In which Miss Molly brings banned books to the table.

It was Banned Books Week this past week. At the Southington Public Library, we do a reading of banned books each year. And this year, they’ve finally included the children’s librarians, and I got to do a reading. We all know about adult books that have been banned, and young adult books, and Harry Potter. But what about the others? The ones that have been fighting the good fight for a lot longer than Mr. Potter has been around.

I chose to focus on Shel Silverstein’s poetry book, A Light in the Attic (1981). I remember in elementary school that Silverstein poetry books were basically gold. When you finally got your hands on a copy, you delighted and giggled your way through the poems. Laughed at the pictures, secretly worried that the one of the guy with no pants on would get you in trouble with the teachers.

beesting something-missing

I liked the poems because they were funny, and weird; they rhymed and had ridiculous illustrations. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that at the time, but looking back, the way Silverstein played with ideas and language is as appealing to children as it is to adults. Only now, being a grownup, I can talk about it.

But back to A Light in the Attic, which was challenged in 1981 and then banned at Cunningham Elementary School in Wisconsin because, critics argued, it “encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.” My guess is they were talking about the poem, How Not to Dry the Dishes.

If you have to dry the dishes

(such an awful, boring chore)

If you have to dry the dishes

(‘Stead of going to the store)

If you have to dry the dishes

And you drop one on the floor—

Maybe they won’t let you

Dry the dishes anymore.

A Light in the Attic, p12, Silverstein.

Another school in Mukwanago Wisconsin banned it in 1986 because some of its poems “glorified Satan, suicide and cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient.” My guess with the disobedience part is the poem “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony”. This poem was also challenged by Fruitland Park Elementary School in Florida because Abigail dies at the end, and the author’s note can be considered subversive.

The poem is all about Little Abigail, who wants a pony SO MUCH/ But, her parents won’t buy it for her. Abigail says she will positively die if she can’t have the pony. Her parents respond, as most parents respond to ridiculous requests, that no child has ever died by not getting a pony. Well, Abigail gets home and goes to bed. She can’t eat, or sleep and does, in fact, die because her parents won’t get her the pony. Now, you might say that’s not so bad…until you get to the author’s note, which reads:

(This is a good story

To read to your folks

When they won’t buy

You something you want.)

Ok, you might have a point there, but what else could possibly be wrong? Where is this devilry, and the supernatural? Or the horror, or the morbid humor, or the violence? One guess would be on one of my personal favorites, the poem, Skin Stealer:

 

This evening I unzipped my skin

And carefully unscrewed my head,

Exactly as I always do

When I prepare myself for bed.

And while I slept a coo-coo came

As naked as could be

And put on the skin

And screwed on the head

That once belonged to me.

Now wearing my feet

He runs through the street

In a most disgraceful way.

Doin’ things and sayin’ things

I’d never do or say,

Ticklin’ the children

And kickin’ the men

And Dancin’ the ladies away.

So if he makes your bright eyes cry

Or makes your poor head spin,

That scoundrel you see

Is not really me

He’s the coo-coo

Who’s wearing my skin.

Yes how strange. Kind of scary. It can even been seen as an excuse, the challengers might say, An Excuse for bad behavior!It wasn’t me! Someone stole my skin!

And then we have Rockabye.

Rockabye baby, in the treetop.

Don’t you know a treetop

Is no safe place to rock?

And who put you up there,

And your cradle too?

Baby, I think someone down here’s

Got it in for you.

Sure, I get it. There’s some dark stuff in those poems. But that’s what makes them good. That’s what makes them important. Fear and darkness is the price of imagination. These poems inhabit a weird, whimsical fantasy world that teaches children (AND ADULTS if we would only listen) valuable life lessons with humor and silliness. They teach us that it’s ok to talk about things that are strange and things that scare us. It’s a safe way to work through things that we might be wondering about.

So, this is where I leave you on this wonderful Banned Book Week. But first, one final Silverstein poem called Listen to the Mustn’ts.

Listen to the MUSTN’TS, child,

Listen to the DON’TS

Listen to the SHOULDN’TS

The IMPOSSIBLES, the WONT’S

Listen to the NEVER HAVES

Then listen close to me-

Anything can happen, child,

ANYTHING can be

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