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Censorship Story Is Far From a Finished Work : Books: Texts in local schools are among those targeted for banning because of controversial content.

October 01, 1995|MICHAEL GRANBERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YORBA LINDA — It was only last year that fifth-grade students in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District were asked to read "My Brother Sam Is Dead," a book set in the Revolutionary War. Their exposure to it didn't last long.

Within weeks, the book was removed from the classrooms and library of Bryant Ranch Elementary School after parents rose up in protest.

"My Brother Sam Is Dead" is "not G-rated," agreed members of the school board who considered the bloody account of war atrocities too strong for children. "Offensive language is offensive language. Graphic violence is graphic violence, no matter what the context."

Thus, "My Brother Sam Is Dead" entered the pantheon of books that carry with them the adjective banned, and gained entry among the thousands cited during Banned Books Week, the 14th annual celebration sponsored by the American Library Assn., which ends today.

It has plenty of company, being among the 760 "incidents of censorship" in 1994, according to the association.

From Orange County to Bangor, Maine, and everywhere in between, books are under siege. Teachers and administrators are hardly alone in facing the wrath of increasingly activist parents who object to many books children are exposed to in classrooms and school libraries. And the war on books is extending well beyond the realm of schools.

Opposition also comes from the Christian right, which is upset about books dealing with homosexuality, and ethnic communities, particularly African American groups, which are waging war against Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," now the most targeted book in America.

With a small African American population, Orange County has remained a safe haven for "Huckleberry Finn."

But the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition, based in Anaheim, and Robert Simond's National Assn. of Christian Educators, based in Santa Ana, were among those leading the charge against "Daddy's Roommate"--the most heavily banned book of 1993--which examines the sexuality of two gay men. Its primary audience: 5- to 10-year-olds.

The battlefield is full of other casualties, locally as well as nationally.

Only two years ago, "The Great Santini" by Pat Conroy and "Ordinary People" by Judith Guest were "challenged but retained" in the Anaheim Union High School District, which in 1978 banned from its classrooms both "Silas Marner" and "Gone with the Wind." They have since been reinstated.

In 1992, students at Venado Middle School in Irvine were handed expurgated copies of Ray Bradbury's science-fiction masterpiece "Fahrenheit 451." An unidentified person had individually--and painstakingly--censored from each copy scores of words, mostly hells and damns.

The irony failed to escape scores of parents, who complained to school officials. After all, Bradbury's book involves parallel themes of book-burning and censorship, hence the title (451 degrees Fahrenheit being the temperature at which paper burns).

Such stories are commonplace in the annals of threatened books. In 1994, works under siege ranged, according to the library association, from "traditional fairy tales to how-to books about the occult, from dictionaries to religious works to social studies texts."

They included Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid," which was challenged in Bedford, Tex., because it supposedly was "pornographic" and contained "satanic pictures." "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" was yanked in Conroe, Tex., after critics complained that too many racial slurs hovered among its pages.

Indeed, political correctness formed the cornerstone of most complaints in 1994, according to Judith F. Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the Chicago-based American Library Assn.

In 1993, the most challenged book in America, Krug said, was "Daddy's Roommate," by Michael Willhoite. Targeted for children, the book, in the words of critics, seeks to condone, explain or promote homosexual lifestyles. The book was never introduced in Orange County schools.

But in 1994, and through the first six months of 1995, Krug said, a new contender has taken hold. Mark Twain's classic "Huckleberry Finn" has become the "most threatened or challenged book of our time," she said.

In its case, however, the critics are not advocates of the Christian right or even secular conservatives. Twain's fiercest foes include the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and other African American groups, which say the book's language is racist.

Complaints cited by a school in Butler, Ga., were typical of those raised. " 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,' " officials said, "contains racial slurs and bad grammar and does not reject slavery."

Such opposition leaves Krug incensed.

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