Friday, August 30, 2013

The Evils of Winnie-the-Pooh

September 22-28, 2013 is Banned Book Week. In honor of that week, I will be blogging about banned or challenged books this month.

Imagine a world without Pooh. I mean that "tubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff." That's exactly what some people have tried to leave us with. Our dear little silly old bear is ranked #22 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged classics.

Attacks on A.A. Milne's characters have come from many places. A state-controlled television station in Turkey banned the Winnie-the-Pooh films because of scenes that included that most innocuous of characters, Piglet, because they feared that some Muslim viewers would object to the depiction of a pig. The books were banned in a UK school for similar reasons, until the Muslim Council of Britain petitioned the school to return the books to the shelves and end their misguided policy.

In Russia, Winnie-the-Pooh came under attack for being a pro-Nazi character, after a search of the belongings of a political extremist turned up a picture of Winnie-the-Pooh wearing a swastika.

Surely, nobody in the United States would go so far as to try and ban these lovable characters that teach so many positive lessons to children.

Well, except the parent group in Kansas that challenged Winnie-the-Pooh and Charlotte's Web because talking animals are an insult to God. Other places in the US are reported to have gone after Pooh for the same reason. Or Redwood Middle School in Napa, California, which placed a girl into their "Students With Attitude Problems" in-school suspension program because she violated the school's dress code when she wore socks that had a depiction of Tigger when Winnie-the-Pooh characters were considered inappropriate. It has also been mentioned that Winnie-the-Pooh wears no pants.

Green Eggs and Ham has been banned for containing scenes of homosexual seduction. Where the Wild Things Are has been challenged for being frightening, for containing scenes of sadistic punishment, and like Harry Potter and JRR Tolkien's works and countless other books, for promoting witchcraft and the supernatural. An edition of Little Red Riding Hood was attacked in 1990 because the basket Red carried to Grandmother contained a bottle of wine, thus promoting alcohol abuse. The Diary of Anne Frank has been challenged for sexuality, and specifically homosexuality, as well as for being "too depressing." That book still comes under attack, including in May of this year, when a mother in Michigan tried to get pulled from schools because of the book's "pornographic tendencies."

Where's Waldo was pulled from school shelves after it was discovered that one beach scene contained a tiny picture of a topless sunbather lying on her stomach, with her head and shoulders slightly raised. In 1988, Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree was banned from a public library in Colorado for being sexist. It was also attacked because of questions about the tree's motives and for criminalizing the foresting industry. Dr. Seuss's classic The Lorax was attacked in Northern California, also because it was feared that the book would give children a negative attitude toward loggers. James and the Giant Peach was banned by a school in Texas because it contained the word "ass."

One of my favorite books, Harriet the Spy, has been banned for presenting a bad example for children, and for "teaching children to lie, spy, talk back, and curse." The offenses of Bridge to Terabithia are almost too numerous to list, including a fantasy world that might confuse kids, teaching disrespect to parents, and using the word "Lord" and the phrase "Oh, Lord." Alice in Wonderland supposedly depicts sexual fantasies and masturbation, alongside drug use. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory shows a "poor philosophy of life." In 1928, all public libraries in Chicago removed The Wizard of Oz because it presented an ungodly view of the world by depicting women in strong leadership roles. In 1957, it was pulled from the Detroit Public Library because it was deemed to have “no value for children of today.”

It's easy to look at these cases and call them silly. But this kind of stuff happens all the time. Actually, you might even have looked through my list above and thought at least once, "I understand that one."

In our own state, one half of a writing team being openly gay caused a local publisher to back out of a publishing deal within the last couple weeks, even though the book had nothing to do with homosexuality. We frequently see news stories of books that are challenged by parents who deem the book unacceptable for schools or libraries.

Sure, it's important for parents to be involved in their children's education, and for schools to be sensitive to certain community standards. But even in Utah, our community includes many types of people with a variety of beliefs and standards and attitudes. So should we just let the majority decide what's appropriate? Anti-censorship laws exist partly to protect minority opinions and beliefs from being trampled by either the majority or by the government. Besides, community standards should not be set by one noisy parent or group of parents, and it's usually a very small number of people who make a loud enough fuss to get a book removed from a class or a library, nothing even close to a majority.

It's one thing to go to a teacher to privately raise your child's sensitivity to a book depicting child abuse because of something that happened to that child. A good teacher should be understanding and suggest an alternative. It's another to demand that no child have access to that book, including the kid who, unknown to you, is going through that hell right now and needs to see that he is not alone and to see how the book's character deals with it. If you have a serious beef with assigned reading material, raise it with the teacher. Maybe there's an alternative for your child. But don't rob the whole class of the opportunity to read something that could turn out to be meaningful or even life-changing. And if there's not an alternate book to read, it's a great opportunity to discuss the book with your child, and to teach that not everybody has the same standards or ideas, a lesson that will prove valuable many times in life.

Removing books from schools irks me, but it's the attack on library shelves that bothers me the most. A library has no value if it is not allowed to contain a broad spectrum of ideas, even those that are found offensive by some. Art, including literature, often contains big ideas and big ideas are sure to offend somebody. In fact, if an idea doesn't upset somebody somewhere, it's probably not worth much.

"The truth is, outside of arithmetic, it’s hard to teach anything worth learning that someone won’t find offensive or upsetting or frightening or off-putting. If it’s interesting, if it’s something people care about, then people are going to have opinions about it. That means somebody, somewhere, isn’t going to like it. The drive to keep our children perfectly safe from dangerous knowledge just ends up reducing their education to a bland, boring, irrelevant slog." --Noah Berlatsky (Quoted at

And my friends who are deeply into numbers remind me that even deep math principles can cause arguments and upset people.

Last year, one of my reading goals was to read a certain number of banned books throughout the year. Some of the most valuable and enjoyable and meaningful books I read came from the lists of frequently challenged books. This year, I have different goals, although I have read several books from the lists. If you read much, it's hard not to. So many great books have been challenged or banned. This year, in support of Banned Book Week, I will read only banned books in September. Try it with me. Discover for yourself what other people want to keep from you under the banner of "community standards."


Erin Shakespear said...

Wow. I had no idea! Excellent post, Scott.

And THAT is a brilliant, eye-catching title.

Yamile said...

this is so crazy! In college I read The Tao of Pooh, and it opened my eyes to the wisdom of that silly old bear :-)
I want to read The Bluest Eyes this month, just because of all the controversy here in Utah :-)

Scott said...

I want to read that too, Yamile. Somehow I've missed the controversy. I'm almost finished with Beloved, though, and that's made me want to check out some of her other books.

Scott said...

OK, I read about it. Very disturbing, but not surprising.