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Word of a book ban is in the news again. This time, the Washington Post reports, the book "And Tango Makes Three" was pulled from shelves at schools in Loudoun County, Va., after a parent objected to the book because it "promotes a gay agenda" and "tolerance of alternative families."

"And Tango Makes Three," a picture book written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry cole, is based on a true story about two male penguins in New York City's Central Park Zoo that adopt a fertilized egg and raise the chick as their own. The book is geared toward children ages 4 to 8 years old, according to the publisher's Web site. (Two Lives Publishing)

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Few topics bring out the passion in folks like a book ban. A couple years ago, I covered a book ban in Carroll County schools. I will long, long remember the interviews I conducted for the multiple follow-ups I did on the issue. The book that caused the stir? Gotta love it -- "The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things," by Carolyn Mackler.

While remaining professionally impartial on the issue of the book ban, I must say that Carolyn's book has an amazing message. I read "The Earth" for the articles, but I went on to read all of Carolyn's books because although she writes for an audience that is quite a few years younger than I am, I still found her writing style and her messages to be compelling.

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For those of you who are interested, here's some of my coverage of the book ban in Carroll County:

Book banning spurs protest
Carroll students seek to get novel returned to school libraries

Date: Wednesday, December 7, 2005
Byline: GINA DAVIS
 
   An award-winning book about an overweight girl who doesn't fit in at school or with her family apparently doesn't fit in at Carroll County school libraries: The district's superintendent ordered the novel stripped from the shelves.

Students at Winters Mill High in Westminster have begun a petition drive to get the book, The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, returned to the libraries. Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he found the language and sexual references in Carolyn Mackler's book, a top choice nationally among teenage readers, inapproriate.

The New York-based author said yesterday that she knows of one other instance of the book being banned. On Monday, a Brooklyn, N.Y., principal removed the book after objecting to its romantic scenes, she said.

"I write realistic novels for teenagers, and I do my best to portray their realities by being true to the characters and narratives," Mackler said. "I can't write a realistic teen novel without including a character who is contemplating or acting upon their sexuality."

Mackler said she wrote the book to help teenagers - who she said are struggling to "make sense of their changing world" - and that the profanity and sexual references are instruments that help readers see themselves in her stories.

"It's a much bigger story. ... It's about the very basic issue of self-esteem," she said. "As an adult writing for young people, I am aware of my responsibility. I don't just throw in sexuality casually or irresponsibly."

After complaints of censorship from students and librarians, Ecker is reconsidering his decision, but he said he is leaning toward keeping the book off school shelves.

"I didn't think it was the type of thing middle school or high school students should be reading. If a student would use that language in school or wrote it in a paper, he would be disciplined or probably suspended," Ecker said. "I don't think those types of books should be available in a public school."

Students who began the petition drive said their freedoms and rights are being infringed upon.

"We're going to be adults soon, and we're mature enough to read that book," said Crystal Gardner, an 11th-grader at Winters Mill High School who spearheaded the drive with two schoolmates. "I feel like we're not getting a say [about what to read], and we should have a say. If they're going to ban a book about an overweight girl, what's next?"

The book chronicles the life of an overweight teenage girl, Virginia Shreves, whose father is rarely around and whose mother is an adolescent psychologist obsessed with her daughter's weight. The book explores teen romance, self-mutilation, date rape and eating disorders.

"Mackler writes with such insight and humor (sometimes using strong language to make her point) that many readers will immediately identify with Virginia's longings as well as her fear and loathing," the American Library Assocation wrote in its review of the book.

The book, published in 2003, was named the 2004 Michael L. Printz Honor Book by the Young Adult Library Services Association, the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and the International Reading Association's 2005 Young Adults' Choice, among other accolades.

Ramona Kerby, an education professor at McDaniel College who teaches a course on literature for children -including selection criteria - said she is alarmed by the school system's decision to remove Mackler's book.

"For one, it's not sending a good message. It's saying that we don't honor a diverse opinion, an opinion different from ours or freedom of expression," she said.

Banning it also invites more interest in the book than educators might want.

"In a way, it's also saying that we don't trust the students" to read about ideas without acting upon them, Kerby said. "As a teacher, you want [students] to feel we respect all points of view."

The parents who complained about the book said it was not appropriate for middle school pupils, said Irene Hildebrandt, the school system's media supervisor.

