'Censorship' Charges about 'Goosebumps' Intimidate Parents
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - Margaret Byron, mother of three, unknowingly stepped onto a battleground when she requested that books from R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" fiction horror series be removed from Johnsville Elementary School library in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. There are 180 million "Goosebumps" books, aimed at children ages 8 through 12, in print.
Mrs. Byron said that her neighbor had forbidden her daughter to read the books, then discovered that she was reading them anyway in the school library. "So I started asking around," Byron said, "and I found a lot of parents who were alarmed that these books were scaring their kids." The books portray young children being "tormented and haunted by inanimate things coming to life." The characters typically keep their fears secret from their parents.
In April 1996, Byron submitted her concerns to the Anoka-Hennepin school district on a form provided her for that purpose. While the review process appeared to encourage parental input, Byron's action precipitated a torrent of accusations labeling her a "censor" and a "book burner."
"I went through the proper channels," Byron said. "I had a right to do this. But there's got to be a problem with a policy that asks you to participate and then condemns you if you do."
The controversy over "Goosebumps" is only one example of the ongoing battle over whether removing books constitutes "censorship" or a worthwhile effort to save children from wasting their time reading books that lack literary merit. Over the past 25 years, the Anoka-Hennepin district has censored eight books from library shelves for racial or cultural stereotyping. However, challenges to remove The Grapes of Wrath and The Catcher in the Rye have failed, as did the "Goosebumps" challenge.
Defenders of the public school establishment have targeted individuals and groups that seek to limit the kind of information to which children should be exposed. People For the American Way used to publish an annual report attacking parents' so-called "efforts to impose ideological, political, or religious agendas on the nation's classrooms." The PAW reports were discontinued after an employee revealed that "the numbers that support this conclusion are 'cooked.'" (See
Education Reporter, Nov. 1996.)
Brian K. Baker, writing for the New Jersey affiliate of the National Education Association (See NJEA Review, May 1997), blames the growing "Radical Right" network for increasing numbers of challenges to library books, health and sex education curricula, counseling programs, environmental education, school drama, and student newspapers. Such individuals and organizations, said Baker, threaten to "disrupt the work of the public schools" and "ignite attacks on schoolbooks and programs that do not fit their sectarian ideology."
Baker defines censorship as "the removal or restriction of materials by a governmental entity (e.g., a school system) with the intent of suppressing ideas and information . . . .due to, at least in part, ideological, religious, or other reasons not having to do with their educational suitability." The Supreme Court, he said, holds that the First Amendment requires that a book may not be removed from the schools merely because school officials or community members disagree with its ideas. School boards must base their decision to remove materials on educational criteria rather than on ideological, political, or religious grounds.
According to this definition, "Goosebumps" may well qualify as lacking educational value relative to other books available in the library. Librarians in the Anoka-Hennepin district described "Goosebumps" as "mediocre" and "pedestrian, formula fiction." Paradoxically, the school district insists that choosing which books to make available in the library is a "selection process," while a parent's opinion about which books belong on the shelves is called "censorship."
Baker warns that the buzzwords that reveal intentions to censor include "secular humanism," "new age," "globalism," "new world order," "invasion of privacy," and "values clarification." According to Baker, "Their use . . . is a sure sign of a sectarian, ideological challenge to the schools, not one sparked by a desire for educational excellence or community involvement." Baker assumes that the public schools do not have any ideological, political, or religious agenda.
Baker condemns what he called "the minority view" (i.e., the so-called "censors"), which "rejects teaching children critical thinking skills, self-reliance, and an appreciation for diversity. . . ."
Baker's view also holds that children "should be taught to respond to controversial ideas and different views with understanding and open talk, rather than with censorship and suppression." Apparently, the criteria do not apply to parents, whom the schools often treat with hostility and name-calling rather than with "understanding and open talk."