Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

A Story for the Ages

For the past two years my hus­band and I have had the good for­tune to spend the wan­ing days of sum­mer in Door Coun­ty, Wis­con­sin. There we have dis­cov­ered a vibrant arts com­mu­ni­ty. A boun­ty of the­atre, music, and fine arts is there for the pick­ing.

The Rabbits Wedding by Garth WilliamsThis year, as I scanned the pos­si­bil­i­ties for our vis­it, I was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the Penin­su­la Play­ers’ Mid­west pre­mière of a new play by Ken­neth Jones called Alaba­ma Sto­ry. The play comes from actu­al events which occurred in Alaba­ma in 1959. Based on the Amer­i­can Library Association’s rec­om­men­da­tion, State Librar­i­an Emi­ly Whee­lock Reed pur­chased copies of the pic­ture book, The Rab­bits’ Wed­ding by Garth Williams, for state libraries. The Rab­bits’ Wed­ding con­cerns a black rab­bit and a white rab­bit who mar­ry. Though Williams, an artist, chose the col­ors of the rab­bits for the con­trast they would pro­vide in his illus­tra­tions, they became sym­bol­ic of much more when seg­re­ga­tion­ist Sen­a­tor E.O. Eddins demand­ed that the book be removed from all state library shelves. Eddins believed that the book pro­mot­ed the mix­ing of races. Alaba­ma Sto­ry tells this sto­ry of cen­sor­ship, jux­ta­posed with the sto­ry of a bira­cial rela­tion­ship.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow RowellMy hus­band and I both had tears in our eyes sev­er­al times through­out the August 31st per­for­mance of Alaba­ma Sto­ry. Cen­sor­ship was some­thing we know inti­mate­ly. Though Alaba­ma Sto­ry takes place in 1959, it could have tak­en place in 2013 in Anoka, Min­neso­ta, with a teen book enti­tled Eleanor & Park by Rain­bow Row­ell. My high school Library Media Spe­cial­ist col­leagues and I had planned a dis­trict-wide com­mu­ni­ty read for the sum­mer of 2013. Based on our own read­ing of the book, and based on the fact that the book had received starred reviews across the board and was on many “best” lists for 2013, we chose Eleanor & Park as the book for the sum­mer pro­gram. All stu­dents who vol­un­teered to par­tic­i­pate received a free copy of the book. Rain­bow Row­ell agreed to vis­it in the fall for a day of fol­low-up with the par­tic­i­pants. Short­ly after the books were hand­ed out, just pri­or to our sum­mer break, par­ents of one of the par­tic­i­pants, along with the Par­ents’ Action League (deemed a hate group by the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter) reg­is­tered a chal­lenge against the book. Their com­plaint had to do with the lan­guage that they deemed inap­pro­pri­ate in the book and with the sex­u­al con­tent in the book. They demand­ed that the par­ents of all par­tic­i­pants be informed that their child had been “exposed” to the book (they were not), that Rain­bow Rowell’s vis­it be can­celled (it was), that copies of the book be removed from the shelves of all dis­trict schools (they were not), that our selec­tion pol­i­cy be rewrit­ten (it was), and that the Library Media Spe­cial­ists be dis­ci­plined (we received a let­ter). The sto­ry gained nation­al atten­tion in the late sum­mer and fall of 2013. 

Emily Wheelock ReadOne of the most strik­ing aspects of Emi­ly Whee­lock Reed’s sto­ry was the sense of iso­la­tion she felt. She received no sup­port, par­tic­u­lar­ly from the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion who had pub­lished the list of rec­om­men­da­tions which she used to pur­chase new books for Alaba­ma state libraries. These feel­ings of iso­la­tion were famil­iar to me. Though my col­leagues turned to each oth­er for sup­port, we received no sup­port from the dis­trict school board or the dis­trict admin­is­tra­tion. This was the most dif­fi­cult time in my thir­ty-six career as a high school edu­ca­tor. Though I had won the district’s Teacher Out­stand­ing Per­for­mance award, was a final­ist for Min­neso­ta Teacher of the Year, and won the Lars Steltzn­er Intel­lec­tu­al Free­dom award, choos­ing Eleanor & Park as the selec­tion for a vol­un­tary sum­mer read­ing pro­gram felt like a threat to my career and to my job. As Toby Gra­ham, Uni­ver­si­ty of Georgia’s Uni­ver­si­ty Librar­i­an, asks in a video for the Free­dom to Read Orga­ni­za­tion, “Who are the Emi­ly Reeds of today, and who will stand up with them in their pur­suit to insure our right to read?” Thank­ful­ly, the media, the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter, our local teach­ers’ union, and oth­ers were sup­port­ive in many ways. In addi­tion, the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, the Free­dom to Read Orga­ni­za­tion, and oth­er orga­ni­za­tions now offer tools ded­i­cat­ed to Library Media Spe­cial­ists who find them­selves in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions.