"That's always the tough part, because you have very young sixth-grade students and very mature eighth-grade students," Hildebrandt said. "So when you build a book collection, you're going to have this discussion, especially at the middle school level.

In response to the parents' concerns, the school system's reconsideration committee - a group of 12 students, parents, administrators, media specialists and a teacher - met to discuss the parents' appeal.

After reading the book and discussing it, the committee decided in October that the book should continue to be available at middle and high schools, said Hildebrandt, who oversees the reconsideration committee but does not vote.

Parents were unhappy with the committee's decision and appealed to Ecker, Hildebrandt said.

After skimming passages of the book, Ecker ordered it removed from all of the county's school libraries in mid-October.

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"I think it's the right thing to do," he said. "It may not be the popular thing to do, but I have to look at myself in the mirror each night and be happy with what I see. Over the years, I've made some unpopular decisions, but I thought they were the right thing to do."

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Alarmed by Ecker's decision, school librarians met with him to discuss his removal of a book they felt was relevant for teenagers. In Carroll, the staff at each school's library determines which books to put on its shelves. Five of the county's seven high schools and seven of its nine middle schools had copies of the book.

"The high school [librarians] met with Ecker ... and told him we thought it was a bad precedent," said Bonnie Kreamer, media specialist at Winters Mill High in Westminster. "I'm sure the superintendent had all good intentions [when he ordered the books removed] and has the students' interests at heart, but I think this is not a precedent you want to set."

Beverley Becker, executive director of the Chicago-based American Library Association, said book challenges - often lodged by parents or other community members - are not infrequent.

She said her organization received reports of 547 book challenges last year, the majority of which were at school libraries, though some came from public libraries. That number is the tip of the iceberg, the group says.

"Books are challenged every day," Becker said. "We track those that get reported to us, but we estimate we hear about only a fraction of them. Maybe 20 to 25 percent are reported to us."

Gardner and her schoolmates have collected about 140 signatures and are planning to secure more names before submitting the petition to school officials.

"We're not going to step down," Gardner said. "Our goal is to stop this from happening to other books in the future."

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Petition a matter of principle
Three Carroll County students take action to counter a book banning

Date: Friday, December 16, 2005
Byline: GINA DAVIS

Crystal Gardner hadn't read The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things when she and two schoolmates launched a petition drive to protest its removal from Carroll County's schools.

For her, it was a matter of principle."We were worried about them taking away books," said Gardner, an 11th-grader at Winters Mill High in Westminster. "We thought it was ridiculous."

Gardner and her friends said they felt students' rights were being ignored and they wanted to voice their objections.

They had no idea how much attention their effort would ultimately attract.

Amid protests from such groups as the Los Angeles-based Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Carroll County Superintendent Charles I. Ecker is reconsidering his decision to ban the book and could announce his decision soon.

Ecker said librarians from several schools had appealed to him during Thanksgiving week to reconsider the book ban before he heard about the students' petition. He said he is willing to meet with the students, but they haven't asked for a meeting and neither has he.

Ecker, after hearing complaints from some parents and students, ordered school librarians in mid-October to remove all copies of Carolyn Mackler's book about an overweight 15-year-old girl struggling to fit in at school and with her high-achieving family.

He said he found the book's use of profanity and sexual references inappropriate.

Gardner said she would like to read Mackler's book, a top choice nationally among teenage readers.

The book is available at the county's public libraries and area bookstores. But, she said, "school should be a place of resources. I should be able to get that book at my school library."

When she heard about Ecker's ban, she said, she was incensed. To make sure it wasn't a rumor, she spoke with a member of the school system's reconsideration committee - 12 people who review books that are challenged - and with the school librarian at Winters Mill.

When she realized that the ban was real, she went to a friend, 11th-grader Courtney Linton, "to vent about it," she said. Together, they decided they had to do something.

"Originally, I didn't know what to do," Gardner said. "I was going to go to the next Board of Education meeting and read passages from the Bible. There's violence and other bad stuff in there, too."

Then she, Linton, and another friend, 11th-grader Zac Slone, decided to start a petition. Gardner and Linton wrote it during Thanksgiving week.

