Book Banning, Narnia,
and the Rights of Parents of Public School Students
Illustration by Michael Leahy
There is a group in Fairfax County, Va. called PABBISParents Against Bad Books in Schoolswhich groups chief aim is to remove all books with, in its mind, questionable content from the libraries of the Fairfax County Public School system. This content ranges from overall themes that the group may disagree with (abortion, rape, homosexuality) to even small passages that reference such themes or touch upon risqué issues and situations. Take a cursory glance at its Web site and one will find lists of books they object to and passages meant to shock the visitor into an indignant, outraged frenzy; horrified that ones tax dollars are being used to corrupt the minds of ones own children.
Indeed, some of these passages are shocking. Some even graphic in their portrayal of certain acts and ideas. Some books are familiar to book-banning lists: Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, etc. Others are merely the latter-day iterations of my generations Christopher-Pike books. Most fall in between; books written by todays important and popular young-adult fiction authors about issues and situations that, whether we like it or not, teens and even pre-teens in this community are facing on a daily basis. Many of these authors earlier work influenced me in my elementary and middle-school years, but positively and developmentally. Authors whose work PABBIS finds objectionable, such as Lois Lowry (The Giver, Anastasia Krupnik), M.E. Kerr (Friction), Madeline LEngle (A Wrinkle in Time, A House Like Lotus), and Gary Paulsen (Hatchet, How Angel Peterson Got His Name), have been writing salient literature for in some cases decades to help students process and handle problems that they and their peerswhether their parents care admit it or notare facing on a daily basis. Despite their shocking material, and because of the way these issues are handled and presented, these books have value. They help students better understand the often-bizarre world around them. Banning these books from school libraries not only wont make these issues go away, as PABBIS may like to think, or protect kids from the world around them, but will in fact rob students of an important resource for dealing with their ever-changing environment.
PABBIS was started by a mother named Kathy Stohr, who objected to the placement of Lois Duncans Daughters of Eve on her daughters 2001 summer reading list on the basis that she found the material too obscene and lacking in educational value for her daughter. In Fairfax County, most English teachers, including that of Stohrs daughter, provide optional books to account for just such a situation, but Stohr was so offended by the content that she moved to have the book removed from the curriculum. The process is known as challenging a book, and has several steps:
Step 1: The challenge is issued to the publicly elected School Board and the Superintendent of Schools, who serves at the Boards pleasure.
Step 2: The Superintendents office then convenes a group of teachers, parents, and librarians to read the book in question and provide the School Board with a recommendation.
Step 3: The School Board then has a variety of options:
a) vote to remove the book from any number or combination of schools entirely
b) vote to remove the book from summer reading lists or curriculum in any number or combination of schools, or
c) defeat the challenge and allow the book to remain.
In this case, the book was removed from the summer reading list for that school, but remained in the librarys collection. This was not the first time a book had been challenged in Fairfax County, but Stohr started PABBIS in order to garner support among similarly minded parents in the county, and waged a very public campaign to pressure the elected members of the School Board to ban the book. Emotions were stirred on both sides of the debate, heated letters to the editor were exchanged, and in the end each claimed victory.
Following her moderately successful challenge of her daughters reading list, Stohr challenged a few more books and got them removed from elementary school libraries, most notably and publicly Druids by Morgan Llewellyn, which was removed from middle-school library collections. Since then, PABBIS has been led by Richard and Alice Ess, and has taken to combing library catalogues of schools all across the county for books with content and passages they find to be offensive. Press releases are issued and letters are printed in the conservative local paper The Journal, calling the publics attention to the book in question and its corruptive themes and passages while personally assailing by name the principals, libraries, and teachers of the schools for their apparently morally decript decision to subject kids to such literary filth. PABBIS even goes so far as to claim that not only are the most common charges leveled at it untrue (namely that its advocating outright banning and censorship), but that the organization itself is the aggrieved party, and that its members rights, morals, and beliefs are the very things being banned and censored by those make such objectionable material available to their kids.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I for one had the Bible taught to me in my freshman English class, along with the Torah, the Koran, and certain Hindu and Buddhist textsnot as the preferable belief system, but rather as one of many held throughout the world. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis are essentially seven books of Christian allegory, and are not only available in most schools, from elementary level on up, but are taught, in the case of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in many classrooms. Wonderful books all and indeed one of my favorite collections, but in terms of belief systems, one may as well teach the Gospels. Apart from religious beliefs, there are any number of books available and taught in public schools wherein the protagonists do not face morally challenging situations or experience events that raise controversial issues. No, PABBIS does not have its beliefs banned from schools. Its merely upset that alternatives are presented, and that themes that run contrary to its belief systems are discussed or even mentioned.
