dropped dead the next day.”

The entire incident reminded me that principles are important and are worth defending. Thank goodness for libraries and librarians! The school, public, and college librarians were on the front lines with me.

The entire story of the book challenge, including excerpts from the media, Vonnegut’s entire letter, and details about the whole book incident can be found in the longest chapter of my book, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks.) In addition, on October 31, 2012, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, edited by Dan Wakefield, will become available. Vonnegut’s correspondence includes numerous letters—many of them humorous—regarding his feelings about censorship.