Schools around the state of Vermont are celebrating the freedom to read by participating in a statewide reading program that this year picked Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a book that serves as an allegory for censorship. Some schools have taken it a step further, using the program as a starting point for a larger discussion about censorship, especially when it comes to LGBTQ content.
Vermont Reads, organized by Vermont Humanities Council, is a statewide program that picks one often difficult or controversial book for communities around the state to read and provides materials and resources to enable participation. Haroun and the Sea of Stories follows the adventures of a twelve-year-old boy as he travels to stop an evil cult from poisoning the ocean from which his father’s stories come. Several of the schools that chose to participate in this year’s program have embraced its anti-censorship message. VPR, Vermont’s National Public Radio carrier, reports that schools and libraries around the state have also embraced the freedom to read by holding their own themed events celebrating controversial literature, anti-censorship, and students’ right to read. From Harry Potter Day to displays of coming-of-age and LGBTQ themed books — books that are frequently targeted by censors — many Vermont schools have grasped the idea that you can’t just censor away your problems.
In particular, VPR focused on events at Harwood Union Middle and High School, which hosted Harry Potter Day and the LGBTQ display. Regarding the latter display, Gabe Greenwood, a transgender student in the school, said “I know I felt, and I think the group felt, that it was important to know that these resources are in our library and that we are not going to hush up about it.”
LGBTQ literature is frequently targeted by censors. VPR reports on an insidious act of censorship at another Vermont school that targeted a children’s book featuring the true story of two male penguins raising a chick together:
Meg Allison, a librarian at Moretown Elementary school, says And Tango Makes Three has mysteriously disappeared from the shelves more than once. She suspects vigilante censorship.
“On two occasions I’ve gone to find it and it was just gone, so I think it was the case of people taking it and not making a direct challenge,” she said.
Tim Federle is the author of Better Nate than Ever, which features a 13-year-old protagonists who frequently questions his own sexual orientation, has been turned away by schools because administrators are uncomfortable with his subject matter. However, he’s never had an issue with librarians, as he commented at a recent conference:
I think librarians are like First Amendment warriors, and they try so hard to fight for free speech. And my issue has not been coming up against librarians so much as sort of occasionally scared school boards who don’t want parents saying, ‘Why is this book featuring a diverse character?’
Federle argues that Vermont students should be exposed diverse characters in books, in part because the state’s population itself isn’t racially, religiously, or gender diverse. As evidenced in Harwood, it’s also important to allow students access to a variety of books with which they can relate. In participating in Vermont Reads and expanding upon the ideas present in Haroun, schools like Harwood have celebrated the freedom to read and helped many take one more step toward ending censorship.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!