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Disturbing ideas don’t justify censorship

Linda Campbell Fort Worth Star-Telegram

It’s not terribly difficult to find fault with Robert Cormier’s novel “The Chocolate War.”

But an unsatisfying ending hardly seems reason to shield adolescents from this searing examination of peer pressure, mob mentality, social conformity and the insidious but all-too-plausible ways in which baser human tendencies overwhelm more decent instincts.

Yet there it sits as the book that parents most often tried to get removed from libraries and reading lists during 2004. It’s in good company in the top 10, along with Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants” books, Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and the John Steinbeck classic “Of Mice and Men.”

According to the American Library Association, which keeps track of those challenges, “The Chocolate War” creates objections because of sexual content, offensive language, religious viewpoint and violence.

Certainly there’s brutality in this tale about heroism bucking sinister forces at an all-male Roman Catholic high school.

“As he turned to take the ball, a dam burst against the side of his head and a hand grenade shattered his stomach. Engulfed by nausea, he pitched toward the grass. His mouth encountered gravel, and he spat frantically, afraid that some of his teeth had been knocked out. Rising to his feet, he saw the field through drifting gauze but held on until everything settled into place, like a lens focusing, making the world sharp again, with edges.”

That’s as vivid a description of football as I’ve ever encountered.

There’s cussing — though no F-word usage in this 1974 book — done primarily by complicated, fallible teenagers who might be found in just about any school.

There’s sex, as when the key antagonist blackmails a fellow student by claiming to have photographed his naughtiness in the restroom.

But the book focuses on an ordinary teenager’s risk-laden struggle to take T.S. Eliot’s dare to disturb the universe — by refusing to take part in his school’s chocolate sale.

Why should young people not be exposed to that?

Because the ideas might be uncomfortable or disturbing? Because the words and images might assault the senses? Because moral ambiguity could provoke uncertainty, debate, critical thinking?

Gratuitous sex, violence and vulgarity can make some writing inappropriate for certain age groups. But objectionable passages aren’t enough to warrant suppressing books with clear literary merit.

A classroom should be a safe place — but not an intellectually sterile one.

The real world contains innumerable challenging, fascinating, even threatening ideas. And being able to think through daunting situations along with the fictional characters who confront them can help prepare students for dilemmas that they might well face.

Recent incidents in Colorado and Missouri illustrate myopic efforts to close schoolhouse doors to inquiry and imagination.

When parents complained about profanity in Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima,” a novel assigned in freshman English at Colorado’s Norwood High School, the superintendent not only pulled about two dozen copies of the book but gave them to the couple, who, according to the Rocky Mountain News, threw them in the trash.

The superintendent, who hadn’t even read the book, later apologized.

Though he showed little regard for free-speech principles or for public property, students gave him a lesson by holding a daylong read-in of the book.

In the Blue Springs school district on the eastern edge of Kansas City, Mo., “The Giver” by Lois Lowry has been under fire since 2003 by parents who want it removed from the middle school list of suggested books — even though review committees have recommended keeping it.

The Kansas City Star reported that parents have called “The Giver,” which was published in 1993, “lewd” and “twisted.”

Indeed, it depicts a rigidly controlled, “Twilight-Zone”-ish community in which residents live in arranged families, get age-appropriate assignments and take pills so they won’t feel emotions. They embrace uniformity, eschew inconvenience and designate a single person to bear the burden of their memories, including those of deprivation, pain and loneliness.

When the 12-year-old who is chosen as “receiver of memory” realizes — in a perfectly devastating scene — that his society kills its elderly and imperfect young, he flees with a toddler for “Elsewhere.”

“After a life of Sameness and predictability, he was awed by the surprises that lay beyond each curve of the road,” Lowry writes.

Shouldn’t all young people enjoy that kind of encounter with new ideas?

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