Vermont Reads 2015: Censorship, Gay Lit And The State's History Of Dissent

All this week, we're discussing Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie. It's this year's pick for the Vermont Humanities Council's Vermont Reads state-wide reading program.

Twelve-year-old Haroun has traveled to a magical land where all the world's stories are created. And it's up to him to stop a villain who controls a shadowy cult of silence from poisoning the Ocean that serves as the birthplace of the Sea of Stories.

Here's a passage from the moment when Haroun finally confronts the nemesis of storytelling, Khattum-Shud:

'Soon now, soon, the Ocean will be dead--cold and dead. When black ice freezes over its surface, my victory will be complete.'

'But why do you hate stories so much?' Haroun blurted, feeling stunned. 'Stories are fun...'

'The world, however, is not for Fun,' Khattam-Shud replied. 'The world is for Controlling.'

'Which world?' Haroun made himself ask.

'Your world, my world, all world,' came the reply. 'They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why.'

Controversial Literature

This fantasy by Salmon Rushdie can be read as an allegory about censorship, because the hero rescues tales from a planned oblivion. But there are also real, everyday battlegrounds for free speech — at libraries and schools.

On Harry Potter Day at the Harwood Union Middle and High School just outside of Moretown, kids swoop into the library wearing borrowed black robes and brandishing hand-made wands like their hero, Harry. Because it celebrates witchcraft, the Potter series has been banned in some schools. But not in this state. In fact, many Vermont schools celebrate books that are banned or challenged elsewhere.

For example, prominently displayed on a table at the entrance of Harwood’s library are coming-of-age books that are also about coming out. They were all selected by members of a new student club, the Queer-Straight Alliance, who gathered to admire their handiwork on Harry Potter Day.

For Gabe Greenwood, a transgendered high school student, this table of books sends an important message about tolerance.

"I know I felt, and I think the group felt, that it was important to know that these [books about coming out] are in our library and that we are not going to hush up about it." - Gabe Greenwood, Harwood high school student

“I know I felt, and I think the group felt, that it was important to know that these resources are in our library and that we are not going to hush up about it,” he said.

Another Alliance member, Ava Kendrick, says one of her favorite books is Huntress, by Malinda Lo.

“It was the first book I had ever read where the main character was not straight and I spent the entire book going, 'Wait, they’re both girls, right?' And that just was like, 'What is this?' And it’s cool to see this, because if I had read more things like that I probably would have come to some conclusions sooner,” Kendrick said.
 

Meg Allison, a librarian at Moretown Elementary School, attends the Dorothy Canfield Fisher conference for school librarians with Lisa Buckton, a librarian at Colchester Middle School.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

But that’s what some people worry about — that books about homosexual and trans-gendered characters will lead young readers too soon to conclusions about their own sexual preferences and gender identities. As more authors tackle this subject, school librarians are making judgment calls about how and when to make what booksellers call “gay lit” available. Meghan Westbrook has been Harwood’s librarian for four years, and she’s never had to fend off a formal book challenge. But she does sometimes steer middle schoolers away from literature that’s more appropriate for high school readers.

“And it’s great because it opens up a line of communication where I can say, 'Well, what books are you interested in, and maybe this isn’t a perfect fit,'" Westbrook said.

But some books that show characters in what would appear to be a same-sex relationship are intended for younger kids. And Tango Makes Three, for example, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, is a picture book about two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who nest together. Since they can’t have their own eggs, zoo keepers allow them to hatch and raise the offspring of two other penguins who have more offspring than they can manage.
 

A sign on the wall of the library at Harwood Union Middle and High School takes a stand against censorship.
Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR

At a recent conference of school librarians, that book spurred lively discussion. Meg Allison, a librarian at Moretown Elementary school, says And Tango Makes Three has mysteriously disappeared from the shelves more than once. She suspects vigilante censorship.

“On two occasions I’ve gone to find it and it was just gone, so I think it was the case of people taking it and not making a direct challenge,” she said.

