Mary Poppins and other outcasts

Book-banning, it seems, is on the rise in public and school libraries across the United States. anyone doubting this should ask Mary Poppins, the genial high-flying nanny in the popular children's book of the same name, who has recently been grounded by San Francisco's public library.

The book-banning trend seems to reflect heightened public concern about outdated and demeaning racial stereotypes, obscenity, and vulgar language in literature accessible to children. And that is understandable. But any action that threatens to infringe on author's and publishers' First Amendment rights and the free dissemination of ideas is dangerous and should be undertaken with the greatest of care. The problem with even high-minded censorship is how to reign in overzealousness.

Mary Poppins ran afoul of the censor in tolerant San Francisco because of what a library committee considered the book's derogatory treatment of minorities. It was said to depict them "in the old English view of the white man's burden'. . . That is naturally offensive to minorities and others as well." Even a re-edited version from which some offensive passages had been deleted by the author failed to assuage the censors. Other children's books, such as "Huckleberry Finn" and some early Nancy Drew mysteries, have drawn similar criticism in other places.

More often than not, however, censorship has been practiced in the name of decency -- to keep foul language and obscenity out of the classroom or library. And in a society that many consider too permissive, there is a need to be alert to such mental pollution. But it is also true that today's youngsters, at an earlier age than was true of previous generations, are forced to face up to a confusing array of moral and social questions once looked upon as "adult," and these further complicate the work of parents and educators in selecting suitable books. One librarian's reasonable elimination of a book frequently is another's example of excessive censorship.

One suggestion that might make censorship a bit easier to swallow would be for educators to make a distinction between books assigned to youngsters as required reading and those simply made available in the public or school library. A parent who objects to a teacher assigning a book he or she does not consider appropriate would have less reason to complain where the choice of whether or not to read it is the student's. Moreover, how a teacher presents a book to a classroom is important. Outdated racial stereotypes properly treated as such need not be offensive but, to the contrary, can be an effective tool for bolstering students' understanding of past racial attitudes and the abuses spawned by them.

Such efforts will not likely satisfy extremist groups that would bar any book they deem antigovernment, anti-Christian, or antiparent. But as Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom, cautioned in regard to the ban on "Mary Poppins," "Everyone wants to protect the children. The problem is, they're going to be so protected they won't be able to function in the year 2000."

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