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Constance Alexander: From books, children learn what parents (and others) don’t want to talk about



I was twelve when my mother left a pamphlet titled, “Now You are Ten” on my pillow. Fortunately, my older sister had already schooled me on menstruation, a topic Mother chose not to address. Unfortunately, when I finally got my period, no one else was home but my father and me. Even with four other women in the immediate family – my three older sisters and my mother – there were no sanitary napkins to be found. Red-faced, feeling ashamed and exhilarated at the same time, I had to ask my father to take me to the drugstore, the most embarrassing errand of my life.

If all this had happened in 1970, when “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” was published, I would have known a lot more about my complicated feelings than what my sister was able to explain because Judy Blume would have helped. All I would have had to do is head for the local library.

Growing up, the library was my sanctuary, a storehouse of knowledge, a portal to the world. I passed the hallowed ground twice a day on my walks to and from St. Francis School, and I often stopped there for many reasons. One was to find answers to questions my parents would not, or could not, acknowledge.

As far as I know, books were not banned in the Children’s and Young Adult sections of the library, except for the authority of Mrs. Lane, who commandeered the desk in the Adult Room. Upon request, she could mete out controversial titles to a deserving few. My mother was one of the chosen, so when she dispatched me to bring home a new batch of library books to get her through each week, I occasionally requested some of the hot titles on Mother’s card and kept them to myself.

(Graphic courtesy of PEN America)

That is how I read “Peyton Place,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Collector,” as a young teen. Those controversial writings exposed things I knew about but never spoke of at home.

Lucky me. I could access X-rated reading.

Banned Books Week just ended, but its spirit lingers on. According to a report by PEN (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists) and reported by The Kentucky Lantern, “During the 2022-23 school years, book bans occurred in 153 districts across 33 states.”

In Kentucky, Campbell County has banned 3 titles: “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins; “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez; and “Lucky” by Alice Sebold. So far, western Kentucky seems to have resisted a national trend toward banning and censorship.

In the past, however, our region, was no stranger to such efforts. “As I Lay Dying” by William Faulkner was banned in 1986 by Graves County School District in Mayfield. The charge was that it was offensive, obscene, and took the Lord’s name in vain. After negative media attention, the ban was later reversed.

Ten years later, Marshall County school superintendent glued together pages of a fifth and sixth grade science textbook because the Big Bang Theory was covered, but not Creationism.

According to the National Center for Science Education, the school official declared, “We’re not going to teach one theory and not teach another theory.”

Ask almost any avid bibliophile about banned books, and it is likely that some of their most enlightening reading emanated from banned books. Ironically, the very act of banning seems to guarantee even wider readership.

Tom Grant, a reader from New Jersey, recognizes the irony. “What always cracked me up about “Catcher in the Rye” being banned,” he said, referring to the book’s main character, Holden Caulfield, “he never even has sex in the book! He just talks about it ALL the time.”

Another reader from my hometown admits, “These bans puzzle me because the books reveal human nature and the human condition. I also don’t understand,” she continues, “bans on children’s classics like Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Jayne Moore Waldrop, Western Kentucky native, poet, and novelist, points out that Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” is frequently targeted for banning.

“It’s one of the most powerful books, in my opinion, dealing with racism. Maybe that’s why some don’t want it read,” she remarks.

Another Kentucky writer, Ellen Birkett Morris, lauded “The Bluest Eye” for it impact on her.

“Protagonist Pecola Breedlove,” Morris says, “ an 11-year old who is driven insane by societal abuse and sexual abuse, wishes for the protection blue eyes and white skin would afford. The book provoked deep empathy in me as well as horror at the deep roots of racism in America.”

Geneva Parris, a reader from Trigg County, agrees with Waldrop about “The Bluest Eye.”
“I’m also surprised among my reading group friends and others,” she observes, “how few have read it or any writings of Zora Neal Hurston, a brilliant Black woman.”

Parris goes on to say, “Too many writings by women do not have to be banned as they have been suppressed by the industry and our culture and denied wide readership. If only they were banned then they would get more readers due to the attention.”

Dr. Staci Stone, Dean of School of Arts and Humanities at Alabama’s Jacksonville State University, read through a list of 100 of the topped banned books before commenting.

“Reading the list (having read and taught several on it)” she explains, “I am struck by how literary censorship is an effort to normalize sexual assault and rape by keeping those crimes invisible and victims isolated.”

She adds some specific examples, including “The Bluest Eye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Color Purple,” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

Byron Sondergard used to own a bookstore on Main Street in my New Jersey hometown. He has made a lifelong habit of reading banned books.

“The diversity of thought and the number of different reasons for banning, were remarkable,” he declares. “When I owned Metuchen Book Shop (1983-1994), I used Banned Books Week to advertise banned books, and to initiate discussions with customers.”

Banned BookWeek may be officially ended, but the celebration continues. The words of Sherman Alexie, himself controversial, is author of several banned books, especially “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

The depiction of poverty, alcoholism, and child abuse causes conflict and dissent which Alexie responds to this way: “I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book. To the contrary, kids as young as 10 have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.”

Banned Book Week 2023 may have ended, but the issues endure. Local libraries are the key to free speech. One example of speaking up regarding the importance of local librarians is here. Read on and pass the torch.

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