"To take away our books is like taking away a chemistry set from a scientist," a portion of the petition reads. "Banning these books is an act that is inconsiderate to the professionals at this school and insulting and degrading to the students who are being pushed to become successful adults, and the gallant authors who bravely tell their experiences."

They have gathered 253 signatures. Gardner said she would like to have 300 to 400 signatures before submitting the petition to Ecker.

"We're hoping that all this attention will make him change his mind," Gardner said.

Linton, who has read Mackler's book, said the story is a realistic depiction of teen life.

The book chronicles the life of Virginia Shreves, whose father is rarely around and whose mother is an adolescent psychologist obsessed with her daughter's weight. The book explores teen romance, self-mutilation, date rape and eating disorders.

"We see this stuff and hear this stuff every day," Linton said. "It's ridiculous that they want to shelter us from things we're going to encounter anyway."

She said adults need to trust her and other students to read about certain ideas without acting on them.

Mackler said she has been moved by the students' efforts to restore the book.

"The students of Carroll County have made a brave stand, and for that I am tremendously grateful," Mackler said this week.

"The students are not only asking for access to my novel, they're also supporting the notion that young people have both a right and a need to read as widely as possible," she said.

Irene Hildebrandt, Carroll's school system media supervisor, said she has heard from her counterparts in neighboring districts that the students have sparked discussions at other schools about the petition and the book ban.

"Everyone wants to bash the school system, and this is showing that our students are becoming citizens," said Hildebrandt, who also oversees the reconsideration committee.

"We try to teach them to read, to write and have those critical-thinking skills," she said. "Whether you agree or disagree, you sit back with a smile of delight that these students are to this point of development."

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Steven Johnson, acting assistant superintendent of instruction, said the students' efforts to change Ecker's mind have been informative.

"The students are getting to talk about issues like censorship and freedom of speech," he said.

Johnson said he has been impressed with the way Gardner and other students have conducted themselves while expressing their objections.

"These folks are obviously concerned. And I like the way they're going about this, in a very mature way," he said.

When the students started gathering names on a piece of notebook paper - they have since typed the petition - Gardner and her friends had no idea that they would inspire so much interest in books.

"This has become an issue people care about," Gardner said. "It's really cool that people care. Sometimes you feel like you could march on Washington all you want and no one would listen. But this has shown me that we can make our voices heard."

Linton said she has been "completely amazed and happy" about the response to the petition. She said the experience is one that she, Gardner and Slone can take pride in.

"I think this is also preparing us for college and life because we're standing up for what we believe in," she said. "I'm happy that people are starting to listen."

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Book banned in Carroll gets partial reprieve

Date: Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Byline: GINA DAVIS

The superintendent of Carroll County schools, whose ban of an award-winning book from the system's libraries prompted a protest from students and an outcry from several national groups, said yesterday that he would return the book to high school libraries, but not middle schools.

Nearly three months after banning The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he still objects to the book's use of profanity and its sexual references, but he decided that high school students are mature enough to read it.He said he had considered several factors in his decision, including numerous e-mails and letters from supporters and opponents of the ban, as well as the publisher's recommendation of the book for students 14 and older.

"One thing I hope to come out of this is that parents will be concerned or inquire about what their children are reading," Ecker said. "A lot of people may assume that if [a book] comes from the school library, there's nothing bad in it. Whether [their children] get it at school, the public library, or buy it at a bookstore, parents ought to be more involved in what their children are reading."

The book's New York-based author, Carolyn Mackler - who defends her book's use of profanity and sexual references as instruments that help teen readers see themselves in her stories - said last night that she was "thrilled to hear" of Ecker's decision.

"I applaud the superintendent for being open-minded and listening to the arguments on both sides," she said. "He made a brave and intelligent decision. However, I'm disappointed that the superintendent has chosen to ban The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things from middle school libraries. Based on the many letters I've received from 12- and 13-year-old girls who have told me [the book] has helped them feel better about themselves and their bodies, I believe this readership also needs access to honest books that encourage empowerment and healthy self-esteem."

High school students and librarians said they were pleased with Ecker's decision, agreeing that the book's language could be unsuitable for middle-schoolers.

"That's awesome," said Crystal Gardner, who spearheaded a petition drive in November at Winters Mill High in Westminster to protest Ecker's ban. "I see his point with not wanting middle school students to read it. But I thought it was irrational to take it away from high schools."

