Friday, November 2, 2018

The Great American Book Ban

PBS’s Great American Read recently announced Americans’ favorite book. It’s To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. We all know the basics of the story. Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Atticus’s children, Scout and Jem, are taunted by other children for their “N-loving” father. It’s more complex than that, but that’s at least part of the story in a nutshell.
Around the same time that To Kill A Mockingbird was named America’s favorite book, “A 17-year-old Shorewood boy has been arrested for making threats on social media relating to the controversial ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ play, the Shorewood Police Department said Wednesday,” said the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. ( )
According to WTMJ-TV, Milwaukee, “The show had been canceled last week after groups threatened to protest over the use of the N-word in the play.”
According to the American Library Association, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most “challenged” books. Here’s an excerpt from the ALA’s page:
To Kill a Mockingbird Challenged in Eden Valley, MN (1977) and temporarily banned due to words "damn" and "whore lady" used in the novel.
Challenged in the Vernon Verona Sherill, NY School District (1980)  as a "filthy, trashy novel."
Challenged at the Warren, IN Township schools (1981) because  the book does "psychological damage to the positive integration process" and "represents  institutionalized racism under the guise of good literature." After unsuccessfully trying to ban Lee's novel, three black parents resigned from the township human relations advisory  council.
Challenged in the Waukegan, IL School District (1984) because the novel uses the  word "n____."
Challenged in the Kansas City, MO junior high schools (1985). Challenged at  the Park Hill, MO Junior High School (1985) because the novel "contains profanity and  racial slurs." Retained on a supplemental eighth grade reading list in the Casa Grande, AZ  Elementary School District (1985), despite the protests by black parents and the National  Association for the Advancement of Colored People who charged the book was unfit for junior high use.
Challenged at the Santa Cruz, CA Schools (1995) because of its racial themes.  Removed from the Southwood High School Library in Caddo Parish, LA (1995) because the book's language and content were objectionable.
Challenged at the Moss Point, MS School District (1996) because the novel contains a racial epithet. Banned from the Lindale, TX advanced placement English reading list (1996) because the book "conflicted with the values of the community."
Challenged by a Glynn County, GA (2001) School Board member because of profanity. The novel was retained. Returned to the freshman reading list at Muskogee, OK High School (2001) despite complaints over the years from black students and parents about racial slurs in the text.
Challenged in the Normal, IL Community High School's sophomore literature class (2003) as being degrading to African Americans.
Challenged at the Stanford Middle School in Durham, NC (2004) because the 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel uses the word "n_____." 
Challenged at the Brentwood, TN Middle School (2006) because the book contains “profanity” and “contains adult themes such as sexual intercourse, rape, and incest.”  The complainants also contend that the book’s use of racial slurs promotes “racial hatred, racial division, racial separation, and promotes white supremacy.” 
Retained in the English curriculum by the Cherry Hill, NJ Board of Education (2007).  A resident had objected to the novel’s depiction of how blacks are treated by members of a racist white community in an Alabama town during the Depression.  The resident feared the book would upset black children reading it. 
Removed (2009) from the St. Edmund Campion Secondary School classrooms in Brampton Ontario, Canada because a parent objected to language used in the novel, including the word “n_____."
So, how is it that the #1 book on the Great American Reads list is also one of the most banned books in the country, and for a variety of reasons?

Isn’t the point of the book to work against racism? How can we do that if we hide the harsh reality from people, including children, though maybe extremely young children shouldn’t read it. Sometimes we have to talk about unpleasant things and use unpleasant words to make certain points. In both my Shamus Award-winning novel White Heat and its sequel, Broken Windows, that just came out a few weeks ago, I deal with very sensitive issues – racism and immigration respectively – in the context of mystery-thrillers. I use the N word. I debated a long time about that and was very concerned, but ultimately thought it was what the story required. I did, however, put a warning at the head of the stories to caution readers and ask them to consider the use of that word and other things in the context of the characters, the time and the situations. Today we’d call them “trigger warnings”.

And Mockingbird isn’t the only book on the Great American Read’s list to have faced bans and challenges.
I did a post a while back on SleuthSayers, the other blog I write for about free speech, along with Elaine Ash (Anonymous 9) and Jonathan Brown. If you want to check it out you can find it here: . But the bottom line is I’m a free speech absolutist. I may not agree with what you say but I’ll fight for your right to say it. And I think as writers, and as readers and citizens, we should all be concerned about any constraints against freedom of speech. So, let the play go on, let people read the book. And the other books that have been banned.
What do you think?
And now for the usual BSP:

I’m honored and thrilled – more than I can say – that my story Windward appears in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, which just came out this week. I wrote a blog on that on SleuthSayers if you want to check it out: .

I’m doubly thrilled to say that Windward won the Macavity Award at Bouchercon a few weeks ago. Wow! And thank you to everyone who voted for it.

And I’m even more thrilled by the great reviews that Broken Windows has been receiving. Here’s a small sampling:

Here’s a small sampling of excerpts from reviews for Broken Windows:

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:

"Broken Windows is extraordinary."

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element

"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:

"This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"

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GBPool said...

Wow, Paul. Lots of tantalizing stuff in your blog. Bottom line: those who don't want you to have your say want their say... and only their say. It doesn't work that way. So why back down? State your piece and let public make up their own mind. They will anyway and you will have stated your point of view. And if people don't see fiction and the stuff that happens in fiction, whether it's in a book or a movie, as an object lesson or warning, that's their problem. Write on, my man.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


It seems like we've been facing this problem forever. When I wrote my first Kim Reynolds mystery, The Inferno Collection, I did considerable research since I was then a librarian. Like you, I believe in freedom of speech.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Gayle. I agree, write/say what you want and let the audience make up their mind.

Paul D. Marks said...

It’s definitely been a problem one way or another, Jacqueline. I just thought it was ironic that at the same time To Kill a Mockingbird was chosen as America’s favorite book on one hand it’s being banned on the other.

prakash gohel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Susan C Shea said...

Odd: my comment was deleted....I was agreeing with you, Paul.

Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, your comment wasn't deleted by me. I never saw a comment from you. I deleted a spam post/comment.