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The mother versus the author

A mother says her child was ''devastated'' by what she read in a children's book. The author says the mother's criticisms are ''idiotic.''

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


Freaky Friday, the children's book at the heart of a controversy coming before the School Board on Tuesday, is about understanding what it must be like to walk in someone else's shoes.

It's a story about Annabel Andrews, a 13-year-girl who wakes up one day in her mother's body. The experience gives her a look at the adult world, and it is an eye-opening experience.

Perhaps wider than the gulf between mothers and their teenage daughters is the chasm that exists between the two principal characters in our current story: The woman who wrote Freaky Friday and the woman who wants it banned from Hernando County school libraries.

Mary Rodgers, the book's author, lives in New York City in a home that overlooks Central Park. She has written several children's books and composed the music for the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress, which launched the career of actor Carol Burnett.

At age 70, Rodgers is now chairwoman of the board of the Juilliard School, probably the nation's premier arts school. And she is the daughter of one of America's favorite composers -- Richard Rodgers, who along with Oscar Hammerstein II composed some of the best-known musicals of all time, including Oklahoma!, The King and I and The Sound of Music.

Mary Rodgers is a very public person. You can find her life story and publicity photo on the Rodgers and Hammerstein computer Web site. Her life and work have been critiqued in any number of publications, including the New York Times.

At its core, Freaky Friday was an expression of the frustrations from Rodgers' own childhood. Her mother was strict. And though movie stars and other famous people were frequent party guests, her contact with that world was often limited to an hors d'oeuvre before bedtime.

Joan Anderson, who wants Freaky Friday banned, lives in a quiet Spring Hill neighborhood that surrounds J.D. Floyd Elementary School. She operated a day care center out of her home for eight years. Now, at 38, Anderson is a homemaker, the mother of three school-age children and the wife of a big-rig truck driver.

Actively involved in several Hernando County controversies, Anderson has campaigned for more parking for truckers and stricter limits on water usage. At her children's school, she has spoken out against excessive homework and school uniforms.

Despite her willingness to speak her mind, Anderson was hesitant to speak about herself last week when contacted by the Times.

Anderson's defining experience with Freaky Friday was the day her 8-year-old daughter came up to her "devastated" by the line: "This is the church and this is the steeple, open the doors and kill all the people."

Strictly in a chronological sense, Joan Anderson could be Mary Rodgers' daughter.

But their worlds may be farther apart than the mother-daughter characters who inhabit the book Freaky Friday.

"I don't think we could possibly have a conversation that anything sensible would come out of it," Rodgers said in an interview last week.

A mother's objections

In filing her complaint, Anderson cited two pages of objections to Freaky Friday.

She doesn't like that the consumption of alcohol is a frequent topic in the book. She is offended that characters in the book discuss the use of words such as "spic" and "colored." And she abhors phrases such as "my God" and "holy mother of God" that she considers an example of taking God's name in vain.

Students aren't allowed to drink, swear and/or use ethnic slurs in school. Anderson believes those things should also be vanquished from the bookshelf. To do otherwise, she says, undermines discipline in the school.

But Anderson is most concerned by the "kill all the people" passage. She and her daughter are Christians who regularly attend First Baptist Church of Hernando Beach. And the sentence frightened her daughter. Anderson says such lines sew dangerous seeds in an era when the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado remain a real fear on every school campus in America.

"Do you realize that right now in school, they have lockdown drills? They never had that before," Anderson said. "It brings tears to my eyes that they have that. . . . It's such a terrible world that we live in now."

To an extent, Anderson says, she feels she is being persecuted because of her Christian faith. She says people who would convulse at a line about killing people in school are ignoring this phrase about killing people in a church.

Too many children, Anderson says, lack the parental guidance needed to understand such writing.

Who should decide what is appropriate?

Initially, Anderson's challenge against Freaky Friday was considered by a committee that included a teacher, a principal, a parent, a student and a member of the community at large. They voted to keep the book available to students.

Under school district policy, Anderson was allowed to appeal the decision to the School Board, and board members in January pulled the book from library shelves until they could review it.

The board is scheduled to discuss the appeal at a workshop that begins at 3 p.m. Tuesday. A formal vote on the book will be taken at the board's regular meeting, which starts at 7 that night.

Going in, it appears Anderson will be denied again.

Board chairman Jim Malcolm says he will never vote to pull a book from the shelves. Members John Druzbick and Gail Coleman each say the book should remain available.

Robert Wiggins, whose initial reaction was that the book seemed inappropriate, now says Anderson's concerns were "overstated." Even Sandra Nicholson, who is bothered by some portions of the book, admits that it contains some "good lessons." She remains undecided.

Anderson says she will present the board with a petition bearing signatures of people who agree with her. But so far she has stood alone.

Silvana Altieri, who has two children at J.D. Floyd Elementary, has drafted a petition of her own in support of the book. She says one parent should not decide what is appropriate for the entire county. And she thinks that if this book gets pulled, lots of books, including Shakespeare, are in danger.

"If it starts with this one book, it's going to be the next book and the next book," Altieri said. "If you want to continue, we'll have to take all the history books off the shelf, too."

From the author's perspective, the whole debate is "fascinating."

Rodgers says she opposes censorship in any form -- except self-censorship.

She says the passages Anderson criticizes are based on things taken wildly out of context. Many of them -- including the ethnic slurs -- were actually frowned upon by the characters in the book, she notes.

Rodgers said the "this is the church" line was just how Annabel was sizing up the school's headmaster, who is a nasty character. "I was hardly advocating that you all open the doors and kill all the people. . . . Any fool could see that."

In sum, she considers Anderson's criticisms to be "idiotic."

"I think she sounds like a crackpot," Rodgers said.

Other attempts at censorship

That Freaky Friday is up for debate at all is unusual.

The American Library Association, a sponsor of the annual Banned Books Week, tracks book challenges around the country. But it has no record of Freaky Friday ever being challenged. The book was first published in 1972.

Until the St. Petersburg Times contacted her this week, Rodgers said, she had never heard of a challenge to Freaky Friday either.

That stands in stark contrast to the last three books that were brought up for the School Board's review.

Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, banned from eighth-grade classrooms countywide in 1998, was the third-most-challenged book of the 1990s, the library association said.

Some parents at Parrott Middle School objected to its sexual content.

Stephen King's Cujo, put on restricted access at West Hernando Middle School in 1998, was No. 49 on the challenged book list during the '90s. A West Hernando parent complained about sexual situations and graphic language in the book.

Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, challenged but returned to the shelves at Moton Elementary in 1992, was No. 50 on the challenged list.

Recent coverage

Book battle heats up again in Hernando (January 23, 2001)

School Board should avoid trying to interpret morality (January 21, 2001)

Children's book removed (January 18, 2001)

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