Controversy over “uncomfortable” books is nothing new. I’ve been writing about it for years, most often when the American Library Association celebrates “Banned Books Week” in late September.
One of the first opinion pieces I ever wrote for this newspaper was a letter to the editor in the early 1990s. The then-Superintendent of Schools here in Putnam County—this was back in the day when the person who led the school system was elected rather than appointed—arbitrarily ordered the removal of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” from a ninth grade classroom because a parent complained about it. There was and is a School Board policy in place outlining the steps by which an “objectionable” book can be challenged. Those steps weren’t followed.
Worst of all, that Superintendent admitted he hadn’t even read the novel, which is only 107 pages long.
Some of the first questions that arose in my mind when I learned that the Board of Education in McMinn County, Tennessee had unanimously ordered “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, removed from the curriculum last month were these: How many of those ten board members had actually read the book? How many even knew the novel existed before someone complained about it? How many could intelligently take part in even the most rudimentary discussion of the Holocaust?
I once had warm feelings about McMinn County because it’s the hometown of Harry Burn, one of my Tennessee heroes. Burn, you may recall, was the youngest member of the Tennessee General Assembly back in 1920 when the hunt was on for the “magic 36th” state that would ratify the proposed Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Though he wore a red rose–an anti-women’s suffrage symbol–in his lapel on the day of the vote, he said “Aye” when the ratification roll call was taken, thus tipping the scale and giving women throughout the United States the right to vote. Way to go, Harry!
But now it seems that McMinn County is headed backwards. They’re not alone. Across the nation and across Tennessee, efforts to censor what children read in school are gaining steam. The Williamson County chapter of “Moms for Liberty,” a national group targeting “objectionable” literature has managed to convince a school system committee to remove one book—“Walk Two Moons” by Sharon Creech—and to “flag” several others, including a book about sea horses. No kidding.
And as this column is winging its way across cyberspace to my editors, Pastor Greg Locke of the Global Vision Bible Church in Wilson County is planning a massive book burning after the Wednesday night service. As part of the church’s efforts toward DELIVERANCE FROM DEMONS (Locke’s words, not mine), his followers are encouraged to bring books like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” to throw onto a massive bonfire. Also tarot cards, Ouija boards, healing statues, spell books and anything tied to the Masons. It will be interesting to see how the rainy weather affects this event.
Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, I recently read two books—both about the Holocaust—for two different book clubs. The first was “The Nazi Officer’s Wife” by Edith Hahn Beer, a riveting true story about a Jewish woman from Austria who survived World War II by flying under the radar as the meek and mild spouse of one of Hitler’s officers. The other, “The Book of Lost Names” by Kristin Harmel, is a mediocre (my opinion; many readers loved it) novel about a Jewish woman in France who helped forge documents that allowed Jewish children and others to escape the Nazis.
I had scarcely finished reading these books when the controversy over “Maus” arose. As you might guess, it’s the subject of next week’s column. Stay tuned.
(February 5, 2022)