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COLUMN ONE : Besieged by Book Banners : In record numbers, parents press schools to remove works that offend them, from 'Anne Frank' to 'Where's Waldo?' Some officials will not fight back, choosing the safe road over freedom of expression.

May 10, 1993|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even Krug of the American Library Assn., which finds itself pitted against such religious conservative groups, said: "So much within our society is so offensive nowadays that, every once in a while, I have to pinch myself and say: 'No, I'm sorry, he does have the right to say that, even though I personally find it disgusting.' "

For example, "American Psycho," a novel by Bret Easton Ellis, offended Krug with "language that some have construed as a blueprint for female torture." She was equally bothered by crude and provocative photographs in Madonna's "Sex."

But Krug believes that books that elicit widespread curiosity belong in public libraries, regardless of whom they offend. Of "Sex," she said: "Any book that sells 850,000 copies, and which is legally obtainable, should be in libraries across the country."

Although liberal groups are becoming increasingly vocal, many cite the religious right and three groups with California ties--James Dobson's Focus on the Family, which began in Pomona but is now stationed in Colorado; the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, based in Anaheim, and Simonds' Christian education movement--for waging a war on books.

The three organizations gained national attention by opposing the "Impressions Series," reading books that were challenged in schools nationwide--but particularly in California--two years ago.

A nationwide preemptive effort is being waged against two books that conservative groups say promote homosexual lifestyles and are inappropriate for public schools.

"Heather Has Two Mommies" and "Daddy's Roommate" feature illustrations of gay couples and are listed among hundreds of books on a suggested multicultural bibliography for New York City public schoolteachers. So far, no teacher has used the books, but that did not stop the issue of restricting classroom discussion of homosexuality from becoming a factor in last week's hotly contested New York school board elections.

Sheldon said that in his eyes "Heather Has Two Mommies" and "Daddy's Roommate" are to "public education what gays in the military will be to Mr. Clinton. They bring God-fearing people together in a noble crusade."

Paul L. Hetrick, spokesman for Focus on the Family, said many parents have a feeling of "being utterly fed up with the mess in our public schools." Books, he said, are "just one of the tools" in an ongoing "civil war."

The growth of fundamentalist challenges to books and curricula are "rooted in a tug of war for the mind of the child--the child in America," Hetrick said, a view many seem eager to endorse.

A radical change occurred about 15 years ago when complaints took on an added texture: the isms . Ageism, sexism, racism. Those concerns were voiced largely by liberals, who began to question some classics, including "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," as being out of step with contemporary mores. The pendulum began to swing back during the early years of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Almost immediately after 1980, the American Library Assn. recorded a fivefold increase in demands for censorship.

Will having a Democrat in the White House have a reverse effect? Many believe that President Clinton's support for higher taxes, abortion rights and gays in the military may mobilize the right even more. As pressure builds on school districts and library boards, will those in charge stand for something or fall for anything?

As Phelps, Banning's acting school superintendent, put it: "We didn't object (to Maya Angelou's autobiography) as much as eight to 10 of our parents did. And when it came right down to it, we just didn't care to fight about it.

"As school administrators, we're not in the business of making people mad. It could have been a major fireball, but we didn't want a fireball," he said. "Is one little book really worth all that?"

Banned Books

Here are some of the books banned at various times from schools and libraries in the United States and the reasons given by their opponents:

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," by Maya Angelou

* Removed from a Banning, Calif., eighth-grade class in 1991-92 after several parents complained about explicit passages involving child molestation and rape.

* Rejected as required reading for a gifted ninth-graders' English class in Bremerton, Wash., in 1990 because of the book's graphic depiction of molestation.

* Challenged at Mt. Abram Regional High School in Strong, Me., in 1988 because parents objected to a rape scene.

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," by Mark Twain

* Temporarily pulled from Portage, Mich., classrooms in 1991 after some black parents complained that their children were uncomfortable with the book's portrayal of blacks.

* Removed from the required list in the Rockford, Ill., public schools in 1988 because the book contains the word nigger.

* Removed from a required reading list and school libraries in Caddo Parish, La., in 1988 because of passages deemed racially offensive.

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