Monday, September 26, 2011

In Honor of Banned Book Week: My Experience with Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Librarians are the primary champions of the right to read in the United States. Because I spent most of my career as a children’s librarian, my support of the right to read was primarily cerebral, but about half way through my career, there was a movement to question the books in our library. The first challenges came from an area church in the form of a list. Our first inclination that this was happening came when a parent helper arrived with a list one day and began to make a pile of books that had witches in them, including Strega Nona by Tomie dePaolo, Hansel and Gretel, and other fairy tale books. She told us that these were evil books and shouldn’t be in our library.

This particular challenge burned out rather quickly; the parents just made their wishes known, and I told them that if they didn’t want their children reading books with witches in them, they needed to tell them not to pick those books. I had no intention of removing classic children’s literature from our library.

Several years later, I experienced the only real challenge of my entire career. A third grader checked out Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. This is a retelling of several urban legends and old scary tales. Included in the book is the old story about the couple who are parked in a recreation area parking lot when they hear a report on the radio that a madman with a hook for a hand has escaped from the asylum. Scared, they quickly start their car and leave. When they get home, they discover a bloody hook attached to their car door handle. Of course it is a cautionary tale, and certainly one that I had heard as a kid. The drawings by Stephen Gammell are without a doubt the scariest part of the book. The book is classified as non-fiction because Schwartz researched and documented each story from the region of the country from which they arose. Was it an appropriate book for a third grade girl? Probably not, but it was perfectly appropriate for an elementary school library because of its classification as a well-researched set of folk tales. 

Well, the mother of the third grader approached the school board president and the superintendent. The first I heard of it was when the superintendent came to me and asked me to remove the book from the library to avoid a stink at the school board. I told him I would have to get back to him, but I would appreciate it if he would read the book before he made a decision about it. (Neither he nor the school board president read the book, I might add.)

In the meantime, I contacted the American Library Association. They sent me a huge pile of papers to read and told me that Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was one of the decade’s most challenged books. At that point, I was armed for battle. I had to decide if I was ready to be fired over a children’s book. For heaven’s sake, it wasn’t even Catch 22 or Huckleberry Finn!

The superintendent came to me again, took me into the back room of the library and tried to reason with me. He told me that there were thousands of books in my library; why would I risk my career over one book. I told him that this was a book that could face down a challenge because of its provenance, and that I was willing to defend it.

Well, the gods intervened. Halloween came. On the morning of Halloween, the principal came screeching into the library. “Miriam, you have got to see this!” I ran out into the hall to see the mother who was challenging the book arriving at school with her kindergarten daughter and her third grader. The kindergartener was dressed like a witch, the third grader was dressed like a skeleton, and they both were carrying ghost balloons. We took pictures of both children as part of the day’s activities, and later the superintendent suggested to the mother that perhaps she had better withdraw her challenge.

A crisis averted. When I retired, the Scary Stories book was still in the library as were the Strega Nona books and the fairy tales. I continue to believe that one way that children learn to cope with a hostile world is to read widely.  I also maintain that if parents check their child’s book bag and find books from the library that they don’t want their child to read, it is their responsibility to censor their child’s reading. It is not the library’s responsibility. 

Last year I reviewed This Book Is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson. It is the study of modern librarians. She has a marvelous chapter in the book about censorship and four librarians who challenged the Patriot Act. Well worth reading.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. It is helpful in my banned books project :)

Miriam Downey said...

Glad to help.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for fighting for what's right. You are awesome!

Anonymous said...

thats right GIRLLL WHOooooooooooooooo!! fight it hahahahahahahaha