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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

American Library Association Sparks Fear of Censorship


Renaming A Children’s Book Award Is A Big Mistake


The American Library Association recently announced it would rename The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award.  Many people may just ignore this change while others fully embrace it.  But a strong voicing against this decision, one that seems straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, should be made.

Has political correctness gone too far, to the point the prestigious body that represents America’s libraries, feels compelled to scrub clean the woman who wrote an amazing series of books that were turned into an award winning TV series?

Keep in mind, nothing’s changed about the author or her books, which were initially published in the 1930s and 40s, covering the western frontier, circa 1870’s.  Nothing new was unearthed, such as secret journals of Wilder or a long lost manuscript filled with hatred.  No, the only thing that’s changed is the spine of the ALA.

Wilder, the first winner of her award, in 1954, died 61 years ago.

Jim Neal, ALA president, and Nina Lindsay, head of their children’s division, said in a joint statement, “Updating the award’s name should not be construed as censorship, as we are not demanding that anyone stop reading Wilder’s books, talking about them, or making them available to children.”

Bullshit.

Of all people, the ALA should be sensitive to book bans, censorship, author boycotts and revisionist history.  If books are to reflect and preserve the times they were written in, and if an author’s work was celebrated at the time she lived – and for generations to come – who has the right to now demonize her work, and strip her of the award-name prestige?

Let’s be clear.  Times change and some books may eventually fall out of favor with readers, but that should be up to the readers to determine. When the ALA demotes Wilder’s work, it’s not being subtle or neutral.  It is unendorsing her work.

Who’s next?  Shakespeare?  Some researchers say that his work, The Merchant of Venice, was anti-Semitic and expressed homophobia.

Maybe we look at T.S. Eliot, as some critics detect anti-Semitism in some of his poems.  

Roald Dahl admits to being an anti-Semite.  

Dr. Seuss drew savage depictions of the Japanese.  

Novelist V.S. Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, has been an outspoken critic of Islam and argues the Muslim culture had a “calamitous effect” similar to colonialism.

Edith Wharton proclaimed on her deathbed that she hated the Jews because of their role in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Ezra Pound used to make anti-Semitic claims during World War II radio broadcasts.

Ernest Hemingway was seen as a chauvinist.  

Rudyard Kipling was viewed as a racist.

It’s gotten silly.  Recently Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn fell under scrutiny for using the N word.  Folks, it’s part of the story and reflective of the times.  The South back then thought Twain’s story was too favorable to blacks; in later years the North questioned it for being racist.

Look, Albert Einstein, a science genius, World War II hero, and author, was recently accused of expressing anti-Chinese sentiment in his private journals.  We need to cut people some slack.

First, judge people on their actions.  Einstein was a civil rights supporter.  Second, his private words, which were never published, could reflect fleeting thoughts.  He’s not here to defend himself.  Honestly, even if he was a racist in some ways, he did such great things that you have to weigh his life in its totality, and not disproportionately. This does not mean we should accept racism, but we can't just throw out the baby with the bath water -- or the good with the bad.

And who amongst the accusers is so pious and pure themselves?  “Everyone’s a little bit racist,” says a line in the hit Broadway play, Avenue Q. Don’t tell me you’ve never said, thought, or did something that one can perceive as homophobic, sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, or some other ism.

Popes used to condemn the Jews.  Whites used to enslave blacks.  Women used to not vote, work, or run for office.  We’ve come a long way and the world will become a more balanced and fair place.  But we can’t go back and re-write history or condemn people now for what they said or wrote back then.

Is Curious George, the fun-loving, inquisitive monkey, a wonderful children’s book series – or does it depict a white man of taking a black being against his will?  I chose to celebrate what the books stand for when it comes to George’s antics, but the backstory of how he came to be is quite disturbing.  I don’t want to see some well-intentioned PC-driven group suddenly wipe out the Curious George series.  But it could happen.  It took little for the ALA to act on Wilder.

So why did the ALA take such extreme action against the beloved Wilder?

She allegedly has culturally insensitive portrayals in her books.  Wilder showed what life was like for the 1800s settler.  Indigenous people were not celebrated – they were hunted or to be avoided.  Of course her writings will reflect the wisdom of those days, where people would utter “the only good Indian was a dead Indian.”  

But her books reflected kindness, love, family, education, hard work, and support of community as positive values.  Anything in those books could repulse someone, such as the way women were shown to be second-class citizens to their husbands. Wilder didn’t invent nor lobby for such things – her works merely reflected life back then.  To criticize her is ridiculous.  She’s merely the messenger – history is history.

If one’s to buy into the anti-Wilder movement he or she won’t stop there.  They’ll look to rewrite every book, censor every story, and condemn every writer.  

Look at the Declaration of Independence.  It’s a great document that declares freedom, yet, it speaks of men, not women.  It only promotes the whites and it even refers to “savage Indians” several times – a term that Facebook flagged as hate speech.  Should we tear up the Declaration of Independence, too?

With Wilder, how can someone be deemed so great one day and then treated like persona non grata the next?

Nothing’s changed but the world itself, and in this case, not for the better.

Let’s acknowledge a key fact – many books past and present will contain ideas, terms, or values that at the time reflected those times.  It’s hard to judge them a century later.

Maybe one day we will ban books that praise revolutions, fearful terrorists will use them to rally anti-America sentiment, even though this country was founded on a revolution.

Maybe books that champion equal rights will be burned, replaced by books that call for a non-white  America.  

Maybe one day robots or aliens will really take over.  Will they purge human-centric books, believing they’ve been discriminated against?

Perhaps books about PT Barnum should be tossed, since they depict an animal-enslaved circus?

Books about anything – or by anyone – will find critics, not for the quality of content but for the values espoused in them, or privately by the authors.  One day, the ALA may have to rename its children’s award simply because views on childhood will change.  Maybe the word “children” will even fall under criticism.  Or perhaps there will be a backlash against the ALA for issuing elitist awards.  Did they really read every children’s book this year and adequately weigh its merits?  Probably not, but that won’t stop them from issuing an award.

Perhaps a key mistake in the award-giving process is having any award named after someone, for once you do, you now expose the award to future criticism, as mores change or new information is uncovered about that person.  Awards should be named not after a person, but an accomplishment.  Best Teacher, Best Adult Fiction Book…you get the idea.  Otherwise, any award will fall under future scrutiny.

Society has a history of renaming buildings, companies, streets, hospital wings, college dorms, and many things.  But awards seem like they should be permanent, unless that award is no longer needed.  One day there may not be an award like best actress or a genre called Black Studies.  

Things change all of the time.


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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at brianfeinblum@gmail.com. He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby http://blog.bookbaby.com/2013/09/the-best-book-marketing-blogs and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by WinningWriters.com as a "best resource.”

4 comments:

  1. Thank you for a reasonable perspective on this shocking decision! Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are a true reflection of the history and values of her childhood. Her themes of family, community and faith echo much louder than her negative mentions of indigenous peoples. I read (and loved) her books and watched the t.v. show as a child, and I only remember one negative comment concerning indigenous people. I discussed it with my parents because it shocked me and I knew that negative comment was wrong, and they explained that that was how people thought in that time, but that we now know that way of thinking is wrong. My takeaway from Laura Ingalls Wilder's works was positive, uplifting and heart-warming, and I think it's a real shame that the name of the award has been changed. Laura Ingalls Wilder's works added (and continue to add) much good to children's literature.

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