That some of the situations and concepts raised and dealt with in the books PABBIS has challenged are mature and sometimes graphic is not really the point of the debate; in that, the organization is quite correct. Situations of rape, drug use, and sexual intercourse between younger and younger partners are depicted, often in graphic terms. The language sometimes mirrors that found on a submarine, or in a middle-school boys locker room for that matter. Where PABBIS proponents stray is their self-righteous belief that they can not only know what is best for their own kids, but yours and mine as well; that librarians and teachers in public schools are out to push their liberal agenda of turning students into homosexuals and rapists and drug users through young-adult fiction. If they hold these (in my view) ludicrous propositions to be true, then its their right as parents to protect their children from these apparently nefarious means to certain ends. Quite simply, parents must take personal stock in the education of their children, not by banning what they consider inappropriate from the collections of the local schools, but by at the very least discussing with their kids what they are reading and the issues it raises.
This is not merely the right of all parents, but the duty they owe to their kids. If a parent objects strongly enough to the material he or she find in their kids hands, then by all means remove it, and replace it with one of the Narnia books. However, to assume the authority to remove that material from the hands of the neighbors kid far oversteps the rights people have as citizen-taxpayers. To claim, which their actions do implicitly, that they know what is best for students they have never met better than do professional librarians and teachers and even other parents defies logic and calls into questions the very nature and purpose of public schools in this country. Though many seem not to believe it, the aim of public schools is not to turn their charges into rapists and strung-out derelicts, but rather to provide as many students as possible with the education needed to have a chance in the adult world.
This new culture of going after books in a countywide manner has changed the way Fairfax County approaches its library collections. Some schools have taken to forming their own standing committees of teachers, librarians, and parents to proactively read new books before they are added to the public circulation or curriculum. This practice is largely beneficial. By and large, the same books that would be allowed to enter circulation still are passing with the committees assent, and groups like PABBIS can no longer say that librarians are hijacking their kids minds underneath the noses of parents. This has also helped the School Board defeat subsequent challenges by giving legitimacy to the books presence in the collection. Since the Esses began their intense involvement, the School Board has removed one book from elementary school libraries, keeping it in middle and high school collections, and has entirely defeated several more challenges in multiple schools led by the Esses. These defeats, coupled with the formation of an opposing parents group called the Right to Read Coalitionwhich has mirrored PABBIS own techniques of flooding the local papers with letters and testifying before the School Board at challenge hearings in support of librarians, teachers, and the objectionable bookshas thankfully marginalized PABBIS and its influence with the majority of the School Board. The organizations proponents realize this, and now object to the entire challenge process on the basis that it is biased and unfairly slanted against their views.
Unfortunately, PABBIS proponents overlook the fact that they have the ability, without a vote by the School Board, to influence and even control what their kids read. This itself ignores the basic fact that kids will see sex, violence, and drugs all around them in their daily lives. It is unfortunate, but students get raped, students abuse drugs, students have consensual sex with one another, and yes, these students are getting younger and younger. Books, however, are not to blame, but rather, lack of involvement from the support network each student is entitled to, and which many students lack. PABBIS also misses the bigger point that good literature, no matter what the targeted age group, is that which doesnt inform what one thinks, but rather how one thinks and how one approaches issues and themes that have relevance in ones life. PABBIS and their supporters on the School Board claim their basic parental rights are being infringed. However, they cannot and should not be allowed to rectify that by infringing on the rights of every other parent in Fairfax County. Communities must be aware that these efforts are underway and, in some places, have been very successful. If they are allowed to continue, groups such as PABBIS will ensure that the world in which students are educated is pristine, antiseptic, and wholly unlike that in which students live.
This piece is dedicated to Ms. Joanne DeMaria, who passed away prematurely on June 20, 2003. Ms. DeMaria was my sixth grade teacher, and my life has since been forever changed by not only what she taught, but more importantly by the way she taught it. She never shied away from difficult topics or words, but instead entrusted us with our own early budding adulthood to think about and discuss those things as maturely as thirty 11-year olds could, and guided us every step of the way. In many ways, we need her now more than ever, and she is sorely, sorely missed.