Don't read this 

Banned Book Week highlights history of challenges

The last book to be removed from a Montana public school library was Alligators in the Sewer and 222 Urban Legends, by Thomas J. Craughwell, in 2005. Johanna Freivalds, the librarian for Lockwood Middle School in Billings, says she was directed by the school's principal to remove it after a parent took exception to the book's adult language and sexual content. Although Freivalds says Urban Legends was not a noteworthy loss to the library, it's possible the ban could have been avoided.

"We didn't follow our own policy to the best of our ability," Freivalds says now.

The Montana Library Association lists more than 80 books that have been challenged in schools and public libraries in Montana since the 1970s. In addition to Urban Legends, that list includes complaints about James Welch's Fools Crow in the late '90s and a challenge against Catcher in the Rye at Big Sky High School in 2009. Banned Book Week, which begins Sept. 30, calls attention to these titles, as well as the policy behind keeping them on or taking them off the shelf.

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Parents challenged The Catcher in the Rye at Big Sky High School in 2009, but ultimately retained it. The Guy Book: An Owner’s Manual was challenged in Billings in 2007 and went on to be the library's most checked-out book.

B.J. McCracken, head librarian at Great Falls High School and chair of the MLA's Intellectual Freedom Committee, says most issues are resolved without removing books. Librarians will often work directly with parents to help control what their children read, while keeping the material in question available to other students.

"I think that overwhelmingly most people are against book banning," says McCracken, who fields calls from concerned parents in addition to tracking challenges. "There's just something about book banning that strikes people as being inherently wrong."

The policy was tested most recently when The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie was challenged in Helena High School in 2011 and the Geraldine School District again this year. A Helena parent objected to sexual references and adult language in the novel, which chronicles a young American Indian student's transition to a predominantly white school. The book was ultimately retained after each challenge, in part because of testimonials from students.

"They made very passionate, very eloquent arguments for why the book should stay in the curriculum," says Amy Cannata, communications director for the Montana ACLU, who attended the meeting in the Geraldine School District. "A couple of Native American kids got up and said that it was one of the first books that they read that they could really relate to."

Another challenge from Billings' Lockwood Middle School in 2007 produced an unintended—but not unexpected—result. Following the school's decision to remove Craughwell's Urban Legends guide, Freivalds says parents began to literally pick through the shelves of her library in search of other material they deemed offensive. They eventually found Mavis Jukes' The Guy Book: An Owner's Manual, a tongue-in-cheek guide to sexual health geared toward teenage boys. Several parents blasted the book's frank discussions of sexuality, and branded Freivalds herself a "purveyor of pornography."

"It was in no way a pornographic book," says Freivalds. "It was a health book. We teach health and aspects of sexuality in our curriculum. We have several books on reproductive health for young women, like Our Bodies, Ourselves. It's much harder to find something comparable for young men."

After the principal and superintendent voted to keep the book, the parent who made the challenge appealed to the school board. The board agreed the book's educational merit was worth keeping it on the shelves.

Freivalds adds that, during the public debate, The Guy Book became the most checked-out title in the school's library.

"I think it makes a lot of these books more appealing," Cannata says. "If someone tells them they can't read it, they want to read it more."

Cannata, who will be giving a presentation on statewide book challenges Saturday, Oct. 6, as part of the Festival of the Book in Missoula, says it's essential to follow these cases as they continue to occur in Montana and the rest of the country.

"We have to be very mindful of this, that there are a lot of people that want to control the information that we have available to us," Cannata says.

In the meantime, McCracken says she and other librarians have taken steps to make sure parents can keep track of what their children are reading to help avoid any conflicts, including offering alternative selections for their kids.

"We're not going to make a student read literature that is objectionable to their personal philosophy or something in their family value structure," she says. "The point to having the option is that no one is locked into something.

"Although," she adds with a laugh, "I'm sure that there are a lot of students who would feel that reading Shakespeare violated their personal value system."

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