I guess I get excited about free speech issues.

Please read this article from 2009 in American Libraries:  Milwaukee Group Seeks Fiery Alternative to Materials Challenge. Then come back here, and read these two reviews of the book in question (both of these reviews came from and are available on Amazon’s page for this book):

From Publishers Weekly:

Embroidering her prose with lushly romantic imagery, Block returns to the world of Weetzie Bat for this keenly felt story. A prequel of sorts to Weetzie Bat, the novel opens while Weetzie’s best friend Dirk is still a child, lying on his mat at naptime. “Dirk had known it since he could remember” – known, that is, that he is gay. Tenderly raised by Grandma Fifi, famous for her pastries and her 1955 Pontiac convertible, Dirk struggles with love and fear: “He wanted to be strong and to love someone who was strong; he wanted to meet any gaze, to laugh under the brightest sunlight and never hide.” After his first heartbreak, with his closest friend (who cannot accept Dirk’s love nor his own for Dirk), Dirk battles more fiercely for identity; beaten up by a gang of punks, he slumps into semiconsciousness and is visited by his ancestors, each telling a haunting, lyrical tale of love, faith and self-acceptance. What might seem didactic from lesser writers becomes a gleaming gift from Block. Her extravagantly imaginative settings and finely honed perspectives remind the reader that there is magic everywhere. (Recommended for ages 12 and up.)

From School Library Journal:

A prequel to the popular books about Weetzie Bat and her circle of quirky friends and relatives. This novel is about her best pal, Dirk, in his pre-Weetzie days. He’s in high school (in L.A., of course), living with Grandma Fifi and struggling with how to come out to his best friend and soulmate. Although Dirk never does tell Pup he’s gay, Pup feels the sexual tension between them: “‘I love you, Dirk,’ Pup said. ‘But I can’t handle it.'” In reaction, Dirk takes to slam dancing in punk joints. When a gang of gay bashers beats him up, he drags himself home and passes out. While he’s unconscious, long-dead relatives he’s never known come to him in what seem to be dreams; when he wakes in the hospital, he realizes that his grandmother has been telling him stories. Out of her comforting words about how others in his family have insisted on being themselves, his battered brain fashions hopeful hallucinations, including one of his future lover. His visions assure him that “There was love waiting; love would come.” Block writes distinctively and convincingly, interweaving the hallucination scenes smoothly. She makes the power of stories felt – and here, more purposefully than ever before, she weaves a safety net of words for readers longing to feel at home with themselves. Gay teens in particular need this book. All fans of the series will relish meeting nice-guy Dirk as the tender Baby Be-Bop. (Recommended for Grade 10 and up.) (Emphasis mine.)

Some people, I hear, get incoherent with anger. I prefer to get articulate. Here is the post I wrote on my class’ discussion board this week, in response to the Wisconsin firebugs:


I wasn’t going to comment any more till next week but OH. MY. I don’t even know where to start with this one. How is it possible for people to be so easily offended? A ten-foot-high obscenity spray-painted across the front of my house MIGHT get me as riled up as these people are about a YA book. Might.

Okay. Really, where to begin? With the “accusation” that the library board of trustees were “submitting to the will” of such radical fringe groups as ALA and the ACLU? With the “damage” done to the “mental and emotional well-being” of the elderly plaintiffs – who, I might add, must have lived through some seriously turbulent eras in American history, when the n-word was used much more commonly than it is in this book? With the characterization of “explicitly vulgar, racial” – not racist, racial! – “and anti-Christian” serving as the grounds for objection? With the fact that a grand jury could declare the book obscene and making it available a hate crime? With the fact that four trustees were denied reappointment for following the library’s own reconsideration process instead of immediately yanking the book from the shelf? With the fact that it’s 2010 and people still want to burn books?

I think that about covers it, actually. I wonder if the West Bend Parents for Free Speech accept donations.

Also, I did not know Wisconsin had a “sexual morality law.”


Normally I am a little more balanced and scholarly on the discussion board, but this one just kind of blew my mind. And I’m sure it isn’t an extraordinary case – I’ve always lived in pretty liberal areas where Banned Books Week means there are displays of books that have been challenged or banned (elsewhere) and everyone is encouraged to read them.

Part of the issue, of course, is freedom of speech and freedom of expression (which we are legally guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution), and that works for both sides – the author is entitled to write whatever she wants, and the publisher is entitled to publish and distribute it. People also have a right to protest and object. Moving down a level from the federal, there is also the American Library Association’s (ALA) Freedom to Read Statement, which begins, “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy.” Pretty clear there. Then we have the ALA Code of Ethics. While librarians commit to providing the highest level of service and equal access to all, we also “uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” As a citizen and as a librarian(-in-training), freedom of speech and thought are important to me, as is fighting censorship.

This sort of fuss – what happened in Wisconsin – is routinely kicked up over fiction. Harry Potter, to take one major contemporary example, has been challenged all over the place for promoting witchcraft, among other reasons. We all know that acknowledged literary classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird have been challenged and banned since they were first published, and Ulysses wasn’t even allowed in the country when it was first printed. Now, I am the last person to say that fiction can’t influence a person – of course it can, or no one would be so worried about it. But: I don’t believe that writers of fiction can invent anything worse than things that have already taken place on this earth. That is not an insult to the creativity of fiction writers, but rather an unspeakably sad reflection on human history. We cannot imagine worse tragedies than we have already propagated on one another – murder, war, genocide, indifference…and all of that is in libraries already, in the nonfiction section. (Oh, and speaking of violence – the Bible is most definitely one of the most violent, and arguably immoral, documents I’ve ever read.)

Could also be that it takes a lot to offend me personally. (That’s not a challenge, by the way.) I really do believe that people have a right to voice their opinions, no matter how vehemently I disagree with them, and vice-versa. I do NOT believe, however, that anyone else should get to decide what I read. (Though “keep your laws off my books” doesn’t work as well as “keep your laws off my body,” catchphrase-wise. The laws are supposed to be “on the books,” unless someone is prepared to memorize every legislative document in the country, and I will go out on a limb right now and say that no one is. Oral tradition, meet the U.S. Tax Code.)

Anyone still interested in censorship/free speech issues and libraries might like these articles:

Children’s book author Dan Gutman wrote this article for School Library Journal in response to an angry letter from a parent (he also wrote back to the parent).

Lester Ashiem, an influential figure in the library world in the 20th century, wrote this piece on censorship vs. selection in 1953; ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom got permission to post it on its website in 2005.

Thank you and goodnight.

What I’m reading: WHATEVER I DAMN WELL PLEASE. In this case, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman.
What I’m listening to: The Suburbs, Arcade Fire; We’re Not Happy Till You’re Not Happy and Why Do They Rock So Hard, Reel Big Fish

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Filed under books, events, library, rants, school

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