Gardner, who with two classmates collected nearly 350 signatures, said she had not submitted the petition to Ecker but felt their efforts had made a difference.

"We kind of accomplished what we wanted," she said.

Anna Harvey, a junior at Westminster High, said that while she understands Ecker's concern that middle-schoolers might not be mature enough for the book, it "has a good message" for high school students.

"It was probably the best decision," said Harvey, who read the 244-page book in two days last year.

Harvey's mother, Keri Harvey, said she hadn't read Mackler's book, but she trusts her daughter's judgment.

"She's on the National Honor Society and she's mature far beyond her years, so I trust her," Keri Harvey said. "She said she felt the book spoke to what she and a lot of teens are feeling and going through."

Irene Hildebrandt, the school system's media supervisor, "wholeheartedly" supports Ecker's decision.

"The real thing is that he gave thoughtful consideration," she said. "He took in all the input."

Mackler's book chronicles the experiences of Virginia Shreves, an overweight 15-year-old girl struggling to fit in at school and with her high-achieving family. The book explores teen romance, self-mutilation, date rape and eating disorders.

While Bonnie Kreamer, a librarian at Winters Mill High, said she was "ecstatic" about Ecker's decision, she is alarmed about another banned book.

"I think people have forgotten that there were two books banned [this school year] from our shelves," she said. "I'm still concerned that there has been no decision on [Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth Grade Basket Case by Dan Elish]."

Kreamer said Born Too Short tells a story similar to Mackler's, but from a boy's perspective.

"It's a teen book about a boy's growing pains," she said. "I'm extremely glad [about Mackler's book]. But I'm one who prefers that books not be banned at all."

David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the organization is "heartened [Ecker] reconsidered his decision about this book," but he and others remain concerned about other banned books in Carroll.

"In our letter [to Ecker], we pointed out four other books that have been banned," Rocah said. "That's what's disturbing. There seems to be a pattern here of pulling books off the shelves."

Rocah was referring to Born Too Short, Leaving Disneyland by Alexander Parsons, Beet Fields by Gary Paulsen, and Whistle Me Home by Barbara Wersba, which have been completely or partially banned in the past three years.

After hearing complaints from a student and a parent, Ecker ordered school librarians in mid-October to remove Mackler's book.

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Soon after the superintendent's action, school librarians met with Ecker, who agreed to reconsider the book

Ecker said he believes that the story has a valuable lesson for parents and students.

"I wish I could require parents to read it with their kids because the book relates to families and how individuals feel about themselves," he said. "As I've said all along, the book does have a good message. But I also think the use of vulgar words and statements that are sexual in nature could've been left out."

*****************


Teen maintains stance against disputed books
High-schooler says decision to have titles on shelves is `against the values of Carroll County'

Date: Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Byline: GINA DAVIS
 
   The Carroll County school system has returned two disputed books to high schools, but the student who led the effort to have them removed maintains that profanity and sexual references have no place in school libraries.

Westminster High School junior Joel Ready felt so strongly that the books were inappropriate that he fired off letters last fall to Superintendent Charles I. Ecker and school board members seeking removal of The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler and Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth-Grade Basket Case by Dan Elish, after a committee decided to keep them in school libraries.Soon after Ready sent his letters, Ecker ordered the books stripped from library shelves. Two weeks ago, Ecker returned both books to high school libraries, but said he would restrict them from middle schools.

"I'm not going to accept a [committee's] decision that is stacked against the values of Carroll County," said Ready, 17.

Since Ecker's decision to remove the books, many have debated the merits of banning books and the process that allows one or two people to challenge whether a book is appropriate for schools.

Today, a group of school librarians will meet with school board members to explain how they select books and how people can object to them. The public is invited to attend the 3 p.m. meeting at the Board of Education's central office in Westminster.

Ready is unwavering in his belief that there is a wide gulf between banning a book and keeping it off a public school system's library shelves. But others argue that it's not fair to allow one or two people the power to remove materials from an entire school system based on individual values. To do so, they say, is unconstitutional.

"I believe in Joel's right to do what he did, but he and Dr. Ecker don't have the right to dictate [their values] to an entire county," said Saul Clark-Braverman, a Westminster parent whose four daughters attended Carroll schools.

