Burning witches is a thing of the past, but burning books about witches may yet have its heyday, at least metaphorically.
Flying to the top of the "most challenged" books list for 1999 are the would-be witches and wizards of the best-selling Harry Potter series. Since Saturday, libraries and bookstores across the country have participated in Banned Books Week, posting lists of books targeted for removal because of "sexually explicit" and "anti-family" content, among other offenses.
"Once a year," says Judith Krug, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, "We use (this) week to re-alert the public that the freedom to read is absolutely vital to this constitutional republic. It's a question of who is going to control the information we need to be self-governing. Our answer? The people."
Author J.K. Rowling's inclusion on this list puts her smack dab in the middle of literary heavyweights like J.D. Salinger, Madeleine L'Engle and Aldous Huxley, whose books have been included in the past. The first three Harry Potter books drew complaints from parents and others concerned over the prominence of wizardry and magic in the series. Objections came from at least 13 states, with some imposing short-lived restrictions such as requiring special parental permission to check out books or removing them from displays.
"There are 40 million copies of these books out there, kids are giving up TV and video games to read and people want to remove them? Wake up!" says Krug.
But others take a different view. "Focus on the Family sees Banned Books Week as a fraud, to put it directly," says Dick Carpenter, education policy analyst for the group, a 25-year-old Christian organization based in Colorado.
"We believe it's parents' constitutional right to say what's not appropriate for their family," says Carpenter. "Freedom of speech goes in all directions." He adds, "We're not talking about content that's protected by the constitution, which is political ideology. We're talking about often violent or sexually explicit books that parents don't think are appropriate for their child."
Last year, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom received a total of 472 reports of challenged titles -- formal, written complaints filed with a library or school about a book's content or appropriateness. Over the past decade nearly 6,000 challenges were reported to or recorded by the organization.
Krug estimates that between 2 and 5 percent of those challenges result in removals. "A book gets its 'day in court' through hearings where all sides can be heard. That's why so few books are removed. When a community learns about it, they stand up and say, 'No, you're not going to take our choice away from us.'"
Teachers are often targeted in tandem with the "offensive" literature. "Getting embroiled in controversy distracts them from their other duties," says Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, which counts among its board members banned-book poster girl Judy Blume. "Once a book is targeted everybody thinks twice, three times to teach it."
Bertin says, "We are teaching children a strange lesson in democracy. It encourages a bully mentality that says if you're noisy enough about something it'll go away. It's a dangerous example of how not to resolve differences in opinion and discuss sensitive issues."
Jean Fritz, a recent speaker at the recent Baltimore Book Festival, encountered this attitude when one of her books was banned by the Carroll County school system in 1995.
School board president Joseph D. Mish Jr. objected to a passage about a fourth-century book burning in Fritz's "Around the World in a Hundred Years: Henry the Navigator -- Magellan." Mish said this unfairly asserted Christian intellectual suppression, backed up by Fritz's words -- "Christians did not believe in scholarship." He interpreted it as "anti-Christian."
Fritz, who was born in China to missionary parents (and raised there until she was 13), says, "If my father heard that, he would turn over in his grave!"
Children seem to take to her colorful details better than some adults. According to Fritz, who lives in New York, "And Then What Happened, Paul Revere?" galloped right into controversy when Texas school board members took issue with her quoting British soldiers yelling at Revere, "Damn you, Stop!" (The Massachusetts Historical Society was able to back Fritz up on the accuracy of the statement.)
Fritz's brush with Carroll County officials wasn't the only instance of local book angst. Maya Angelou's "I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings" stirred up controversy when an Edgewater couple filed a formal complaint with the Anne Arundel County School Board in 1997. Barry and Sharon Taylor felt that the book's sex and profanity was an inappropriate part of their child's high-school curriculum. After being pulled from the curriculum by school superintendent Carol S. Parham, the book was unanimously reinstated in 1998 to the classroom after a wrenching period of discussion among members of the community, teachers and the school board.
Calls to county library headquarters in Carroll, Howard and Baltimore found less than 20 objections to books in the last year. At the Enoch Pratt Free Library, head children's librarian Selma Levi could only recall one or two complaints in her 13-year tenure downtown. Neither of those advanced to the written challenge stage.
Profanity and sex are often the reasons given for challenging books. Use of "offensive language" and "being unsuited to age group" branded six of the top 10 challenged books, including the "Alice" series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and "The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier. "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" tipped off the red-light patrol with their sexual content.
Next year the names may change, but the debate will remain as impassioned as ever so long as reading and children's development are inextricably linked.
Most challenged books of 1999:
1. "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling
2. "Alice" series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
3. "The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier
4. "Blubber" by Judy Blume
5. "Fallen Angels" by Walter Dean Myers
6. "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck
7. "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou
8. "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood
9. "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker
10. "Snow Falling on Cedars" by David Guterson