That wouldn’t surprise Grace Greene, who recently retired as the Director of Children’s Services for Vermont’s Department of Libraries. Greene says, even though formal challenges are rare in Vermont, and bans are even rarer, one theme still tends to raise eyebrows.

“Frankly, anything that has to do with homosexuality is always fair game and you’ll find that reason has probably been the reason that more books are challenged than anything else,”

For example, Greene says Daddy’s Roommate, written in 1991 by Michael Willhoite, stirred debate. These days the spotlight is on Better Nate Than Ever, whose 13-year-old protagonist seems to wonder at times if he is gay. Many Vermont school librarians like this book. In fact, they asked the author, Tim Federle, to speak at a recent conference.

Vermont librarians, avid fans, lined up for him to sign their copies of his novel, in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Federle says some schools refused to let him visit, apparently uncomfortable with his subject matter. But he says even those tangles were not with librarians.

"I think librarians are like First Amendment warriors and they try so hard to fight for free speech." - Tim Federle, author

“I think librarians are like First Amendment warriors, and they try so hard to fight for free speech. And my issue has not been coming up against librarians so much as sort of occasionally scared school boards who don’t want parents saying, 'Why is this book featuring a diverse character?'” Federle said.

But diversity of characters, Federle believes, is exactly what kids need to find in the stories they are given to read. Especially, he adds, if they live in states like Vermont, where racial, religious and gender diversity can be harder to find in everyday life than in the pages of a book.

Commentary: Vermont's History of Dissent

From trying to silence your enemy, as happens in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, to disagreement and debate that leads to discussion and change, commentator and Vermont Life editor emeritus Tom Slayton writes that the book echoes Vermont’s long history of outspoken dissent:

"One of the major themes in Salman Rushdie’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, is the importance of freedom of expression and the right to dissent. That’s a theme that should resonate with every Vermonter, because this state has a long and vigorous history of going its own way – and has celebrated some very colorful dissenters who fought for the right to express themselves as they saw fit.

"Perhaps the most outstanding example from the state’s early history was Matthew Lyon, an Irishman who came to Vermont, built a small empire in the town of Fair Haven, and in 1796 was elected U.S. Congressman.

"Lyon’s pugnacious nature got him in trouble almost as soon as he arrived in Washington. He got into an ongoing fight with a representative from Connecticut that turned violent after Lyon spit in the man’s face. He subsequently acquired the nickname 'spitting Matt.'

"And he quickly took a strong dislike to President John Adams, who was in the habit of receiving members of Congress in a private room where they could bow and scrape before him. Lyon began making snide remarks about that practice. In response, President Adams and other Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, hoping to trap Lyon under the provision that made it a crime to criticize the president.

"Lyon, of course, was the first victim of the repressive new law. He wrote a flaming letter to the editor of a Windsor newspaper describing President Adams as a vain lover of pomp and adulation, grasping for kinglike powers. That was enough to land the Vermont congressman in a Vergennes jail for sedition.

"Lyon campaigned for re-election from his jail cell and won handily. (He thus became the only person ever elected to Congress from jail.) When his four-month sentence was up, a second charge of sedition was brought against him, and his enemies hoped to re-incarcerate him.

"But upon his release, his wife was waiting outside the jail with a horse and wagon. Lyon charged past the bailiff, leaped into the wagon, and whipping up the horse shouted, “I’m off to Congress!”

"With those words, Congressional immunity descended upon him, and he could not be arrested. He returned to Washington, and cast the deciding vote in the contested election that made Thomas Jefferson America’s third president.

"The alien and sedition acts, which Lyon successfully fought, expired in the next Congress, and the tradition of dissent, which he so firmly espoused, continues in Vermont public life to this day."

Listen Friday morning as Vermont Reads: Haroun and the Sea of Stories continues. We'll look at the art of storytelling and how a teller of tales acts as a skilled juggler, keeping many different balls in the air at once.