March 2005

Chris Zammarelli

banned bookslut

And What You Sought to Do Will Undo You

School districts usually have a specific procedure in place whenever someone challenges the book. The concerned party submits a formal complaint to the area school board, which then sets up a committee to review the work in question. Public hearings on the book are likely to take place, giving members of the community the opportunity to either air their grievances or lend their support. The committee recommends a decision to the school board, which then makes a formal ruling on the book.

For example, the Norwood, Colorado school board policy on Teaching about Controversial Issues calls for "a fair and balanced presentation of each of the major aspects or sides of the issue."

Superintendent Bob Conder didn't know this. So when John and Rhonda Oliver visited him to outline their complaints about Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, he decided to ban it on the spot. Then he told the couple they could get rid of all the high school's copies of the book.

"Rhonda and myself physically picked up the books and took them home," said John Oliver. He told the Rocky Mountain News, "We put them in the trash can and it goes to a landfill. It was just our way of knowing it would be gone."

When asked about his decision, Conder told the Associated Press, "It's less a matter of censorship than a matter of sponsorship. That's not the kind of garbage I want to sponsor at this high school."

Bless Me, Ultima, one of the books recommended by First Lady Laura Bush as part of her Ready to Read, Ready to Learn initiative, is considered "one of the most significant cultural treasures of the Chicano community in the United States," according to Chicano Studies professor Luis Torres of Denver's Metropolitan State College.

The novel tells the story of Antonio, a seven-year-old Catholic boy in New Mexico whose life changes when his parents let a healer named Ultima live with them. Anaya received the second annual Premio Quinto Sol award for Chicano literature for his effort.

The Olivers are not the first people to be upset by what they described as the book's "filthy" language. Bless Me, Ultima was number 75 on the American Library Association's 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of the 1990s. In addition to its language, it is frequently challenged for promoting witchcraft.

Conder's actions caused an uproar in Norwood. Students at the high school announced plans to stage a sit-in and take turns reading from the book. They also asked Anaya to visit their school. Professor Torres offered the school district $1000 to replace the books. Norwood Post editor Margo Roberts said her newspaper was flooded with complaints about Conder's decision.

One letter to the editor, from junior Christian Skyler Kelley, said, "I never knew this book existed. Now I feel it is my obligation to read it and see what our superintendent found so dangerous that it must be destroyed."

On February 4, before the students began their sit-in, Conder called a school assembly. He apologized to the students for banning Bless Me, Ultima, saying he made his decision "without enough information on the content of the book," according to a letter he gave to the Norwood Post. He had admitted at the time the controversy began that he had not read the book, and had based his decision on what the Olivers told him.

Conder said that he would submit Bless Me, Ultima to the school district for review, and if it is decided that the book should remain in Norwood schools, he would personally pay to replace the copies he let be thrown away. (The school board will hear the challenge later this month, according to the Norwood Post.)

He then took questions from the assembly, according to freshman Skyler Hollinbech, who was one of the students participating in the protest. "[And] I'm glad he did, even though tempers flared," she said.

The students held the sit-in anyway, Hollinbech told the Rocky Mountain News. "We stayed all day to prove the point and say it won't happen again. It was a violation of our rights." Conder said that none of the students would be punished for their actions.

Incidentally, a parent pointed out to the Rocky Mountain News that the teacher who assigned Bless Me, Ultima had sent home a parental permission slip that offered an alternate novel in case anyone objected to the book.