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Right and Left Increase Attempts To Ban Books

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Chicago--The past 18 months have brought a sharp increase in attempts to censor and ban books and other materials from schools and libraries--at least triple the number reported in the late 1970's, according to Judith F. Krug, director of the office of intellectual freedom of the American Library Association (ALA).

Speaking at a special session on censorship at the annual meeting of the International Reading Association held here last week, Ms. Krug said the ALA office now receives about 900 reports of "challenges" per year--up from 300 per year in 1978.

Moreover, she noted, these reports probably represent only about one quarter of the actual attempts to ban or otherwise control access to controversial materials. The majority of such incidents are never made public, she said.

Many of the challenges stem from "Young Adult" literature--novels for adolescents that often deal frankly with subjects such as sex, drugs, and divorce. Other frequent complaints concern:

    Best sellers, such as the novels of Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins;

    Sex-education books;

    "Modern Classics," such as the novels of J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut.

    Elementary-school social-studies and reading texts.

    Books that include "frank descriptions of ghetto life."

Most of the complaints, Ms. Krug said, come from "believers of a conservative philosophy. These challenges are becoming more systematic and more sophisticated, suggesting organized campaigns of pro-censorship forces."

"Interestingly," she said, "you can't always tell if the complainer is right or left of center." Complaints about excessive violence come often from both ends of the political spectrum.

The increase in attempts at censorship by nonconservatives is of particular concern, noted Nat Hentoff, author of The First Freedom, a book about the First Amendment.

Rather than being confined to the "conservative element of society"--fundamentalist religious groups, for example--more attempts to ban books are being generated by "liberals" who object to the presence of racial and sexual stereotypes in children's books, Mr. Hentoff said.

More Permanent Threat

These efforts, he said, may represent a more permanent threat than that presented by the "extreme right, which tends to wax and wane in power with the political tenor of the times."

He cited recent attempts to remove Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn from the curriculum as one example of this phenomenon. In one Pennsylvania district, a complaint about Huckleberry Finn led to its removal from the junior-high curriculum--a level at which, Mr. Hentoff believes, children are ready to deal with issues raised by the book. "Instead of leaping at the opportunity to really teach the book, the adults held meetings and decided it was kind of offensive and took it away from the junior high," he said.

Such "benign compromises," he suggested, not only deny children the opportunity to study the "greatest American novel" ever written about growing up, but also abridge their right to read a wide range of books. "Children are being protected from knowing what there is to choose and to know," Mr. Hentoff said.

In substituting "inoffensive" books--often synonymous with inferior books--educators, he added, are "selling out" students, as well as suggesting that the students are too stupid to understand the subtleties of Huckleberry Finn.

"I'm less worried about the fundamentalists than these seemingly benign folks who want to protect children," he said. "They don't want sexist books near a child. They want niceness."

"When adult forces of niceness start messing around with what kids read," he said, "kids get the notion that to get along, you'd better go along." Few will attempt to go against adult opinion and read Huckleberry Finn, he said.

Betty Miles, the author of many books for children and young adults, agreed that much censorship is a misguided attempt to protect children. The letters she receives from children who read her sometimes controversial books, suggest that the young readers appreciate the chance to read about the more troublesome aspects of life. She quoted from a letter from one reader: "It's very interesting and will take loads off a child's mind."

"Children deserve straight answers," Ms. Miles said, adding that children usually see what's going on despite efforts to "spare them the seamy details."

Some of Ms. Miles' books have been challenged by parents or editors, some of whom have tried to delete "controversial" paragraphs. These experiences and those of other authors prompted her to write a children's book about censorship, Maudie and Me and the Dirty Book. She wrote it, she said, because "if the battles are going to be fought in the name of children, they ought to know what the battles are about."

New Dilemmas for Teachers

The resurgence of censorship poses new dilemmas for teachers and librarians, speakers agreed. Many critics, Ms. Krug noted, accuse teachers and librarians of undermining parental authority. In some attempts to ban books from school libraries, the complaining parties seek to make books unavailable to children unless they have written permission from their parents.

In response to a question from a member of the audience, most of the panelists said that they would restrict the circulation of a book to those children with parental permission, rather than remove it from the library altogether.

"Ten years ago, I'd have said 'fight to the death,"' Ms. Krug said. "Now," she advised, "if it comes to that, put it on the restricted shelf."

She also suggested that librarians confronted with such a situation try to negotiate an agreement that the book be returned to open circulation within a given period of time--three years, for example. "That happens, and it works," she said.

Mr. Hentoff agreed. "Keep it," he said. "At least it's there."

But John Donovan of the Childrens' Book Council took the opposite stance. "Remove the book," he said. In putting it on a restricted shelf, he added, a librarian could well be "opening the door for further censorship."

"Situations like that," Ms. Miles noted, "are often where purist principles end."

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