Friday, September 30, 2005

Banned Books for Kids; or Captain Underpants to the Rescue!

One of the most insidious ways to ban a book is to appeal to parents.

"It will damage your child if she reads this non-age-appropriate material."

Sounds reasonable, right? Except for that tricky part: defining what's appropriate. Check out the "Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2004" on the American Library Association's Banned Book Week website:

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, for sexual content, offensive language, religious viewpoint, being unsuited to age group and violence

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, for racism, offensive language and violence

Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael A. Bellesiles, for inaccuracy and political viewpoint

Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey, for offensive language and modeling bad behavior

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, for homosexuality, sexual content and offensive language

What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones, for sexual content and offensive language

In the Night Kitchen
by Maurice Sendak, for nudity and offensive language

King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, for homosexuality

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, for racism, homosexuality, sexual content, offensive language and unsuited to age group

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, for racism, offensive language and violence

Now I haven't read all of these books, and I'm not planning on reading The Chocolate War to my three year old daughter or handing it over to my eight year old son. But we own a complete set of Captain Underpants (not to mention its hilarious spin-off, Super Diaper Baby), and I am convinced that these books, along with a collection of Calvin & Hobbes cartoon books, are responsible for turning my "I'd rather play my GameBoy" kid into one who regularly devours 300+ page books. George and Harold (the real heroes in Captain Underpants) are good kids. Yes, they get into trouble, but who wouldn't with a teacher like Ms. Anthrope? And the offensive language is of the "It's snot funny" variety, which most boys that age certainly already use.

Attempting to ban this book from a school library is just wrong. Don't let your kids read it if you don't like it, but don't you dare deny it to other kids who might learn that 1) Even kids that are not academically gifted can be heroes; 2) Kids that draw cartoons instead of doing their math problems are not bad kids; and 3) Reading can be fun. And really funny.

Judy Blume (frequently challenged for her kid's books, including Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret) sums it up better than I could on her personal website:

I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children's lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don't read about it, their children won't know about it. And if they don't know about it, it won't happen.

Today, it's not only language and sexuality (the usual reasons given for banning my books) that will land a book on the censors' hit list. It's Satanism, New Age-ism and a hundred other isms, some of which would make you laugh if the implications weren't so serious. Books that make kids laugh often come under suspicion; so do books that encourage kids to think, or question authority; books that don't hit the reader over the head with moral lessons are considered dangerous.

Censors don't want children exposed to ideas different from their own. If every individual with an agenda had his/her way, the shelves in the school library would be close to empty. I wish the censors could read the letters kids write.

Dear Judy,
I don't know where I stand in the world. I don't know who I am. That's why I read, to find myself.
Elizabeth, age 13

But it's not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Bookseller of Kabul: Book Review

I'm glad I joined a book club last year (thanks to Patty K. & Kim M. for their determination to recruit me). I read a lot on my own, but this book club has pushed me to read several selections that I almost certainly wouldn't have chosen on my own, but that I'm very happy to have read.

Last year, this included The Known World, by Edmund P. Jones (the story of a slave-owning Black freedman and his family); and Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer (the story of a Mormon family, and how two horrific murders were related to historical and modern revelations, polygamy, and patriarchy).

This month's selection - The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad - was not at all what I expected.

Perhaps this is because in the past year I've read a couple books that are set in the Middle East that were much more literary in style: Crescent, by Diana Abu-Jaber (though most of Crescent is actually set in Los Angeles, many passages take place in Iraq), and Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (obviously set in Iran), by Azar Nafisi. I thought both were very good books, in very different ways. The authors are both extremely skilled with language and symbolism and all those literary things I vaguely remember from school.

Asne Seierstad is journalist, however, not a professor of English or literature (like Abu-Jaber and Nafisi), and it was surprisingly refreshing to read a straightforward account of her three month stay with the family of a bookseller in Afghanistan's capital.

The Bookseller of Kabul reminded me of an unusually well-written ethnography - an anthropologist's description of a particular culture. Seierstad immersed herself in this family's life: she ate with them, slept on a pallet beside the other unmarried women, wore a burka, went to the market, and helped prepare for a wedding with the women. Because of her status as a Westerner (not a regular "woman"), she was also able to accompany the men to work at the bookstore, on family visits, on business trips, and a religious pilgrimage. The different family members are intimately portrayed; the stories are fascinating, shocking, and sometimes unbearably sad. Seierstad's simple and matter of fact prose perfectly suits the setting and the stories.

The only thing I found truly lacking was a good map of Afghanistan and Pakistan, so I could look at the cities and places described. Luckily, National Geographic's map site filled most of the gaps, showing both cultural and geographic features. It would have been wonderful to also see actual photographs of the people involved - but I can see that would not have done much to keep them anonymous.

