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Who Decides Which Books A Child May Read?

Censorship vs. Parental Discretion

A short American literary pop quiz: What do these three very different writers have in common? African-American poet Maya Angelou, children's horror writer Alvin Schwartz, and classic American novelist John Steinbeck.

Hint: They all share a spot on a Top 10 list (and it's not David Letterman's).

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Five points if you guessed their books are used in schools, but the full answer is: Their books were among the top 10 most challenged books in US classrooms last year, according to a national survey of teachers, librarians, school officials, and parents conducted by People for the American Way (PAW), a liberal political action organization and censorship watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

At a time when many parents are glad to see their children pick up any book at all and actually read it, it may seem surprising that the trend toward banning or censoring books available to children, particularly in schools, is on the rise. The number of challenges PAW reports in 1995 rose by 37 percent over the previous year, with the hottest topics being sexuality, profanity, and religion, in that order.

Award-winning children's author Richard Peck, whose own books have been banned, thinks he knows why. "Parents are terrified of the world their children are growing up in," he says, observing that many families have moved to the suburbs in hopes of escaping the drugs and violence they see in the cities.

"Children's literature is more vulnerable," adds writer Bruce Coville. His book "Jennifer Murdely's Toad" was banned because a parent claimed to have heard that children were getting high from licking toads. He believes that in an era when people feel alienated from a distant federal government, "local schools and libraries are an easy place for people to feel they have an impact on what government does."

Most of the challenges in recent years have come from conservative Christian groups, such as the California-based National Association of Christian Educators and Citizens for Excellence in Education.

Bob Simons, president and founder of both groups, which support 1,700 parent's groups nationwide, is interested in literature that "supports the good, healthy, positive side of life. Characters, like Maya Angelou's. If you actually read some of her stuff, only a depraved mind would write it," he says. He also objects to the way the debate is framed. "When schools and librarians remove books [such as "politically incorrect" books], it's called deselection. When we object to a book, it's called censorship. Where's the fairness in that?" he asks.

"Parents ought to have input," says Gary Bauer, president of the socially conservative Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. "They shouldn't be treated as interlopers." This isn't just for reasons of fair play, although the fact that tax dollars are being spent in public schools ought to be reason enough to allow parents a voice, he says.

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A considerable amount of research has shown there are strong reasons for parents working with educators, observes Mr. Bauer. "If parents are involved in the enterprise, if they actually have some authority over what the children read, all the research has shown that [kids] do better," he says.

Although sex has been a touchy topic for years (J.D. Salinger's 1951 coming-of-age classic, "Catcher in the Rye," just recently survived yet another challenge in a St. Augustine, Fla., high school) Coville finds that as the religious right has become more powerful. "Increasingly, the religious life of kids is risky and nearly untouchable" for an author to write about.

He describes what has been called "Satanic Panic," as a growing push to ban books that some parents believe contain "devil worship." He points to the recent banning of Richard Peck's book "The Ghost Belonged to Me" for "unholy subject matter." It went on to become the catalyst for banning all books with a Halloween theme in one school district.

However, suspense novelist Lois Duncan says she likes to play the devil's advocate with her fellow writers. "There is such a thing as 'age-appropriate' reading material, certain materials for certain ages. And as writers, we must have a degree of sensitivity, not use subjects to sensationalize. We shouldn't take advantage of a young mind."

"Adult life has filtered down for these kids now. There are more centerless lives than ever before, with kids depending on each other for direction," says Richard Jackson, cofounder of Bradbury Press and editor in chief of Jackson/Orchard Books. He believes that even in an era of computers, videos, and any number of other activities vying for children's attention, books can play a unique and important role.

"Ultimately, everybody has to get alone in a room," Mr. Jackson muses, "that's where books come in. Books try to make sense out of things."

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