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Book ban in Stanislaus County is hard to read

School officials say they pulled Rudolfo Anaya's 'Bless Me, Ultima' from the high school reading list because of 'excessive vulgarity or profanity.' It may not be as simple as that.

February 06, 2009

We recognize and appreciate the right of school districts to choose books for their curricula. Still, the actions of Stanislaus County school officials in removing Rudolfo Anaya's "Bless Me, Ultima" from the high school reading list underscore the difficulties in exercising that authority with care -- and to the desired effect.

At its meeting this week, the board of the Newman Crows Landing Unified School District voted 4 to 1 to remove the novel from the required reading list for sophomores. Supt. Rick Fauss explained that he was offended by the "excessive vulgarity or profanity used throughout the book." That's a bit in the eye of the beholder, though. The book's coarse language wasn't enough to keep former First Lady Laura Bush from including it on her recommended reading list for adults, and the National Endowment for the Arts describes it as "one of the most respected works of Chicano literature."

Given the approval of those readers, it's worth noting that the original complaint in Stanislaus County was that, in one parent's view, the book was not only profane and sexually explicit but "anti-Catholic." In that context, Fauss' concern about vulgarity looks a lot more like a strategy than a principled desire to protect 16-year-olds from naughty language (16-year-olds are, after all, pretty fluent in it). When Fauss first moved to drop the book, he'd yet to finish reading it, and by the time the board voted, he undoubtedly had been informed that removing a book from the curriculum because it offended a religious group would invite a lawsuit. Being offended by the book's profanity was a much cleaner basis for dropping it than being offended by the author's religious views.

If all this suggests that Fauss and the board are in over their heads, the result is a reminder of how tricky these waters are to navigate. Ever since school officials took aim at "Bless Me, Ultima," the local library has been doing a fire-sale business lending it out. Young people who are told it won't be assigned in the classroom, where a teacher presumably would offer some guidance, instead are reading it on their own and delighting in precisely what offends their elders. Bans on "The Grapes of Wrath," "Huckleberry Finn" and the like have similarly divided communities and helped sales. Note to Supt. Fauss: It's easy to take a book out of the classroom; it's harder to insulate kids from knowledge.

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