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Friday August 29th 2014

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“Little Brother” Meets Big Brother

by Scott Satterwhite

On June 6, the author of a young adult novel wrote a blog post that sent shock waves throughout Pensacola’s literary and educational communities. “My publisher, Tor Books, is sending 200 free copies of the paperback of my novel “Little Brother” to Booker T. Washington High School, because it’s the first school where any of my novels has been challenged by the school administration.” So began an episode that put local school officials on the defensive and faculty, students and readers crying “censorship.”

Cory Doctorow’s now-infamous young adult novel begins, ironically enough, with a confrontation with a high school principal. In the book, the protagonist named “w1n5t0n” (pronounced “Winston,” similar to George Orwell’s famous character in “1984”) is a student challenging authority in a school named after civil rights icon Cesar Chavez. 

In a case of fiction imitating reality, the principal of another school named after another civil rights icon, Booker T. Washington, lived up to his fictional expectations by removing Washington High School’s One School/One Book selection, “Little Brother. The reason, according to the author, was Principal Michael Roberts’s sole objection to the book’s “positive view of questioning authority, lauding ‘hacker culture,’ and discussing sex and sexuality in passing.”

Make no mistake: Doctorow is clear that he hopes to challenge authority with his novel. A quick glance at his selected reading list in the back pages of the book includes numerous hacker memoirs, the seminal hacker zine “2600,” Beat Generation authors Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” (including the web address for updated versions).  Doctorow’s strongest recommendation, however, goes to George Orwell’s “1984,” which Doctorow makes allusions to throughout the text. From the title of the book to the name of the main character, Doctorow lets his readers know right away where his sympathies lie. 

According to Doctorow, “I read [“1984”] when I was 12 and have read it thirty or forty times since.” His assumption is that most of his readers have done the same, which is why the removal of Doctorow’s “Little Brother” from Washington’s One Book/One Read program sounded eerily familiar—maybe like Big Brother.

Set in San Francisco, Doctorow’s tech-savvy main characters fight the Department of Homeland Security’s attempts to destroy civil liberties in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack in the Bay Area. Originally published in 2008, the book lauds hacker culture as having the potential to liberate society from a repressive government. The subsequent release of thousands of government documents by Private Chelsea Manning in 2010 through the website WikiLeaks and the 2013 release of NSA documents by Edward Snowden underline the prescient message in this novel: Hackers can be heroes and authority should be questioned.

Since “Little Brother” was removed from the school’s One Book/One Read program, several media platforms have erupted in outrage, beginning with the author’s blog post and YouTube message to the students of Washington High School. The public response has been tremendous. Bookseller Barnes and Noble, which carried the book before the controversy, as well as Pensacola State College in Milton have “Little Brother” prominently displayed. Social media sites frequently shared this story and commented extensively on this controversy. The Pensacola News Journal covered the controversy in detail, generating several letters in response.

According to one letter, Washington High School’s librarian Betsy Woolley wrote that several faculty were “concerned about the decision to edit the summer reading list.” In her letter to the PNJ, Woolley stated that she filed a report with the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. While the administration placed the book on its optional summer reading list for 11th grade students, the controversy continues.

While many have referred to this issue as attempted censorship, the American Library Association (ALA) draws a clear distinction between a “banned book” and one that has been “challenged.” According to the ALA’s website, “a challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials.” As Doctorow’s book was not removed from the school’s library or its reading list, “Little Brother” is classified as a challenged book.

The ALA collects extensive statistics concerning the issue of challenged and banned books, including recent legal challenges over books such as “Heather has Two Mommies” and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Annually, the ALA hosts a national event celebrated in libraries across the country, Banned Book Week. Common read programs, usually sponsored by schools and libraries, often face extra scrutiny over their selections, and thus pay considerable attention to the chilling effect of banning literature in a free society.

Britt McGowan, a librarian at the University of West Florida (UWF), sits on a school-wide committee that selects the UWF’s Common Read for the upcoming school year. This year’s Common Read selection is listed on the ALA’s commonly banned book list: Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.” When deciding which book to select, McGowan said that a number of factors help determine which book will be the school’s Common Read. “Our primary consideration is the student and what we feel she will get out of the book,” McGowan said. “We also consider what kind of programming events could be coordinated with the book and if we feel faculty across the university will be able to use it in the classroom. Obviously, we want the book to challenge the students, and many times this means broadening their notions of the world, which they may find uncomfortable,” she said.

One recent high-profile book challenge came when the College of Charleston in South Carolina saw its budget cut by state legislators over the school’s summer reading selection for incoming freshmen. “Fun Home,” a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel that concerns a young lesbian coming to terms with her father’s homosexuality and suicide, irritated conservative lawmakers enough that they cut $70,000 from the school’s budget to cover the expense of the book. 
Responding to this controversy, Bechdel wrote, “It’s sad and absurd that the College of Charleston is facing a funding cut for teaching my book—a book which is after all about the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people’s lives.” The attention drawn over cases such as these often creates an interesting reaction, known as the Streisand Effect, which only fuels more interest in a particular subject.

“Young or old—it doesn’t matter,” said Harley Orr, owner of Pensacola Pop Comics. “When a book ends up on the radar as being ‘bad’ it’s going to be hunted [down] by those who want to read it.”

For many, the main issue is not the book itself but what they perceive as a challenge to critical thinking and independent thought within Escambia County schools. Doctorow wrote in his blog, “I don’t think [the challenge of “Little Brother”] is a problem because my book is the greatest novel ever written and the kids will all miss out by not reading it, but because I think that the role of an educator is to encourage critical thinking and debate.” According to Doctorow, “this is a totally inappropriate way to address ‘controversial’ material in schools.” Orr agrees. A former Escambia County middle school teacher who recently left teaching to open his own comic book store in East Hill, Orr underscored Doctorow’s concern that this controversy may hamper critical discourse and give the students mixed signals. “I think we have a lot of great teachers and students [in Escambia County] but I don’t think many kids really think we want them to think independently,” Orr said. “We need our students to be able to argue effectively, and that can’t happen if they’re kept from ideas someone disagrees with.”

As of press time, repeated requests asking for comment by Dr. Michael Roberts were not returned. As for the 200 books being sent to Pensacola, when we find out where they are being sent, we’ll report it here. Repeated inquiries to the publisher were not successful.

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Banned Book Summer Reading List
There are literally hundreds from which to choose, but these are a few that might be fun to read this summer. Happy Reading and Fight the Power!
•    “Little Brother” by Cory Doctorow
•    “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie
•    “Johnny Got his Gun” by Dalton Trumbo
•    “Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie
•    “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
•    “Go Tell it on the Mountain” by James Baldwin
•    “1984” by George Orwell (or really anything by George Orwell)
•    “The Bluest Eyes” by Toni Morrison
•    “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
•    “Fun Home” by Allison Bechdel