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Look Out Harry Potter! -- Book Banning Heats Up

J. K. Rowling's best-selling Harry Potter children's book series topped the most frequently banned books last year. The books about sorcerers may head up the list again, for the second year in a row, if the shift in censorship cases continues to focus on books about fantasy. This week, National Library Week, Education World examines the issue of book banning. Included: Resources for establishing procedures in your school system to handle challenges to popular books.

Look out, Harry Potter! Your mystical adventures aren't sitting well on bookshelves in some school libraries and classrooms. In 1999, the focus on wizardry and magic in J. K. Rowling's best-selling children's books made them the most challenged books in 1999, according to the American Library Association (ALA).

The Harry Potter series is keeping company with such frequently banned classics as John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Last year, there were 26 challenges to remove the Harry Potter books from bookshelves in 16 states, said Beverley Becker, assistant director for the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom.

Reasons for book banning have shifted over the past decade, said Mark West, a professor of English with a specialty in children's literature at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children's Literature. "During the 1980s, most of the censorship cases were anything that pertained to the body, sex, and swear words. [Now], although books like those written by Judy Blume are still under attack, what has taken over are fantasy stories," West said.

Opponents of the Harry Potter series believe that anything that mentions a witch or a magic spell is equated with evil, West said. "They don't see it as fantasy," he said. "They see it as real. A small group of Americans can't accept fantasy that way. They really do care [about the book's impact], so they go against others' legal rights."


Berit Kjos, a Christian author of several books, including A Twist of Faith and Brave New Schools, doesn't see it that way. Although she is neutral about banning books in schools, she points out that schools have permitted information about other religions because of the prevalent multicultural emphasis.

"Times have changed," Kjos said, noting that children today are more vulnerable to fantasy stories such as Harry Potter because they may view the imaginary world as much more fun compared with the real world.

"There has been a paradigm shift from the social context that was the old biblical view," she said. That shift makes it tougher for children, with less biblical knowledge today, to evaluate good and evil or to resist such threats to their faith, Kjos maintained. She has responded to parental concerns about the Harry Potter series by offering parents guidance on her Web site.

"Christianity clashes with a love for witchcraft," Kjos said. The biblical God doesn't fit into Potter's world of wizards, witches, and other gods. The Harry Potter series teaches an Earth-centered spirituality, the same religion as what the witch religions teach in the San Francisco area, she said. "It is a religion that is very real and is spreading throughout the country. It makes me very uncomfortable when [children] are immersed in topics that make witchcraft very exciting. It can be very confusing for them."

Arch Priestess Tamara Forslun, of the Church of Wicca Australia, doesn't agree that books based on differing cultures and belief systems should be removed from schools based on individual fears. "For generations, we have had books based on fairies, witches, goblins, magic, all with differing views," she told Education World in response to the controversy regarding the Harry Potter series. "We cannot remove something from this world because of fear and ignorance. These are children's books, and as long as they are not nasty, cruel, ridiculous in any way or show witches as evil, obscene creatures, then there is no cause for mudslinging or legal retaliation."


Although controversy about the Harry Potter series has raised recent awareness about censorship cases in public schools, the total number of book challenges has dropped to its lowest level since the American Library Association began keeping track of them in 1991. In 1999 there were 472 challenges, compared with 762 in 1995, when the largest number of challenges were reported to the ALA.

The ALA defines censorship as the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons -- individuals, groups, or government officials -- find objectionable or dangerous. It occurs when expressions -- such as books, magazines, films, videos, or works of art -- are removed or kept from public access.

West credits the decline in the number of challenged books to the fact that most schools provide parents with alternative options for assignments, respecting individual parental objections to certain materials. Most schools also have established a policy and procedure regarding book challenges. His advice to school administrators, if they don't have a policy, is to develop one now, before the school district faces a censorship challenge. (See the sidebar "What You Can Do Before and After a Challenge.")

"Nowadays, with the opt-out possibilities, it is very difficult to make a case that your child is being hurt, since they can read something else," West said. During the early part of the 1980s, he believes, parents who challenged school materials had fewer options available compared with the opt-out choices they have today, such as home-schooling or providing alternative reading assignments. "Parents then were sincerely motivated and operated under religious convictions they truly believed in and wanted their opinions accommodated in the public school situation for what was best for their own children," West said.