Eleanor & Park went on to be named a Michael J. Printz Hon­or book—the gold stan­dard for young adult lit­er­a­ture. It is the mov­ing sto­ry of two out­cast teens who meet on the school bus. Eleanor is red-head­ed, poor, white, bul­lied, and the vic­tim of abuse. Park is a bira­cial boy who sur­vives by fly­ing under the radar. The two even­tu­al­ly devel­op trust in each oth­er as the world swirls around them. They them­selves don’t use foul lan­guage. They use music as a way to hold the rest of the world at bay. They fall in love and con­sid­er hav­ing an inti­mate rela­tion­ship but decide, very mature­ly, that they are not ready for sex. As a Library Media Spe­cial­ist, there were “Eleanors” and “Parks” who walked into my media cen­ter each and every day. Their sto­ry need­ed to be on the shelf in my library, so that they could see them­selves reflect­ed in its pages, to know that the world saw them and val­ued them, even if their lives were messy. For those more for­tu­nate than these Eleanors and Parks, the sto­ry was impor­tant as well. By look­ing into the lives of oth­ers via books, we devel­op empa­thy and under­stand­ing, even when the view­points reflect­ed there are not our own.

Carmen Roman as librarian Emily Wheelock Reed, a librarian who stood her ground for the right to read during the onset of the civil rights movement and refused to remove "The Rabbit's Wedding" from the shelves. Photo by Len Villano for The Peninsula Players

Car­men Roman as librar­i­an Emi­ly Whee­lock Reed, a librar­i­an who stood her ground for the right to read dur­ing the onset of the civ­il rights move­ment and refused to remove The Rabbit’s Wed­ding from the shelves. Pho­to by Len Vil­lano for The Penin­su­la Play­ers

As artists—teachers, writ­ers, actors, musi­cians, painters, dancers, and sculptors—it is our job to tell and pre­serve sto­ries, the sto­ries of all indi­vid­u­als, even when they rep­re­sent beliefs dif­fer­ent from our own. Knowl­edge tru­ly is pow­er. When we cen­sor sto­ries, we take away pow­er. One need only look at his­to­ry, and the burn­ing of books and the destruc­tion of libraries by those in pow­er, for exam­ples of the dan­gers of cen­sor­ship. As we cel­e­brate Banned Books Week (Sep­tem­ber 25th–October 1st), it is impor­tant to reflect on the val­ue of artis­tic free­dom and on the val­ue of our free­dom to read.

Though Garth Williams did not intend for The Rab­bits’ Wed­ding to be a sto­ry about race and, thus, become a sym­bol of the Civ­il Rights Move­ment, it did. Though Rain­bow Row­ell did not intend for Eleanor & Park to become a sym­bol of cen­sor­ship, it did. Alaba­ma Sto­ry took place in 1959 but could just have eas­i­ly tak­en place in 2001 with a book called Har­ry Pot­ter, or in 2006 with a book called And Tan­go Makes Three, or … in 2013 with a book called Eleanor & Park. Cen­sor­ship still occurs in 2016.

Peninsula Players, Door County

Penin­su­la Play­ers The­atre host­ed Door Coun­ty library staff to a dress rehearsal of the Mid­west pre­mière of “Alaba­ma Sto­ry” by Ken­neth Jones. Jones was inspired by librar­i­an Emi­ly Whee­lock Reed’s defense of a children’s book in 1959, Mont­gomery, Alaba­ma. From left are cast mem­bers and librar­i­ans Byron Glenn Willis, actor; Tra­cy Vreeke, Stur­geon Bay Library; Pat Strom, Fish Creek Library; Hol­ly Somer­halder, Fish Creek Library; Greg Vin­kler, Penin­su­la Play­ers Artis­tic Direc­tor; Kathy White, Stur­geon Bay Library; Har­ter Cling­man, actor; Hol­ly Cole, Egg Har­bor Library; James Leam­ing, actor; Car­men Roman, actor and Kather­ine Keber­lein, actor. Vis­it www.peninsulaplayers.com Pho­to by Len Vil­lano.

As the audi­ence stood that evening, my hus­band and I applaud­ed the Penin­su­la Play­ers’ artis­tic staff, cast, and crew for telling Emi­ly Whee­lock Reed’s sto­ry. It is a sto­ry that needs to be told over and over again—for every “Eleanor” and every “Park” among us.

5 Responses to A Story for the Ages

  1. R.M. Rivera Illustrations September 28, 2016 at 10:10 am #

    Ter­ri Evans your arti­cle rings true and I will share your arti­cle. Great job with your mes­sage!

    • Terri Evans September 29, 2016 at 10:03 am #

      That is very kind of you! Thank-you!

  2. David LaRochelle September 28, 2016 at 11:25 pm #

    Fas­ci­nat­ing and impor­tant sto­ry, Ter­ri. Thank you for the arti­cle, and thank you for stand­ing up for young read­ers.

  3. Cheri Blomquist October 4, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    Although I don’t sup­port cen­sor­ship and would read these books myself, I find it trou­bling that the par­ents’ con­cerns about bad lan­guage and sex­u­al con­tent in books for teens were brushed aside. These are legit­i­mate con­cerns that pub­lish­ers would do well to con­sid­er when prepar­ing a book for the YA mar­ket. As a YA book review­er, I know that more par­ents don’t com­plain only because of their lack of aware­ness and trust in the indus­try, not because they don’t care.

  4. Cheri Blomquist October 4, 2016 at 9:11 am #

    Sor­ry, typo above. I meant to say that “more par­ents don’t com­plain only because of their lack of aware­ness and because of their trust in the indus­try, not because they don’t care.”

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