I’m honored to introduce this new edition of my memoir Stifled Laughter and “reintroduce the book to a new generation of readers,” as my publisher at Fulcrum, Sam Scinta, so beautifully said. And the book could not be more timely.
On October 9, 2021, my son, Ross, texted me a photo of the front page of The Virginian-Pilot:
Six Books under Scrutiny
Two Virginia Beach Board Members, Citing “Pornographic” Content, Ask That They Be Banned
[Victoria] Manning listed issues with “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison in an Oct. 5 email to Superintendent Aaron Spence. . . . She also notified the division’s chief of staff that parents brought additional books to her attention—“Beyond Magenta” by Susan Kuklin and “Good Trouble” by Christopher Noxon.
I cannot print here what I said when I saw this. Because, as you’ll see when you read Stifled Laughter, this wasn’t my first brush with book banning. It was my third. From 1986 to 1991, I fought book banning in two north Florida towns where I lived, Lake City and Live Oak. So when I saw Ross’s text, I thought, Here we go again in Virginia Beach.
That’s three different decades. Three different towns. Three different book-banning battles. Brought by three different right-wing book banners.
But one thing is the same—They didn’t read the books they were hell-bent on banning. They only read excerpts and condemned the whole book as pornography (or “po-nography,” as they said in Lake City), the oldest trick in the Book Banner’s Playbook, which in my long experience looks like this:
1. Choose the book you want to ban.
2. Don’t read the whole book—simply skim the pages for an
excerpt about sex. Or pluck one from social media!
3. Take the excerpt out of context.
4. Choose an adjective from the Book Banner’s Thesaurus to
describe how the excerpt makes you feel:
5. Then choose an adjective to describe the whole book, even
though you haven’t read it:
6. Armed with these two adjectives, fill in the blanks:
“I’m ______________ by (title of the book) because
And use this sentence when you . . .
7. File a formal complaint with your local school board and
demand the book be removed immediately from the school
library and curriculum.
8. Congratulate yourself for protecting everyone’s children,
whether said children and their parents like it or not!
Faithful to this Playbook, Victoria Manning (who had a “Woke Check” Facebook page) sent an October 5 email complaint to Superintendent Aaron Spence about the four books she had “scrutinized”: Lawn Boy, Gender Queer, A Lesson Before Dying, and The Bluest Eye.
Manning stated she’d only “skimmed through” Lawn Boy but insisted “some of the excerpts are disturbing” and “it is abhorrent.” And she only read “a few of the pages” in The Bluest Eye, but they made her feel “utter disgust.” She went on to demand that Spence “immediately review all books in our district and remove any others that could have any pornographic material in them that our students can access.”
Books, if I were to hazard a guess, she had no intention of reading. But as anyone who reads knows, you can’t judge a book by an excerpt. To do so is an illicit generalization based on too small a sample.
And while we’re on the subject, we can go a long way toward nipping book banning in the proverbial bud by insisting that school boards add to their procedures for challenged controversial materials that no one can challenge a book until they’ve read it in its entirety. Once book-banning wannabes can prove they have done so—perhaps by signing a sworn affidavit or answering a few searching questions prepared by the school’s English teachers or librarians—they may proceed with their challenge. I asked a former member of the Suwannee County School Board (you’ll meet her in Stifled Laughter) if adding this requirement would be possible, and she replied, “I don’t see any reason why school boards couldn’t make reading the whole book part of their policy.”
After I read the Virginian-Pilot article Ross texted, I knew I had to protest this book banning. Ross agreed, “You have to speak out, Mom. You have the experience. And the credentials.”
On October 26, 2021, I did speak out, along with more than a dozen passionate and articulate high school students who defended the challenged books. I reminded the school board—sans Victoria Manning, who couldn’t be there “for personal reasons”—that the First Amendment protects students’ right to receive information.
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