Apart from understanding a bit more about what it would be like to live in Kabul, to live in an extanded family, to be a man vs. a woman in Afghanistan, a few things that will stick in my mind from this book are some of the Taliban's rules for proper behavior. I never knew that washing clothes in the river, fighting pigeons, flying kites, playing drums, and virtually all music and dance was outlawed during their regime. And the images of the bookseller's books burning in the street in front of his store - several times over the years - is an appropriate one to think about this week, which is Banned Books Week here in the US.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Autumn, Fall of the Leaf, and Harvest

Last week the farmers behind us harvested their soybeans with a very futuristic looking combine. It looked a lot like a Dyson vacuum - but not the one I covet, which is purple and supposed to be especially good at sucking up dog hair.

My son wanted to know why there were two different words for this season. Why both fall and autumn? Which one is it really? Do they mean the same thing? I told him we'd have to google the answer when we got home.

It turns out that this time of year is mainly fall in North America and autumn in Great Britain. This makes sense to me - I bet if I ask most of my neighbors what the names of the four seasons are, they will answer "spring, summer, winter, and fall". They'll probably even list them in that order, though I don't know why it should be so. Possibly it makes sense to start the cycle with spring, but why put winter before fall? Maybe it just sounds better to end on a single syllable. "Winter, spring, summer, and fall" also sounds ok, like you're starting at the beginning of the new year. At any rate, autumn doesn't come into it at all.

In Language and Place, Peter Trudgill explains that

the word autumn is normal in most of southern England, but in parts of the Southwest and in Lincolnshire the traditional dialect word is fall. This reflects the introduction into England in late mediaeval times of the originally French word autumn. This eventually replaced the Anglo-Saxon word fall in Standard English in England and in some of the dialects, but not in others. It is obvious that at one time the use of autumn must have been much less widespread than it is today, since fall was the form which was carried by settlers to North America.

Autumn is definitely a more literary word than fall, although "fall of the leaf", as the season was originally known in England, is rather poetic. Roger Ascham was responsible its first recorded use in 1545, in his book on archery entitled Toxophilus. He explained that it is important to take account of the weather and season when shooting an arrow:

For diversitie of tyme causeth diversitie of wether,
as in the whole yeare,
Sprynge tyme, Somer, Faule of the leafe, and Winter

Peter Trudgill's article goes on explain that "in much of the north of England and Scotland another word, backend, is used" instead of either autumn or fall. After my son finished rolling around the floor after hearing "backend" ("It's the butt of the year!"), we also learned that neither autumn nor fall were used much before 1500 AD. In medieval times, they just called it harvest.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

On Bathrooms

The other night I was in the bathroom, and my 8 year old son came abruptly to the door. "Are you on the toilet? Are you going to be done soon? I need to go now."

When I told him that I was going to be a while and that he could go upstairs, he sighed loudly enough to be heard through the door, and then pounded up the stairs. A while later, after we were both out of our respective bathrooms, I commented on how it was a good thing that we had two bathrooms (well, actually 1 1/2, but it's the number of toilets that are important). I told him that when his dad was growing up, he had a brother and a sister, and their whole house only had one bathroom, and everyone had to wait if someone else was using the bathroom.

"Yeah, and their one bathroom was even outside," my son replied. I had to explain that Daddy wasn't that old, and I didn't think that anyone still used outhouses in suburban Chicago in the 1960's and 1970's.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Cutting the Mustard or the Cheese?

My husband informs me that I'm confusing "cut the cheese" with "cut the mustard", and that only the first phrase refers to farting. I must defer to his expertise in flatulence. I guess that I was thinking about mustard gas when I confused the two.

I e-mailed Michael Quinion and sent him the link my blog review of his book, and he very kindly e-mailed me back and thanked me for the information on Blue's Clues and how Blue and Steve skidoo through pictures to all sorts of educational places. He also corrected my spelling of etymythology, which I immediately went and fixed.

I am having loads of fun browsing his World Wide Words, and am planning on using all kinds of obscure but colorful phrases in my writing. Like makebate: A person who creates contention or strife. But enough bafflegab, the three year old's naptime is over and it's time to pick up my son at school.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

No Child Left Behind

A very cool bumper sticker:

...with information on how to get yours here.

Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds

Sometimes I pick out books based almost entirely on the title (like Christopher Moore's many wonderful books, including The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove). Especially if they're free from the library. This was one of those books, and it didn't disappoint.

The complete title is actually Ballyhoo, Buckaroo, and Spuds: Ingenious Tales of Words and Their Origins, by Michael Quinion. In case you are in any doubt of his qualifications, the cover sports the word SMITHSONIAN in big red letters above the title, and "Contributor, Oxford English Dictionary" below his name.

