Saturday, August 28, 2010


From the Houston Chronicle:

Authors' walkout closes the book on Lit Fest

When bestselling author Ellen Hopkins was yanked from the list of writers to appear at a teen book festival in Humble, cries of censorship burst from the blogosphere.

And when other authors backed out of the event to support Hopkins, the Humble Independent School district canceled Teen Lit Fest altogether.

Now, no one is happy.

"My books are in libraries and bookstores in Humble," said Hopkins, who writes graphic, young adult novels about meth addiction, teen prostitution and suicide. "They're not pulling the plug on my books, but on me. It's censorship when you don't let somebody give voice to their ideas."

The same librarian who invited Hopkins to the event sent her an e-mail a few weeks ago indicating that the district had a change of heart, Hopkins said.

"A middle school librarian had issue with the content in the books," the author said. "She got some parents involved, and they went to the school board and superintendent. He chose to remove me from the festival."


Full disclosure: I am a product of the Humble Independent School District, having spent grades k-12 there. And it looks like things haven't changed too much since back in the day. Indeed, I recall an incident involving my elementary school library during the late 70s, when I was in fourth or fifth grade. One of the daughters of a couple that were friends with my parents brought home one day a book about an interracial family. You know, positive vibe 70s stuff, "my mommy is black, but my daddy is white," that kind of thing. The father saw the book, flipped through it, and went ballistic. The next day, he marched up to the school, freaked out on the principal, and insisted that she remove such "trash" from the school library. It was gone that day. Meanwhile, the television show Roots had either recently finished its run, or was soon to air. Such an irony was no doubt lost to the principle players in this racist book drama.

It would be easy to assert that the banning of this book about an interracial family three decades ago was just another instance of post civil rights era racism. Indeed, it was an instance of racism. But to me today, years later, as an adult, I marvel at how quickly my school's principal moved to ban the book. The woman may have been a secret member of the Klan or something, but I doubt it. Educators are usually liberal, after all, and while my school was mostly white by virtue of geography, it was integrated to some extent--we did have a few black students. My bet is that Foster Elementary's principal rushed to suppress this book in order to put out a potential public relations fire. Like I said, my neighborhood was almost all white, and even though Jim Crow had been defunct for over a decade at this point, interracial marriage might still be something that could make whitey angry.

I've asserted many times that education's true function in the United States is to indoctrinate children into a culture of obedience and authority, which is true, but that's not the only unwritten governing rule which the schools must obey. Another important maxim for education is that institutional concerns always trump educational concerns. Really, you see this rule being executed all the time, like when studies about adolescent sleep patterns are ignored by school boards in favor of status quo busing schedules, or how so much importance is assigned to educationally dubious standardized tests. The efficient functioning and preservation of the institution is always more important than student learning.

Of course, avoidance of both bad press and parental anger are part of that institutional preservation mandate, and that's what this latest Humble ISD misstep is about. Humorously, in their attempt to quell a possible uprising of Puritanical parents, the district has failed wildly in this mission on both counts: parents are angry, and news reports are making HISD look like the dysfunctional organization it has always been. If the district had taken the high road, that is, valued learning over institutional inconvenience, they would have stuck with this now-banned author, inviting some parental flack, yes, but also creating some good PR in terms of weathering an attack by pro-censorship forces--I mean, that's what true educators are supposed to do, champion the concepts of knowledge and free inquiry. Instead, they took the low road, and everybody's pissed off.

Serves them right, trying to play it safe. Education, real education, is necessarily dangerous business. Thought is, after all, subversive.