As any author would be, Carolyn Mackler is grateful for the renewed attention her book “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things” is getting this Christmas season. But this was not the way she wanted to get it.
Mackler writes novels for adolescent girls, what the industry calls the “young adult” market. “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things” — an inspirational tale about overcoming body insecurities, peer pressure and family dysfunction — was one of the most highly honored books in the genre when it appeared in late 2003.
“If I had the authority, I’d make every parent read it,” said Charles I. Ecker, superintendent of schools in Carroll County, Md., “because it’s about family relations, about how parents treat a child that may not be the way they think they should be.”
Ecker doesn’t have that authority, but he does have the authority to say what books can go on the shelves in Carroll County’s public schools. A couple of months ago, he was given the chance to decide on “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.”
He banned it.
An agonizing choice for a respected educator
This is not your usual story about a rural school official pulling “The Catcher in the Rye” because kids shouldn’t read such trash.
Carroll County lies in an urban corridor about halfway between Washington and Baltimore, and its schools are rated among the best in Maryland. Ecker, a former two-term county executive in neighboring Howard County, has a doctorate in education administration and has served on numerous state and regional commissions in more than 40 years as an educator.
He is quick to praise a worthy book when he finds one, and he thinks teenagers can learn a lot from “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things.”
But it “also had some foul language in it and some sexual things in it that I thought was unfortunate,” he said in an interview. “I didn't think it added to the message. I thought it took away from it.” So he overturned a committee that voted to keep the book after a parent challenged its language and sexual themes.
The book is remarkable for its realism, which Mackler, 32, who lives in New York, said is something she can’t compromise on, because the only way to reach adolescent readers is to speak to them in their own language.
“Since this novel came out, I’ve received piles and piles of letters from teenage girls — handwritten letters — telling me that since they read ‘The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things,’ they feel better about themselves as they are,” she said in an interview. “They have stopped cutting themselves. They’ve sought help for bulimia. They’ve sought help for depression.”
So when word reached students at Winters Mill High School that “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things” would be pulled from the libraries, they initiated a petition drive to get it back. Ecker said he is formally considering their request and expects to decide shortly after the first of the year.
Ecker said he was in a quandary. He believes in the First Amendment, he said, and “it’s a wonderful message,” but it is also a difficult one that some pupils may not be ready for.
Deeper books trigger tougher battles
That’s what commonly leads educators to waver on how fiercely — or even whether — to defend a book that, as with Mackler’s, nearly everyone agrees is important and worthy.
As authors produce ever more sophisticated books for young readers, the number of parents who are uncomfortable on religious or moral grounds has grown. The American Library Association said it monitored 547 challenges last year, up from 458 in 2003. For every book in its files, four or five others are probably also being challenged in libraries and schools somewhere in America, it said.
For a quarter-century, the ALA has also issued an annual “10 Most Challenged Books” list. Led by “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier, the 10 books cited for 2004 drew complaints over sexual content, offensive language, religious viewpoint and violence, the ALA said.
Mackler said those complaints were just adults talking down to adolescents, who flock to the books and their messages.
“The one thing in this whole banning fiasco is I have been so incredibly moved by the students’ efforts and the petition,” she said. “The students are asking for access to my novel. They’re asking for the right to read as widely as possible. There’s been so much support.”
Acknowledging the parents’ prerogative
The problem for educators, though, is that it’s not enough to say a book should go on the shelves because it’s a good book. Parents object to all kinds of books for all kinds of reasons, and they must be the final arbiters of what their children read, Ecker said, no matter how legitimate their reasons are — or aren’t.
One entry on the ALA’s list of frequently challenged books, the “Captain Underpants” series for elementary school readers by Dav Pilkey, illustrates the difficulty. The books are devoid of sex — indeed, they are devoid of any adult themes at all. They’re simply outrageous (and outrageously illustrated) adventure tales that trade in themes guaranteed to appeal to the youngest readers, with titles like “Captain Underpants and the Big, Bad Battle of the Bionic Booger Boy, Part 2” and “Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopypants.”
Parents have frequently objected to the books because they’re “gross” and “stupid.” Or, as Pilkey puts it on his Web site, they’re “a monster mashin’, robo-wranglin’, time travelin’, brain-switchin’, nose-pickin’ good time!”
If books like that can create battles, then books like “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things” are guaranteed to start a fight.
“I realize that students can go online, they can see worse things in movies and they can buy the books at the bookstore or on Amazon.com,” Ecker said. “... And yet I don’t think that makes it right to put it in a book that is on the shelves of the media center in a public school where the students have to go.
“What they do on their own time, that’s up to them and their parents.”
Unfortunately, Ecker said, parents too often pay no attention to what their children read, leaving it to educators to make difficult and sometimes unpalatable choices.
Ecker stressed how much he admired “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things,” and he said, “It does have a good message, and if parents would read it with their youngsters, it would be great. (But) too many times, a student will check a book out of the media center and the parent may or may not know it.”
If nothing else, he said, he hopes the controversy will help parents “realize that they ought to check what their child is reading, whether they get it from the school library or the public library.”