Banned Books Week occurs this year from September 27 to October 3. It is an annual event celebrated by communities across America, and it was launched in the 1980s. Schools and libraries plan annual celebrations that highlight past and current attempts to censor books.
As an English teacher, I often taught challenged or banned books in my classes. 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 book report list highlighting “you should read this before you go to college” books. This list included Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Breakfast of Champions. I won’t ever forget his novel because it put me in the middle of a textbook example of a parental book challenge, a situation that forced me to consider what I believed, and made me wonder if the school district and the town would be on my side.
This textbook challenge happened twenty-five years ago this November, but I remembered it as if it were yesterday.
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 out-of-context information about the book and why they considered it to be pornographic. The parents also contacted the principal, superintendent, and school board. Guess whom they didn’t contact. 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. I’m not sure books had been discussed so much in the entire history of the town.
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. Several 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, a decision that resulted in a piece of satire in the local newspaper. Their conversation was hilarious, and Vonnegut was shocked that they were not going after Slaughterhouse-5. This emboldened me to write a letter to Kurt Vonnegut, 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 was a wonderful gift.
However, a second gift came in my school mailbox. Kurt Vonnegut had received my letter and clippings, and he 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 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 my book, The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks.) In addition, on October 31, 2012, Dan Wakefield’s book, Kurt Vonnegut: Letters, was published, and guess whose letter appears in his book?
*quotation used with permission of the author.