"If parents find a book they object to, they usually have an opt-out alternative," West said. "If they persist in having that book removed from the school, it seems to me there are more complex motivations at work." He believes with the alternatives available to parents, those waging a censorship battle cross the line from parent and move into the role of censor.


"Most teachers and librarians won't acknowledge [that they self-censor], so we don't know how deep or widespread [censoring] is," said Nat Hentoff, author of several First Amendment books, including The Day They Came to Arrest the Book and Living the Bill of Rights: How to Be an Authentic American.

"Talking to teachers and school librarians, they do self-censor," Hentoff added. They are aware of the list of books that are in trouble, and if they use those books, it gets them in trouble too. "A lot of the time, they think, 'What is the use?'" he said.

Discussion about the Harry Potter series across the country prompted school superintendent Gary L. Feenstra to direct teachers in Zeeland, Michigan, to stop using the book for read-a-loud purposes and for school librarians to remove it from library shelves in November 1999. He decided not to ban the book; however, he placed restrictions on its use and determined the school district would no longer purchase future Harry Potter books for the school libraries. Existing copies of the books would be made available for check out to students with parental permission.

Feenstra stated in a letter to the school staff that he had reached his decision after reading the first Harry Potter book in the series, discussing the issues with educators, and reading critiques of it from all sides. Although the school district has a process regarding challenged books, Feenstra made his decision outside that process. According to Jim Camenga, communication specialist for the school district, Feenstra defends his decision, claiming the school district's procedure pertains only to curriculum materials, not to books used as resources.

Four months following Feenstra's directive, the Zeeland Board of Education voted to establish a committee to look into the matter. The committee comprises parents and educators from each school in the district not involved in the current debate and is expected to render its recommendation about the book series by May 2000.

"Perhaps teachers are self-censored because they felt the chill [from the controversy]," said Charles Suhor, a field representative for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Suhor disagrees with Feenstra that he didn't "ban" the Harry Potter books: "It is outrageous that [Zeeland School administrators] claim [Feenstra's] directive is not censorship. The corner of censorship is when you take a book that is used out of the school or library."

Spells and magic aren't the only concerns that are stirring up controversy about Harry Potter. Since the Columbine tragedy in April 1999, parental concern has increased about violence in books and in other school materials, Suhor said.

"People all over the country started worrying about [Harry Potter books]. Some of those who want it banned claim it teaches violence. Teachers who use this [series] say it just doesn't compute," said Suhor.


Censorship cases in the public schools aren't only about Harry Potter books. A current censorship case in a U.S. district court case in Virginia pertains not to a particular book, but to a list of books.

For five years, 1997 Secondary Reading Teacher of the Year Jeffry Newton posted the American Library Association's Banned Books pamphlet outside his classroom door. According to court papers, he posted the pamphlet and other materials pertaining to related censorship controversies outside his classroom door to make students aware of censorship issues.

What You Can Do...

Before a Challenge

Develop a policy for selecting school materials, and establish criteria and procedures for the selection.

Establish a method for communicating with the community. Keep the community informed of the selection policy as well as educational objectives, curricula, school programs. Provide opportunities for public review and comment on materials being considered for selection.

Define clear procedures for dealing with complaints.

Establish guidelines to be used for a formal review of challenged material.

Create a detailed form for complainants to request a review.

Identify who will comprise a committee of parents, school personnel, and other community members to review challenged material.

After a Challenge

Meet with the complainant to hear the reasons for the challenge and the complainant's recommendations.

Explain to the complainant how and why the challenged material was selected.

Try to resolve the complaint informally. Provide a formal request-for-review form if the complainant still wants to challenge the material.

Start review procedures immediately upon receiving a written request for review. Inform the school board of the details of the complaint.

Follow established procedures throughout the review process.

Communicate openly with the community throughout the review.

Newton's principal at Spotswood High School in Rockingham County, Virginia, required Newton to remove the pamphlets in September 1999. The principal was responding to a directive by the school board chairman, who was in turn responding to a complaint from a parent.

