February 2004

Chris Zammarelli

banned bookslut

All Because of a Pony Her Parents Wouldn't Buy

When her daughter Cyrena borrowed A Light in the Attic from the Fruitland Park (FL) Elementary School library, Sherry Towne was disturbed by what she read.

In the poem "Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony," the title character tells her parents that if they don't buy her a pony, she'll die. Her parents refuse, and she does, in fact, die. The moral of Shel Silverstein's poem: "This is a good story to read to your folks when they won't buy you something you want."

"I was just outraged by it all," Towne told the Orlando Sentinel. "It teaches children to manipulate their parents." After reading the rest of the book, she deemed that 24 of the 135 poems were not suitable for children. In response, she asked the school district to remove it, along with Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends, from Lake County school libraries.

The Fruitland Park Elementary School formed a committee of teachers and parents to review her request. They voted to keep the books on the shelves. They then requested the school add a lesson about nonsensical poetry to its curriculum.

Towne appealed the decision to a school district committee, saying, "I think they are totally inappropriate… Kids don't need to dwell on negative, irrational fears. I don't think children get anything positive out of these books at all."

Unfortunately for her, the school district agreed with the original recommendation. Towne denounced their conclusion: "We cram this crap down our children's throats. We have a responsibility for raising our children."

After superintendent Tom Sanders affirmed the decision, Towne indicated she'd again appeal. However, she never did.

Sam Fenton, the editor of Orlando Sentinel's Lake County section, wrote in an editorial on the controversy, "Youngsters obviously have a better understanding of the difference between fact and fiction than Towne is willing to give them credit for." Cameron Collins, an 11-year-old at the time, proved Fenton's point, saying, "This stuff just makes me laugh."

I'd like to think that the light-heartedly snarky tone of Silverstein's poetry is obvious to anyone who reads it. Yet, there have been a surprising number of challenges to his work. According to The Forbidden Library, A Light in the Attic has frequently been taken to task for such things as encouraging children to "be disobedient" and to "break dishes so they won't have to dry them" and for glorifying "Satan, suicide and cannibalism."

The aforementioned "Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony" is a frequent subject of ire whenever A Light in the Attic is challenged. In 1989, the Huffan (TX) Independent School District banned it from classrooms for being, according to superintendent Douglass Shands, "disturbing to young minds." Barbara McGaugh said of the poem, "I think it's sick. It plants the seed. We're trying to keep suicide out of our schools, not in them."

More bizarrely, the poem "Ma and God" from Where the Sidewalk Ends was cited in lawsuit against the Bedford Central School District in New York. A group of parents accused the school of holding activities and reading literature that was anti-Catholic. These activities ranged from Earth Day observations to a discussion of Hinduism in India.

The plaintiffs used "Ma and God" as evidence of the school's less than Christian leanings, decrying it for claiming God was fallible. The final line of the poem, you see, is "Either Ma's wrong or God is."

The three judges hearing the case found that "Silverstein… was apparently intending to be funny."

Fortunately for the plaintiffs, there's a class on nonsensical poetry at Fruitland Park Elementary School.

A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
Harper Collins
ISBN: 0060256737
176 Pages