'Bookbat' takes a poke at censorship with its timely, devilishly clever tale


For more than a decade, People for the American Way has been keeping track of attacks on children's books. Its most recent report will not take educators and librarians by surprise: Censorship is on the rise.

During the 1992-1993 school year, People for the American Way reported 347 cases of attempted censorship. Forty-one percent of those attempts succeeded.

This goes beyond news accounts of right-wingers burning biology books that mention evolution. It goes beyond Christian fundamentalists pulling their children out of public school because of literature used to teach sex education and drug abuse prevention.

The scariest part of the 1992-1993 report is that nearly half of those 347 cases of attempted censorship involved library books. Not required reading. Not textbooks that kids will be tested on.

Library books.

Have these would-be censors ever been in a library -- other than to use the photocopy machine? The very idea of reading for pleasure surely fills them with shame.

Author Kathryn Lasky has battled the book-banners before. She received hate letters from creationists after she wrote about paleoanthropology in a nonfiction picture book, "Traces of Life." She was criticized by some Christians because she wrote about a Christmas pageant from a Jewish point of view in the young-adult novel "Pageant."

Ms. Lasky, whose work also includes "Sugaring Time," a 1983 Newbery Honor Book, takes on the censors in her latest novel, "Memoirs of a Bookbat" (Harcourt Brace, $10.95, 215 pages, ages 12 and up).

The heroine is Harper Jessup. She is 7 when her parents find new meaning in their lives, becoming members of F.A.C.E. -- Family Action for Christian Education. They leave their crummy trailer-park existence for life in a Roadmaster Grand Deluxe as rolling missionaries in the crusade to ban the teaching of blasphemy in public schools.

At first, Harper is happy. Her father stops drinking and her parents stop fighting, and an eerie calm settles over the family. But then one of the ladies from church visits. She asks to see the books Harper has carried home from the library to read to her younger sister.

"The Three Little Pigs" is forbidden, the lady says, because "traditional values are turned inside out. The wolf falls down the chimney and gets burned up even though he didn't hurt the pigs. He is punished for no crime. Now what kind of values are those?"

It gets worse. "Goldilocks" encourages kids to think they can trespass, steal and destroy other people's property without fear of punishment. Harper's beloved Brer Rabbit stories are on the hit list, along with anything to do with monsters or magic.

Harper, a voracious reader, has to go underground. The family rolls from town to town, stopping three months here and six months there -- however long it takes for Harper's parents to organize a local blasphemy-fighting band of book burners.

Harper finds refuge in each town's library, eventually collecting 50 library cards and exulting in the luxury of interlibrary loan. She also reads in secret in the Roadmaster, stashing her books in a hidden compartment in the closet. It reminds her of the magic wardrobe in "The Chronicles of Narnia."

Ms. Lasky carries us through seven years of Harper's life, from Joel Chandler Harris and C. S. Lewis to Judy Blume and Lloyd Alexander. By the time Harper is 14, the family has found a semi-permanent parking space in Spoonwood, Calif., and Harper has found a best friend in Gray Willette.

Try as he might, Gray can't help Harper cope with her parents' increasingly strident views. Their church group starts a "Jesus Club" in the elementary school. Harper's little sister, Weesie, becomes a recruiter. One day Harper comes across a hate letter Weesie and a fellow club member have written:

Dear JEWdy Blume: We read your book "Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself." This is a bad book. First of all the whole Hitler thing is really stupid. There is no proof that these Jews really died over there during that war. It was all made up by Jews to get sympathy. My parents know this for a fact. . . .

Then the church group decides that all the children will take part in the blockade of an abortion clinic. Weesie has become a pawn in her parents' game. Harper resigns herself to the fact that she can't save Weesie, but she decides to save herself.

Her escape is the perfect ending to a story so good, it undoubtedly will land on a list of banned books.

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