WSU Tri-City students speak out about banned books

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldOctober 6, 2012 

Shane Sniff said he was surprised that the book James and the Giant Peach often was challenged for its presence on shelves in schools and libraries.

Sniff, a 20-year-old Pasco sophomore at Washington State University Tri-Cities, said he always liked Roald Dahl's weird and fantastic story because it provided an escape. Now he knows some people don't appreciate how the book lionizes a boy who challenged authority.

"Yeah, it challenges authority figures, but the authority figures were terrible," he said.

Walt Disney based a movie on the book in 1996.

This was National Banned Books Week, and Sniff, along with his nine classmates in an English class on banned literature, are working to spread the word about controversial books.

They and their instructor hope to encourage discussion about the difficult topics, such as racism, communism and religion, rather than people sweeping them under the rug.

Andrea Campbell, a clinical assistant professor of English at the Richland campus, said she was inspired to offer a course on banned literature partially because of its strong appeal to students but also because it has been a recent issue in the Tri-Cities.

The Richland School Board briefly pulled The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie from its classrooms in early 2011. The book about Alexie's experiences growing up on the Spokane reservation and going to school in a predominantly white town has been challenged for its use of profanity and offensive language.

The board reversed its decision about a month later after members read the book and said it could be used in any grade level at Richland and Hanford high schools.

"I thought it would be good to teach and show students this does still happen," Campbell said.

Campbell's students read books from various levels, from children's books to internationally protested books such as Lady Chatterly's Lover by D.H. Lawrence and Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. They then discuss the texts, including trying to understand why people would want to ban them.

Rochelle Foster, a 32-year-old sophomore from Richland, said she sought the course out because of her interest in banned literature.

"I see so much value in the books we've been discussing," she said. "There are so many books that were required reading for me (as a child) that were challenged."

The students are doing presentations on campus this week as part of their course work. Tuesday in the atrium of the West Building on the Richland campus, they laid out classic books such as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to more contemporary books such as volumes from the Goosebumps and Captain Underpants children's series, with labels describing why they've been challenged. They're also surveying people who visit the display.

Isatou Baldeh, a 36-year-old junior from Richland, said she doesn't necessarily like that some books with extreme violence are read by some young students. However, she said she was disheartened to learn that books about historical events, including Roots by Alex Haley, which describes the experience of generations of an African man brought to the United States in slavery, are also challenged in schools.

"It's better for you to read it and know about it rather than think, 'Oh, I don't want to know about it,'" Baldeh said.

Campbell and her students said that while people have a right to not like a book and not have to read it, it's important to not jump to banning literature because of those opinions.

Sniff and Foster said they hoped spreading awareness about such challenges will generate discussions about people's issues with certain books, contributing to better understanding. It could also stop the practice of people avoiding a book simply because someone told them it was offensive.

"You really can't judge a book by its cover," Sniff said.

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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