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John Lundberg

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A Poem Highlights Banned Books Week

Posted: 09/27/09 01:21 PM ET

This week is Banned Books Week here in the U.S., an event sponsored primarily by the American Library Association (ALA) to draw attention to recent acts (and attempted acts) of book banning. You might be familiar with the well-publicized challenges to classics like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, or the more recent attempts to muzzle Harry Potter and (further) benight Philip Pullman's series His Dark Materials. Not so newsworthy are recent challenges to Gossip Girl (there was a book?!) and And Tango Makes Three, a book I haven't read that appears be about gay penguins.

This year, the event features work by Ellen Hopkins, a young adult author who was recently banned from speaking at an Oklahoma middle school when a parent complained about her novels Glass and Crank, which are based on her daughter's past addiction to crystal meth. According to the school superintendent, the school banned her out of concern for the appropriateness of the subject matter for its students.

Hopkins offered her own opinion on her blog.

"I can see a parent's concern. So fine. Don't let YOUR child read them. However, NO ONE PERSON should be able to tell other people what their children can or can't read. I have received thousands of messages from readers (and yes, many are middle grade), thanking me for: turning them away from drugs; insight into their parents'/other family members' addictions; allowing them to live vicariously through my characters, so they don't actually have to experience those things; literally saving their lives. Who has the right to keep books that do these things off the shelves? And the bigger question, who has the right to keep ANY books off the shelves?"

Hopkins also responded angrily in verse, with a poem called "Manifesto" which has become something of a manifesto for this year's event.

To you zealots and bigots and false
patriots who live in fear of discourse.
You screamers and banners and burners
who would force books
off shelves in your brand name
of greater good.

You say you're afraid for children,
innocents ripe for corruption
by perversion or sorcery on the page.
But sticks and stones do break
bones, and ignorance is no armor.
You do not speak for me,
and will not deny my kids magic
in favor of miracles.

You say you're afraid for America,
the red, white and blue corroded
by terrorists, socialists, the sexually
confused. But we are a vast quilt
of patchwork cultures and multi-gendered
identities. You cannot speak for those
whose ancestors braved
different seas.

You say you're afraid for God,
the living word eroded by Muhammed
and Darwin and Magdalene.
But the omnipotent sculptor of heaven
and earth designed intelligence.
Surely you dare not speak
for the father, who opens
his arms to all.

A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.

Hopkins angry, passionate poem--as with many angry, passionate poems--is something of an easy target. An editorial in Friday's Wall Street Journal took advantage of the poem's hyperbole (is anyone really trying to torch every book?, etc.), and made the point that even if a book is removed from a school library, it's still readily available at a public library or book store. And our internet culture certainly changes the debate: you can't ban books on Amazon.com.

So maybe Banned Books Week can be fairly characterized as erring on the safe side (the ALA reports that just 513 challenges to books took place last year, and the vast majority of those were unsuccessful). But while it might seem like much ado about nothing much, I think most appreciate the ALA's attempts to draw attention to that nothing much. I certainly do. Now can we all just agree to keep Glenn Beck out of this?