Taming the Sinister Censor Within

Who among us has not fought off the wicked urge to censor?

I know I have. Did battle just the other day, in fact. Curious about some of the offensive tomes available to unsuspecting children, I wandered over to the library.

I went equipped with a list of books that have been challenged around the country recently, taken from a new edition of the American Library Assn.'s annual "Banned Books Report."

The list, as you might imagine, is as ludicrous as it is long. Nearly all the entries come from the children's shelves. According to the ALA:

"Being Born," a gorgeous book with Lennart Nilsson's renowned photographs of developing fetuses, was challenged in Reno by an adult who claimed, "Nobody in their right mind would give a book like that to children on their own . . . except the library." (The book stayed.)

"I Hate English" was vilified by a Queens, N.Y., school board member, who said that schoolchildren "should just learn English and don't complain about it." (The book stayed.)

The removal of "Tar Beach" from elementary school libraries in Spokane, Wash., was requested by someone who claimed the lavishly illustrated story stereotypes African Americans. The African American artist/author, Faith Ringgold, drew on childhood memories of chicken-and-watermelon picnics on her family's Harlem roof for this magical story of a little girl who can fly among the stars. (The book stayed.)

A challenge to Howard Stern's "Private Parts" resulted in the resignation of a Texas librarian deemed "too liberal"; an Alabama prosecutor threatened to bring charges against a library that circulates the book.

Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" got it for racial slurs and bad grammar. J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" for its "pornographic," "perverted" and "morbid" themes. Jane Smiley's dark, 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning "A Thousand Acres" was banned from a high school because, according to someone in Lynden, Wash., it had "no literary value in our community right now."

Between March, 1994, and March, 1995, the ALA received reports of 760 challenges to books around the country, mostly in school and public libraries.

Judith Krug, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, estimates that she hears about only a quarter or so of all attempts at censorship. Most challenges--about 60% she estimates--fail. The rest result in restrictions, temporary removals or outright bans.

For the second year in a row, a children's book about a gay father, "Daddy's Roommate" by Michael Willhoite, was the most challenged book in America. (The much-maligned "Heather Has Two Mommies" by Leslea Newman is near the top.)

Between the end of March and now, Krug says, it appears that "Huck Finn" is leading the pack, followed by John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" (for vulgar language).

"If a book doesn't offend somebody," Krug says, "it probably won't ever be labeled a classic."

I don't know if you could call "Daddy's Roommate" or "Heather Has Two Mommies" classics, but I was ready to find out. Unfortunately, they'd been checked out.

"You might be interested in seeing a book that is a 'response' to 'Daddy's Roommate,' " suggested a librarian.

She gave me a copy of "Alfie's Home" by Richard Cohen, who founded the International Healing Foundation and claims he can "cure" homosexuality.

To my consternation, I was overcome by a censorious urge myself. Here, I thought, is a book that could really mess up kids' heads.

It is the story of Alfie, a little boy whose parents fight constantly. He is ignored by his father, whose attention and love he craves. At least he has Uncle Pete.

Uncle Pete, Alfie says, "is really kind to me--holding me, listening to me and making me feel loved. One night when he was holding me, he started touching my private parts. Over time, he taught me to touch and play with his. It felt strange, scary and a little good, too."

Cliffs Notes version: Alfie discovers he is gay, but a therapist persuades him that he wants other men only because he was denied his father's love and "was taught wrong things" by Uncle Pete. The whole family gets therapy, Alfie's dad becomes a loving father (yes, folks, just like that! ). Then Alfie grows up, marries Nancy and has two kids.

Now that--in my book--is dangerous, insidious stuff.


If children can read about Daddy's roommate and about Heather's two mommies, then surely there is room on the shelf for the story--however wrongheaded--of a gay man who goes straight.

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