It was a relaxing yet erudite read, perfect for browsing or people with small children and correspondingly short attention spans. Apparently, the internet has spawned quite a few messages on word origins that are best explained as folk etymology or etymological myth, also known as etymythology: "a group of illustrations of the imaginative ways in which people can work very hard to make sense of the unknown" (p.2-3).

Quinion has taken some fun words and phrases, starting with Akimbo and ending with Zzxjoanw, and written short but occasionally ever-so-politely imperious essays on the fictious stories, the obscure and fascinating histories, and the scholarly research that the wonks (yes, that's one of the words reviewed) at the American Dialect Society, the OED and other organizations have undertaken.

Several interesting websites are included in a "Webliography", including Quinion's own World Wide Words, which is definitely the bee's knees. My only disappointments, which I may have to write to him about: there is no mention of farting in "cut the mustard", nor any description of Blue's Clues under "Twenty-Three Skidoo". Possibly Mr. Quinion isn't around anklebiters enough to have absorbed these modern usages.


I am fascinated by weeds: the weeds in my yard, the concept of weeds, the origins and history of different weeds (part & parcel of my former academic interests in the origins of agriculture), and eating weeds, for which I recommend James Duke's Handbook of Edible Weeds. From the library, because I saw when I made that link that even used copies are selling for over $80.

In my yard: goosefoot (aka lambsquarters or Chenopodium album), pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus), purslane, carpetweed, plaintain, dandelion, goatsbeard, jewelweed, Canadian thistle, black nightshade, goldenrod, ragweed, stinging nettle, horsetail, Japanese knotweed, wood sorrel (aka 'sweet clover'), white clover, shepherd's purse, prostrate spurge (one of the few I actively dislike), creeping charlie (or creeping jenny or ground ivy), crabgrass, Queen Anne's lace, pokeweed, knotgrass, daisy fleabane, and I'm sure many more. I think all of these except jewelweed and purslane are introduced (invasive) species. This isn't too surprising considering these weeds are adapted to my lawn, garden areas, and the disturbed edge of a soybean field/sump pump drainage ditch/creek behind the yard.

I know there were native chenopods and amaranths; I have some lovely Mexican amaranth (pigweed) volunteers. But the really agressive ones here are the European varieties.

A flowering weed;
Hearing its name,
I looked anew at it.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Peromyscus leucopus

...also known as the deer mouse, caught in our garage. Minutes after this picture was taken, this little guy (or girl) leaped to the edge of the five gallon plastic bucket, making my husband shriek in surprise, and scampered behind some of the junk we may need someday and so keep stored along the garage walls.

I think it's pretty cute, but I don't like him eating the granola bars right out of my car and pooping on the seats.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Where Did That Come From?

My three year old daughter informed me yesterday that "When I have a big butt and eat peanut butter, then I'll be a mommy."

She just said this out of the blue, too. I did not ask her if she thought I had a "big butt".

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Eyewitness to History via Blogs

I find something totally compelling about reading firsthand accounts. Back before I had internet options for used books and interlibrary loans, my husband & I joined the "History Book Club", and one of our selections was an uneven but occasionally riveting anthology called Eyewitness to History.

This past week, reading blog accounts by people in New Orleans, like the internet guys holed up on the 12th floor of an office building, and a couple of paramedics in the group that tried to hire a bus out of town have added a sometimes shocking, unfiltered side to my usual diet of CNN, MSNBC, and NPR. The photographs are amazing, too...and now that photo censorship is going into effect in New Orleans, I'm especially grateful to have Internet access.

Still Trying to Think of Ways to Help...

...that don't put you deeper into debt.

Give blood.

And imagine sitting in a shelter. Wouldn't it be nice to have a trashy book to read to take your mind off of things for a little bit? Wouldn't it be great if you had a bedtime story to read to your daughter? Not "My Pet Goat", though.

There are a couple of places collecting used books for people - Borders and Waldenbooks in Houston are accepting donations in their stores, or you can send them to:

Borders Books
3025 Kirby
Houston, TX 77098

And a Nora Roberts fan group is collecting all kinds of books here:

Books for Comfort Drive
c/o Turn the Page Bookstore Cafe
Boonsboro, MD 21713

Do this after you make that cash donation to the charity of your choice, obviously.

Give Something Now

I know most of you have already donated to the Red Cross or another organization (see a huge list here, if you want some alternatives).

But if you have clean and gently used socks, underwear, children's clothing and towels, they desperately need them at shelters in Baton Rouge, along with new toothbrushes, toothpaste, diapers, baby formula, soap and "feminine hygiene products":

Katrina Disaster Relief
Salvation Army
7361 Airline Highway
Baton Rouge, LA 70805

and yes, the US Post Office is delivering mail there. So go on, pack up some towels and socks. You need to clean your closets out and simplify your life anyway.