Mackler's and Elish's books chronicle the experiences of teenagers coming to terms with their appearances and other self-esteem issues.

"If there's a process that we go through here where librarians approve the book, and then a reconsideration committee approves the book ... [then] the process is a sham," Clark-Braverman said. "Everybody approved it, but then Dr. Ecker, on his own, said no based on one family's complaint."

Ecker said this week that he sees nothing wrong with one person having the power to remove a book from the system.

"One person [the librarian] puts the books on the shelves, one person can take them off," he said. "If people don't like my decision, they can appeal to the school board. If they don't like the school board's decision, they can keep appealing until it reaches the courts."

Last year, the reconsideration committee received a complaint about Mackler's book from Cindy Young, whose daughter attends Shiloh Middle School in Hampstead.

"My daughter brought the book home and said turn to page so-and-so," said Young, who was upset when she discovered profanity and sexual references in the book. "It's not appropriate material for middle school kids."

Young said she called the school's principal and found out she could appeal to the reconsideration committee. After the committee read and discussed the book, it decided to keep Mackler's book in middle and high school libraries, according to Irene Hildebrandt, the district's media supervisor who oversees the committee but does not vote.

Ready is one of three high school students on the reconsideration committee, a dozen students, parents, administrators, media specialists and teachers who review challenged books.

He said he broke from the committee's majority decision and wrote the letters because he was determined to keep the books out of school libraries.

"These books are not the best we can do," he said. "I'm not going to accept a committee that passes on books that are immoral."

Ready said he does not agree with the argument that profanity and sexual references are used in teen literature to help readers relate to the stories.

"The phrase we keep hearing is, `This is a good book for the reluctant reader.' Write a book for the reluctant reader and don't include profanity," he said. "We don't have to come up with books and include vulgarity and hope [kids] get hooked on them."

Ready said his efforts don't amount to censorship because the books are available in local bookstores, public libraries and online. He said his goal is to help set a standard that recognizes a community's moral values.

"We have freedom of speech, but you can't yell fire in a movie theater," he said. "You have to draw a line somewhere."

David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said his group is concerned about what it sees as a pattern of book banning.

"It's fine that they have a process for allowing people to complain, and it's fine to have a review committee," Rocah said. "What's wrong is the substantive decision that the superintendent made. What's striking is the superintendent overturned the decision of the committee and he overturned the decision of professional [librarians]."

Hildebrandt said she hopes today's meeting will give board members greater insight into how librarians pick books and the process of challenging books.

"What we're trying to do is not necessarily deal with a particular book or clump of books, but what we're dealing with is a process," she said.

Ecker said that if board members have suggestions for amending the processes, he will establish a committee of parents, students, media specialists and teachers to consider changes.

Ready said he hopes people will not be deterred by charges of censorship and will continue to object to books they believe are inappropriate for schools.

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"I'm not convinced there is an ultimate slippery slope," he said. "Just because we're not sure where this could end doesn't mean we should do nothing. We're never going to stop drug use or end violence, but that doesn't stop us from trying."

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The Censorship Challenge
Every year; public school librarians across America face questions from parents and even students seeking to ban controversial books

Date: Sunday, February 12, 2006
Byline: GINA DAVIS

The title alone makes some adults squirm.

But Carolyn Mackler's The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, a novel about an overweight girl struggling to come to terms with her poor self-image and self-worth, has a message that resonates with teens.Those squirming adults and reading teens were at the heart of a recent debate over book banning in Carroll County that mirrors a passionate national argument: Are profanity and sex appropriate literary tools to reach worldly teenage readers, or should books containing such material be barred from school libraries?

Just getting teens to read is a challenge, education experts say. Studies show that the more teenagers read, the more they want to read, officials at the American Library Association note. So it's not surprising that writers want to produce books with teen appeal.

"Kids want things that are realistic," said Beverly Becker, deputy director of the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the library association. "The language is not what readers take away; they take away the story, and the language makes it realistic."

"Most writers want to depict characters and situations as realistically as they can," said Deborah Taylor, coordinator of school and student services at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. "They are very often including what they've heard - the way young people speak around each other rather than how they speak when they are around adults and teachers."

But Bob Waliszewski largely disagrees with the argument that young adult literature needs to be peppered with profanity and sex to teach and appeal. As a leader of the nonprofit religious group Focus on the Family, he monitors popular culture and media for teens.

