Banned Books Week 

Reading is still dangerous in much of America

I've spent most of my life with my nose stuck in a book, a habit I inherited from my mother, who had occasional arguments with my father about my childhood reading. My father associated paperback novels with sleaze and wouldn't allow my mother to leave them around the house, lest my brothers and I be traumatized.

When I was about 9, I found my mother's book stash in a huge hamper in a closet. I developed the habit of hiding there and reading the books. I don't recall anything about them. I do, however, remember the comfort of being curled up and reading during a mainly unhappy childhood.

Reading was and still is my favored method of escape, so it's no surprise that very little annoys me as much as censorship. In all the madness that occurred last week, you may have failed to notice that it was Banned Books Week, which the American Library Association has sponsored since 1982.

In 2007, there were at least 400 attempts to remove books from American libraries, schools and bookstores. As usual, the top 10 challenged books included classics like Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

But 2007's most reviled book was And Tango Makes Three, a children's book by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson about a pair of male penguins that form a couple and raise a baby together in New York's Central Park Zoo. The same book, based on a true story, also topped the list in 2006.

It's not surprising that the ALA began Banned Books Week in 1982. That was early in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who courted the religious right, including members of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority. The surge in attempted book banning began with the Gipper's election and has never let up.

Besides providing comfort by taking me out of a life in which I felt like a stranger, books also helped me cope with that very feeling of otherness. One of the ways this alienation expressed itself was identifying, in those days before desegregation, with black people. The only book I recall my mother taking from me was To Kill a Mockingbird. She put it in her hamper stash. I immediately retrieved it. She caught me reading it under my bed covers with a flashlight and never again tried to control what I read.

Later, in my sophomore year of high school, we were assigned to read J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, a book that is among the top 10 of the 100 most banned books of all time. Several of my class members' parents refused to let them read the book. Mama had given it to me to read two years earlier, apparently as part of my "sex education."

It is no surprise to me that And Tango Makes Three is the most banned book. Any book that has a gay theme and is aimed at kids always ends up on the list. Daddy's Roommate and Heather Has Two Mommies have also been among the most banned books of the last two decades. Many other books with homosexuality as a feature or a subplot have made the list.

When I was a teenager, I didn't have any idea what to make of my sexual feelings, which oscillated between males and females. My parents had already communicated their disapproval of homosexuality, like most members of their generation, so there was no discussing the subject.

My only way of educating myself – there was nothing like Youth Pride around then – was to take the bus downtown to the Atlanta Public Library. There, I would squat in a corner in the dark stacks and read, for hours, anything I could find on the subject. There wasn't much, and all of it was negative.

A book like any of those I've mentioned would have been an enormous blessing to me as a child. Were the culture then what it is now, I doubt my mother would have objected to my reading such a book. I'm grateful she encouraged me to read everything I could, which was, in her way, granting me a measure of freedom kids are still often denied.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For his blog and information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.

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