The parent asked Newton in an e-mail: "Just curious why would you want a child to read a book that contains objectionable material?" Newton responded that the school had a policy and procedure that respected the rights of all parents to never require children to read books parents find objectionable. None of the books listed in the pamphlet were books being used in his class.

The American Civil Liberties Union took up Newton's cause and is co-council in his court case. "It's very unusual," said Rebecca K. Goldberg, an attorney representing Newton. "It's not any book that was removed. It was a list of books put together by the American Library Association to publicize the issue of censorship that was removed."

Initiating a censorship case with no expectation of winning is a good tool to get publicity for your cause, said West, the professor at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. West believes many similar cases are used to provide a catalyst around the book-banning movement.


Although the ALA keeps track of the number of challenges, it has little information about organizations that mount campaigns to ban books, said Judith Krug, the association's director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom. "Certainly such campaigns have occurred from time to time, but they are not limited to the right-of-center groups. Left-of-center groups have also conducted campaigns. What has remained constant is that for every challenge reported to us, there are four or five that were not reported."

Videos are also subject to challenges. Movies could be a useful tool for teachers, regardless of the motion picture industry ratings, added NCTE's Suhor. Movies like Schindler's List, although rated R by the motion picture industry, could teach children about relationships and society, he said.

Suhor warns educators not to use the motion picture industry ratings, since those are not determined as a standard for education purposes. "Using their rating system is an easy fix," he said.

Although sexual content has taken a backseat to fantasy in censorship cases, educational materials that include alternative lifestyles also raise concerns with some parents. Currently, Concerned Women for America, a national women's organization, is alerting its members about an educational family video series, That's a Family! Rita Thompson, spokeswoman for the organization, said parents have contacted the organization out of sincere concern about the appropriateness of the video. In turn, the organization is alerting its members about the soon-to-be-released video series, which focuses on all types of families, including single-parent families, extended families, and those headed by gay and lesbian parents.

"That whole hysteria with two people [of the same sex] living together is enough to get a book banned is a primitive sort of politics," said West. "It's cheap politics."

West points to Families, a children's book written by Meredith Tax, that was the subject of a censorship case in 1994. The Christian Coalition in Fairfax, Virginia, targeted the book because it glorified divorce and there was a lesbian couple in the book, he said. Tax briefly mentions at the end of her book that the main character, a little girl named Susie, lives not only with her mother but also with her godmother. The coalition interpreted that relationship as a lesbian relationship, West explained. "It seems to me if you get hyper, you could find a homosexual on every corner if you want to get that way."

Book challenges come from all political directions. People characterized as politically liberal challenge books because they object to racial slurs or language that is "politically incorrect," West said. Racial epitaphs in Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn made it the fourth most frequently banned book during the last decade.

Samuel Clemens was so against racism, he used words such as nigger to show how bigotry came out in language, said Nat Hentoff, whose children's book The Day They Came to Arrest the Book is a fictional account of censoring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Hentoff believes Twain's book can be an excellent teaching tool about racism, depending on how the teacher handles it in the classroom.

In fact, Hentoff's Free Speech for Me, but Not for Thee is used in many schools as a resource to teach high school students about the First Amendment. Although the book is now out of print, Jim Campbell, a high school teacher at McDonough High School in Charles County, Maryland, developed classroom activities for his elective law class for juniors and seniors based on different topics in Hentoff's book.

One topic is the 1984 Indianapolis anti-pornography ordinance. Campbell shares the key aspects of this law, with which most of his students find it difficult to disagree. Afterward, he tells them a story. "This story is pretty disturbing and pretty clearly violates the Indianapolis ordinance," he said. "The book containing the story is the Bible. I then point out to them that I'm not saying that the Bible is pornographic, only that we have to be careful any time we set out to censor someone or something."

Adapted from the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). The NCAC information is based on recommendations made by the Association of American Publishers, the American Library Association, International Reading Association, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


  • Banned Books On-Line This site has information about objects of censorship and censorship attempts.
  • National Coalition Against Censorship This organization, founded in 1974, is an alliance of more than 40 national nonprofit organizations, including literary, artistic, religious, educational, professional, labor, and civil liberties groups. This site provides resources for schools about censorship cases in addition to information and guidance about how schools can handle censorship cases.

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Article by Diane Weaver Dunne
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