Sunday, March 4, 2007

Freedom to Read Week: Last Gasp

Two tidbits concerning Freedom to Read Week:

  1. There has been a recent kerfuffle over the children's book The Higher Power of Lucky, a Newberry medal-winning book which contains the word "scrotum." The public debate over this book has been incredible. I first encountered the story in the New York Times (in an article that, unfortunately, is not available without a subscription). The Times reported that school librarians were pulling the book from their shelves after deciding innocent children should not be exposed to the (perfectly scientific and polite) name of a body part. (Because we all know that children are embarrassed by any discussion of body parts, especially body parts with funny names, and will shy away from discussing them. Right?) Publishers Weekly covered the story quite extensively. Neil Gaiman weighed in, quite articulately, on his blog. The author herself, Susan Patron, defends her writing in an article in the Houston Chronicle. Perhaps the funniest response was this list of other children's books containing "scrotum". Apparently, unbeknownst to us, the silent scrotum threat has actually surrounded us for some time.

    Obviously, this is a story that has been reported to death and it hardly seems necessary for me to weigh in. But its timing couldn't be more ironic, as many of the publications co-incided with Freedom to Read Week. What a timely, and yet ridiculous, reminder of the limitations and challenges that still occur in schools and libraries.

    What makes me sad about the situation is that the people who have publicly voiced their disapproval of the book have been "librarians," (or in some cases, probably, school media specialists) but in the initial scrimmage we didn't see any librarians' views from the other side of the fence. Librarians all over the world go to the wall about intellectual freedom ALL THE TIME. They are activists who defend the public's right to access information in an unrestricted, dignified, and private way. In the United States they are one of the few groups systematically keeping track of the Patriot Act and its repercussions for freedom, privacy, and democracy. I would just like to see more of that getting reported in the news. The media seem hell-bent on perpetuating the portrayal of librarians as repressed, repressive disciplinarians.

    Of course, the real winner in this debate is the book's author, Susan Patron. Her book has now been brought to the attention of millions of people all over the world. At least some of those millions are bound to buy it--whether to burn it in a school parking lot, to give it to their nieces and nephews, or to see what all the fuss is about. At the time of this posting, her book is already #9 on Amazon's children's bestseller list.

  2. An excerpt from Matthew Battles' excellent Library: An Unquiet History, from the chapter "Knowledge on Fire," about libraries and book-burnings during the Nazi regime:
    But if German librarianship barely survived its Faustian bargain with the Nazis, libraries flourished elsewhere, even where Nazi annihilation reigned supreme. As David Shavit writes in Hunger for the Printed Word, libraries were part of survival in the ghettos and camps of the Final Solution. ... In the Vilna ghetto, amid awful degradation and constant threat of transport back to the death camps, Jews built a library. In October 1942, the librarian Herman Kruk prepared a report on the first year of the Vilna ghetto library. An extraordinary document, it now resides in the collection of the YIVO Institute in New York, where it was translated by Zachary M. Baker. It is at once a work of cool library science and a cry of mingled hope and despair. (174)

    The most popular circulating book in the Vilna ghetto library was Tolstoy's War and Peace. Another popular title was All Quiet on the Western Front, which had been banned by the Nazi authorities. In 1943, the librarian, Herman Kruk, was deported to Estonia, where he was burned to death in a concentration camp. (179) During the 1930s and 40s, Battles estimates that one hundred million books were burned by the Nazis. (167)

If you are interested in these issues at all, please please check out future librarians for intellectual freedom. That blog is far more thorough than mine. And I sometimes contribute, so you might catch a glimpse of me over there as I fold myself into my glamourous, library science limousine. (Little-known fact: all librarians ride around in limos. As professions go, it's pretty hot.)

This Freedom to Read Week I feel lucky to live in a country where we have so much freedom, when so many others (like the Jews in Nazi Germany) fought to have any access to their own documents and stories. At the same time, we live in a society where we are always having to fight to keep that freedom. We can't be complacent. I don't know about you, but I like a little scrotum in my children's books, thank you.

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