"If this is the kind of stuff we don't want kids to emulate, then why put it out there?" Waliszewski asks. "Let's raise the bar higher for our teenagers. They're trying to form a lot of values right now, and we need to give them solid examples to follow and try to keep out the garbage."

Clearly, many Americans agree.

Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, describes a "very steady drumbeat" of challenges to books like Mackler's.

"There's a lot of activity, and most of it is focused on young adult novels," said Bertin, whose organization helps defend books against courtroom challenges. "Most of these cases largely focus on sex and language issues. The life challenges that kids are starting to see and understand are the principal issues in [these novels], and those are the very things that seem to trigger the censors."

The American Library Association logged 547 book challenges last year, most of them at school libraries, though some came from public libraries. However, the group estimates that this figure represents only about 20 percent of challenges because they don't hear about every objection.

Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the library association, said she has witnessed a recent surge in attempts to ban books, but that these efforts have generally been less successful. She notes that book protesters no longer feel stigmatized by expressing what might be considered an unpopular opinion or a singularly held position.

In responding to those protesting teen book content, she often resorts to an analogy.

"I tell them if you want to keep your kids safe around the swimming pool, you can put up fences, you can provide a lifeguard," she says. "But the best way to protect them is to teach them to swim."

Stephen Mooser, president of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, said that although the public outcry about books such as Mackler's continues unabated, there has been a recent change in tone.

"People are less willing to urge the outright ban of books, but there is a place for compromise," Mooser said. "As in Carroll, where the book was restored to high schools but not middle schools."

Krug said, "language has always been a problem. I find it amusing, and sometimes amazing, that normal bodily functions and the language used to describe them become profane and sexual to those who challenge these books. But a girl starting her period is not sexual. It's a part of growing up, and you talk about it the way kids would talk about it."

But others argue that teenagers should not be reading such language in books that are available in their schools.

"These are not books that model strong character. We should be training [students] and we should be presenting things to give them more of a view of character. They'll find [books like Mackler's] on their own," says Rebecca Ready, the mother of the 17-year-old student who led the effort to get Mackler's book banned.

"It is really derogatory toward girls. The title isn't even appropriate," said Ready, who teaches Spanish at Westminster High School. "We're not talking about censorship here. We're talking about what do we want young minds formed by."

Waliszewski also challenges the assertion that efforts to limit access to such materials amount to censorship.

"If by censorship we mean keeping it out of a library, most school libraries don't have Penthouse on the shelves," he said. "If you're honest about it, you have to draw the line somewhere. Everyone agrees we don't want to bring child pornography into the classroom, so we draw the line there. But when we say we're going to draw the line at premarital sex, they say that's being way too conservative."

Joel Ready, a junior at Westminster High, serves on the Carroll school system's 12-person committee that reviews books that are challenged. When that group supported retaining Mackler's book in the school libraries, Joel prevailed upon the superintendent and the school board to overturn that decision.

"The F-word is not a literary device," he said. "I don't think the language adds anything to the book. Books that talk about and encourage premarital sex are wrong. We need a better standard than that."

Other students, however, say that what they have read in Mackler's book and other young adult novels is nothing new to them.

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"We need to deal with reality," said Crystal Gardner, an 11th-grader at Winters Mill High School in Westminster. "We're in high school and have been exposed to [profanity and sexual references] in middle school already."

Ramona N. Kerby, an education professor at McDaniel College in Westminster who teaches a course on literature for children, maintains that books - and libraries - are a reflection of a diverse and multicultural society.

"As readers, as learners, as librarians, we model tolerance for all kinds of ideas - and kids," she says. "By modeling tolerance for all kinds of books and stories and ideas, we are showing our students that we trust them. We trust them to handle the idea and put it into perspective, no matter how scary the idea."

Rather than aiding moral corruption, Kerby said, books like the ones to which the Readys object are the building blocks of character.

"The reason we need to have books like that on the shelves is that it gives people like Joel fodder for his own thought," she said. "Because of [Mackler's] book, he gets to clarify his own morals for himself."

Even the Carroll County schools superintendent, Charles I. Ecker, who several months ago had Mackler's book stripped from his district's libraries, said he wishes he could require parents and students to read together. He recently returned Mackler's book to high school libraries only, along with Dan Elish's Born Too Short: Confessions of an Eighth-Grade Basket Case, a book from a boy's perspective that is similar to Mackler's.

