Fighting for the Freedom to Read: Hazelwood, Scopes, and McCarthy

by Pat Scales

Upper elementary school through middle school

  • Adam Canfield of the Slash by Michael Winerip
  • Monkey Town by Ronald Kidd
  • The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman

Never before has there been a greater need for books that spark conversation among children and young adults about censorship issues. Nat Hentoff got young teens talking when he wrote
The Day They Came to Arrest the Book (Delacorte, 1982); Richard Peck asked young readers to think about censorship in
The Last Safe Place on Earth (Delacorte, 1995); and Betty Miles presented one of the first books about censorship issues for elementary-age readers when she wrote
Maudie and Me and the Dirty Book (Knopf, 1980). Though all of these novels are message driven, readers come away with the stark realization that fact and fiction are indeed connected.

The problems these authors posed in their novels 10 and 20 years ago seem minor compared with the problems plaguing schools and public libraries today. In 2005 the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom received a total of 405 challenges, which are defined as formal, written complaints filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The voices of the censors are loud, and they are organized. They are using the Internet as their courtroom, collecting jurors from cyberspace who share their beliefs, and they are persistent in delivering their messages before local school and library boards.

The censors rarely read the books they question, but they often search library catalogs for books with occult themes, violent acts, homosexuality, or other themes that challenge their religious or political beliefs. Some have drawn clothing on nudes in art books, blacked out offensive language in novels, and labeled librarians who stock such books as "people to watch." They seldom talk to the victims of their actions—the young readers of this nation. Students do have First Amendment rights, and the First Amendment does guarantee them the
freedom to read.

Three very recent novels for children and young adults deal with the broad and complex issues related to free speech. Introduce these books during Banned Books Week (September 23–30, 2006) and ask students to discuss how the issues presented by these authors relate to what they read and see in the news.

The Hazelwood Case

Adam Canfield of the Slash by Mike Winerip tells the story of three very precocious students at Harris Elementary/Middle School who work on the Slash, the school newspaper. Middle-schooler Jennifer, noted for being "steady and dependable," convinces Adam, who likes to "live life on the edge," that they should coedit the newspaper. They have everything under control until Phoebe, the third-grade cub reporter, wants to do a feature story on Eddie the janitor. While Adam doesn’t think that Eddie would make a very interesting feature, Jennifer thinks the story has merit. Then Mrs. Marris, the principal, censors Phoebe’s story by deleting an "important" line. At this point Adam and Jennifer realize that Mrs. Marris is hiding something. When Mrs. Marris insists that they do a feature on Miss Minnie Bloch, a woman who left $75,000 to the school, the three reporters set out to uncover how their censored story about Eddie is related to Miss Bloch’s contribution to the school. Helping them uncover the truth is Eddie the janitor; Mr. Brooks, a beloved history teacher; and Danny, a friend of Adam’s father who knows about Miss Bloch.

Does Mrs. Marris have the right to censor the school newspaper? How do these young journalists report the "truth" without damaging their "permanent records"? Winerip skillfully combines mystery and humor in a story that might lead young readers to investigate the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood Decision of 1988, which involved school newspapers and the rights of student reporters.

The Scopes Trial

Set in the summer of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee,
Monkey Town: The Summer of the Scopes Trial by Ronald Kidd tells the story of Johnny Scopes, a high-school science teacher and part-time football coach who teaches evolution in an effort to bring a little publicity to the town. But what really happens is a circuslike trial that hits every newspaper in the nation. In the middle of it all is Frances Robinson, the 15-year-old narrator, who has a secret crush on the handsome young teacher, and whose father is chairman of the school board. Though fiction, this novel is based on historical fact and even introduces some of the actual players in this famous trial. There’s William Jennings Bryan, a lawyer whose mission is to prosecute the teacher; H. L. Mencken, an important journalist; and Clarence Darrow, the attorney who defends John Scopes.

Ask students to read this novel and then have them research current events related to "intelligent design." Instruct them to write an essay or stage a debate on the topic of teaching evolution and intelligent design.

The McCarthy Era

The Loud Silence of Francine Green by Karen Cushman relates the chilling effect of the McCarthy era of the early 1950s on United States citizens. In California near Hollywood, 13-year-old Francine Green attends Catholic school, dreams of meeting Montgomery Clift, works hard to stay out of trouble, and heeds her father’s advice—"Don’t get involved." Then Sophie Bowman comes into her life. She is the complete opposite of Francine. Sophie’s mother is dead, and her father, a screenwriter, encourages her to read, to speak up, and to always be passionate about issues she cares about. For these qualities, Sophie has been kicked out of public school. She joins Francine at All Saints School for Girls, where she makes her statement on the first day of school by writing "There is no free speech here" on the gym floor—in red paint.

Francine doesn’t get the symbolism of this act, but as time passes she begins to admire Sophie’s courage to speak up. And she starts to worry about things she had never thought about in the past—the atom bomb, communists, the black list, Joseph McCarthy, and, most of all, free speech. When Sophie and her father suddenly leave town, Francine suspects that it has something to do with Mr. Bowman’s work, his ideas and ideals, and McCarthyism. At this point, she realizes that she has been "bullied into silence," but she will be silent no more—thanks to Sophie Bowman, who taught her how.

Students need only listen to the current debates about the Patriot Act to see a connection between our government now and the McCarthy era. Ask them to interview adults who lived through this time. Did they feel threatened? Did they believe Joseph McCarthy? Do government black lists really protect American citizens? Debate how the Patriot Act affects everyday citizens.

This nation has become a battlefield in the war of ideas. Let’s not make young readers the losers. Let’s give them knowledge—the ammunition they need to become soldiers in protecting their right to read.

Pat Scales recently retired after 36 years as a school librarian. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina.