Unbanning Books, Sort Of

Banning books that are deemed controversial is a practice that school libraries can't seem to move past. Among others, Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse-Five' is no stranger to such bans. Yet a Missouri school board recently voted to unban the book after banning it just months before, raising the question of whether the bans are more than just knee-jerk political reactions.

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kurt vonnegut slaughterhouse five banned books missouri republic

Banned, But Only Briefly

When Missouri State University associate business professor Wesley Scroggins objects to a book, the Republic School Board listens, however briefly. In June, Scroggins objected to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer and Laurie Halsey Anderson's Speak. He called these books profane, pornographic and filthy. Scroggins, who home-schools his children, claimed that the books lack the Christian values and morals the school board ought to enforce.

While the board concluded in July that Speak was instructional and not worthy of being banned, it agreed to ban the books by Vonnegut and Ockler. The board made clear that their decision came from a belief that the books weren't age appropriate; they wanted it known that they weren't acting in line with Scroggins' moralizing screed. The ban prompted a local and national outcry throughout the summer, which led the board to reverse its decision in September.

No Easy Access

While the ban on these books was overturned just two months after being enforced, it didn't come without restrictions. The books are available in the school libraries, but they're kept under lock and key. Students can only access them with parental permission. Furthermore, teachers can't assign these books as a part of their classes.

This partial unbanning, an apparently failed compromise, has upset both sides of the debate. The National Coalition Against Censorship, for example, referred to the new restricted area of the library as a 'literary gulag.' Scroggins, who seems to be largely alone in his effort to limit access to literature in Republic, is likewise unimpressed. Following the reversal, he wrote an op-ed piece for the Springfield News-Leader in which he expressed his outrage and referred to what he called pornography on local high school English class reading lists.

Authors Fight Back

Since 1992, the final week of September has been designated Banned Books Week across America, a chance to draw attention to censorship. In honor of this year's celebration, the Springfield-Greene County Library District, which includes the city of Republic, hosted several authors related to the recent local controversy. Twenty Boy Summer author Sarah Ockler was scheduled to appear in person.

In addition to Ockler, author Chris Crutcher and Dr. William Allen, author of Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut, were expected to appear via Skype. Several of Crutcher's books have faced bans, including Whale Talk and Ironman. In addition to writing about Vonnegut, Allen is a member of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, which regularly fights attempts to ban the author's works.

Ultimately, these authors, and others like them throughout the country, find themselves fighting a school board that gets caught in the middle. On the other side of the fight, most often, is a vocal individual or group that believes some books are too dangerous to be made available. Too often, critics of books like Slaughterhouse-Five fail to see the irony in censoring an author like Vonnegut. Just as other banned books have messages that are important for young people to learn, Slaughterhouse-Five fictionalizes Vonnegut's true experience fighting the Nazis, a group that likewise banned books that didn't agree with its narrow-minded ideology. Fortunately for the students in Republic, the school board decided that the freedom to read, more or less, should take precedence.

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