Ecker said that although he still objects to the book's language, the story's positive message outweighs the negatives, and high school students are probably mature enough to handle it.

The young adult fiction movement that sparked the long-running teen literature controversy was born in 1967 with S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders . The book was published during Hinton's first year of college, but she had started writing it when she was 15 and disturbed by the tensions at her Oklahoma high school between the privileged and the unpopular kids, many of whom were her friends.

Before The Outsiders, "realistic teen fiction" didn't exist, said the Pratt library's Taylor, who teaches young adult literature at the University of Maryland.

"The Outsiders had pretty frank language. That was the beginning of the modern young adult novel," she said. "That's when people began to really try to depict the voice of the teen characters."

Taylor likens the evolution of this edgier realism in young adult fiction to what has happened in the movies, with industry executives less likely to rate a movie G "unless it's a cartoon" because society has become increasingly accepting of depictions of violence and sex.

She said she understands the motives of people who question the value of profanity and sex in teen literature.

"People want their kids to be safe morally, but there's so much more you get if you talk about it," she said. "There's an increasing amount of this kind of literature. It's a big change, but it's more of a reflection of what is happening in society. If it was totally out of left field, it wouldn't go far."

But for some, the line between what offends and what enlightens becomes blurred.

When Judy Blume wrote Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in 1970, the principal at her children's elementary school refused to put it in the library because of the book's discussion of menstruation, she writes on her Web site, judyblume.com. The book chronicles Margaret's sixth-grade year and delves into girl talk of menstruation, religion and kissing boys.

"I wrote Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret right out of my own experiences and feelings when I was in sixth grade," Blume recalls at the Web site. "Controversy wasn't on my mind. I wanted only to write what I knew to be true. ... If someone had told me then I would become one of the most banned writers in America, I'd have laughed."

In an interview published with the 2003 edition of The Outsiders, Hinton said she was pleased that reviewers were shocked by what they read in her first book.

"One of my reasons for writing it was that I wanted something realistic to be written about teenagers," she said in the interview. "If you didn't want to read Mary Jane Goes to the Prom and you were through with horse books, there was nothing to read."

Hinton said her book - which has sold more than 10 million copies, according to the Bookreporter .com Web site - has remained popular because teenagers have always felt that adults don't understand them.

"Even today, the concept of the in-group and the out-group remains the same," she said in the published interview.

For writers such as Hinton and Mackler, young adult fiction helps teenagers who have long struggled with societal norms and self-esteem issues.

Mackler said she has been inundated with letters and e-mails from girls who thank her for writing about someone like them. They see themselves in her characters and learn from their experiences, the New York author says.

"Over the past three years, I have received piles of letters from teenage girls telling me that since they've read my book, they feel better about themselves as they are, they've stopped hurting their bodies, they've sought help for bulimia and depression, they respect themselves more, and they've stood up to people who are treating them badly," she said in an interview.

Mackler has said she writes books to help teenagers "make sense of their changing world" and that she uses profanity and sexual references as instruments to help readers see themselves in her stories.

"As an adult writing for young people, I am aware of my responsibility," she said. "I don't just throw in sexuality casually or irresponsibly."

FIGHTING WORDS

10 most challenged books of 2004 Sexual content and offensive language remain the most frequent reasons people seek to remove books from schools and public libraries, according to the American Library Association. Three of the books on this list were cited for homosexual themes - the highest number in a decade.

1. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Sexual content, offensive language, religious viewpoint, being unsuited to age group, and violence

2. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
Depictions of racism, offensive language and violence

3. Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael A. Bellesiles
Inaccuracy and political viewpoint

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4. Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey
Offensive language and modeling bad behavior

5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Homosexuality, sexual content and offensive language

6. What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
Sexual content and offensive language

7. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
Nudity and offensive language

8. King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland
Homosexuality

9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Depictions of racism, homosexuality, sexual content, offensive language and unsuited to age group

10. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Depictions of racism, offensive language and violence


Most frequently challenged classics (1990-2000)

1. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

3. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

4. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

6. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

7. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

8. Beloved by Toni Morrison

9. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

10. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

[Source: American Library Association]

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