Authors, banned books part of 1st Amendment salute

NORWICH, Vt. — “The Grapes of Wrath” was labeled vulgar and pornographic, a dangerous depiction of class hatred. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was removed from school classrooms and library shelves after its 1969 publication, deemed inappropriate for its depiction of author Maya Angelou’s rape as an 8-year-old girl.

Then there’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” whose obscenities, violence and unpatriotic portrayal of World War II drew fire from worried parents and librarians.

Once silenced, the books were among more than a dozen given live readings Wednesday as part of a series of events marking Banned Books Week, an annual celebration by the American Library Association that runs through Saturday.

Lending their voices — literally — to the cause, 13 Vermont writers including Ron Powers, David Macaulay and Tom Bodett gathered in a steepled small-town church to read passages for a rapt crowd.

“It’s a chance to sort of live out one of my fantasies, which is to do a book that gets banned,” said the 62-year-old Macaulay, the author of “The Way Things Work.” “Nothing would make me happier.”

Literature censorship didn’t start — or end — with “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

Banning books or censuring their authors has been practiced since the dawn of the printing press and before, and continues today with challenges to the likes of “And Tango Makes Three,” “The Kite Runner” and the Harry Potter series.

So the library association, in conjunction with writers, libraries and civil liberties groups nationwide, sponsors the annual event, which started in 1982.

“We’re certainly seeing increased efforts to remove or restrict books that are aimed for young adults,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, acting director of ALA’s office for intellectual freedom. “There are parents who believe that young people under 18 shouldn’t be having access to books that discuss sex or drug use, or homosexuality, and we understand that.

“But the fact that they hold those choices and values shouldn’t mean other families and young adults shouldn’t have access to those ideas. A parent can ask for different choices for their child, but their choices shouldn’t mean that the rest of the community loses access to a book.”

In Chicago, the week was marked by a Sept. 26 event in which best-selling authors read from their books, which were either banned or challenged. Among those scheduled: Sarah Brannen’s “Gossip Girl,” Lauren Myracle’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and “And Tango Makes Three,” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, which the ALA says was 2008’s most-challenged book.

In Denver, Printed Page Bookshop displayed 60 banned books and one that hasn’t been banned, challenging customers to guess which one wasn’t.

In Sedalia, Mo., Sedalia Book and Toy planned “Banned Books Week” window displays and drawings for T-shirt and bookmark giveaways.

In the Vermont event, about 120 people crowded into pews at Norwich Congregational Church on a rainy, raw New England night to hear Pulitzer Prize-winner Powers, poet Galway Kinnell and others read from once-banned tomes. The crowd, about 120 people, gave them a standing ovation at the end of the two-hour program.

“This is not something that’s academic, that happened many years ago and doesn’t happen anymore,”’ said Allen Gilbert, executive director of the ACLU’s Vermont chapter, which co-sponsored the readings. “Challenges to books happen all the time.”

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