St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Book backlash turns new page

Violence becomes an issue in calls to ban books from school libraries. But sex and profanity remain most common.

By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2002


Violence becomes an issue in calls to ban books from school libraries. But sex and profanity remain most common.

TAMPA -- When Tony Pawlisz's son brought home The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers from the Durant High School library, he decided to give the book a once-over to make sure it was suitable for a 16-year-old.

He was shocked and disgusted by what he read.

There was the quote from serial killer Carl Panzram: "I have no desire whatever to reform myself. My motto is: Rob 'em, rape 'em all, and kill 'em all."

There was the address for Ed Gein's fan club. Gein is the the Wisconsin killer who collected the body parts of his victims and made an armchair and suit out of human skin.

There was the letter Gein wrote to the mother of a 12-year-old victim. He tells her how he stripped the girl, choked her and cut her into small pieces before he ate her.

To Pawlisz, who spent years in the military, "This was too much."

He complained to Hillsborough school officials, who ordered the book removed from high schools, along with another publication, The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers.

But both books have since been returned to school shelves after reviews by school committees. Pawlisz has vowed to appeal.

Such challenges are nothing new for schools in the Tampa Bay area or around the nation. Some parents object to what they consider sexual or profane content. Other complain about violence.

Classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, are among the books most frequently banned.

In December, Pinellas superintendent Howard Hinesley decided The Chocolate War should be taught only in high schools, not middle schools, after a parent questioned its use in a class of advanced eighth-graders at Dunedin Highland Middle School.

In Hernando County last year, a mother objected to references to alcohol, smoking, ethnic slurs and dirty movies in the book Freaky Friday. The School Board censored the book before returning it to the shelves.

In Hillsborough, the objection to the books on serial killers was the second challenge raised in as many years for violent content. Last year, district officials stripped middle school shelves of the book Bloodletters and Badmen: A Narrative Encyclopedia of American Criminals from the Pilgrims to the Present.

So how much violence is too much in public school libraries?

Many school librarians stand on the side of intellectual freedom.

They say violence is a part of American history, and students should be allowed access to the books with parental approval.

But parents such as Pawlisz argue that murder is too raw a subject in this post-Columbine era.

"Doesn't it raise a red flag when kids are checking books like these out?" Pawlisz asked. "Are we promoting serial killers?"

Violence, in context, can be learning tool

With school safety a major societal concern, librarians and publishers have become more sensitive to books about violence and weapons. But they are still being published.

Lori Benton, associate publisher of Henry Holt Company's books for young readers, said violence alone is not enough to justify censorship, even when the audience is young adults.

Books on violence can actually put such themes into context for teenagers.

"The bottom line is, a good book is a good book," Benton said.

Even books that deal with controversial topics, like serial murder, can be of value, said Mihrican Havens, Hillsborough's supervisor of library media services.

Librarians try to make sure students get factual information about subjects in which they have an interest, she said. Otherwise, they may turn to the Internet and read erroneous information.

"I don't feel they can become discriminating readers unless they read the bad stuff and the good stuff," Havens said.

The real danger, Havens said, is turning kids off to reading.

She recalled how appalled she was when her own daughter, who is now an adult, wanted to read The Amityville Horror. She wanted her to read Little Women instead.

Though her daughter developed a strong appetite for reading, Havens said it made her realize teenagers sometimes have bizarre interests.

"The topic that is at the forefront, believe it or not, is true crime," she said. "They love those biographical things. They get into it and sometimes it translates into career choices, like criminal justice. It doesn't mean they're going to become serial killers."

Books are usually placed in libraries based on a school's curriculum. Media specialists often research book titles in trade journals, relying on recommendations and reviews.

The goal of many libraries is to have a balanced collection of books that meets the curriculum and recreational reading needs of students. But librarians admit they do not have time to read every single book.

The average number of books in a Hillsborough high school is 20,000. The average middle school has 14,000.

Riverview High School media specialist Jill Driver said school libraries walk a fine line in balancing the needs of the school with the varying ages and maturation levels of the students.

"We would not intentionally put anything on our shelves to harm our kids," she said. "Absolutely not."

University of South Florida criminology professor Kathleen Heide said violent themes in books -- on their own -- do not cause adolescents to commit violence.

She said parents should look at the reasons why their children are interested in such topics.

"If it's a child who is alienated, angry and marginalized who is spending an inordinate amount of time filling his mind with violent themes, it can be destructive," Heide said. "The kids I worry about are the kids who are already on the edge who don't have meaningful relationships."

'Harry Potter' leads pack of banned books

The most common reasons for book challenges in schools are sex and profanity, according to the American Library Association, which keeps track of the nation's most frequently banned books.

But the most challenged books in the last three years have been the Harry Potter series. Most of the concerns there have been about the books' emphasis on magic and wizardry.

Violence does not typically provoke challenges.

Harold Schechter, one of the authors of The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, said he isn't aware of his book being banned anywhere.

In a world where Harry Potter is questioned, Schechter said, it makes perfect sense that some parents would find his book unsuitable for children.

"I don't agree with them on principle," said Schechter, a literature professor at Queens College in New York. "But I'm not the parent. I don't approve of people making choices for other people."

Driver said parents who raise objections often take books out of context. A book involving witchcraft doesn't have to advocate its practice.

"These are topics students do research on," she said. "To do research, you have to have the research materials."

But Karolee Stauduhar said schools need to take a tougher stance.

Stauduhar successfully challenged Bloodletters after her son, then 11, brought home the true crime reference book, thinking it was a murder mystery.

She said violent images already are too prevalent in television, radio and movies.

"Why do schools want to do more and feed it?" asked the Lutz mother. "It's like we don't want to shelter our children anymore."

To librarians, the issues comes down to parental involvement.

"If parents don't want their kids to look at certain books, that's something they need to discuss with their children," said Beverley Becker, associate director of the American Library Association's office for intellectual freedom.

"From our perspective, it's important that parents are involved and pay attention to what their children read. It's also important that libraries provide access to information."

-- Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.