Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Banned Books Readout

By Shawn Healy
Just in time for the American Library Association's Banned Books Week (Sept. 29-Oct. 6), parents at a Southwest Side Chicago public school, John H. Kinzie Elementary School, are calling for the removal of The Chocolate War, required reading for 7th graders. Robert Cormier's tome is a frequent visitor on the ALA's top-ten most frequently challenged books list, residing at #10 in 2006.

Book challenges are of course nothing new and fit perfectly in the context of the broader culture wars. The Chocolate War is controversial because of fowl language, portrayal of masturbation, and violence, but other challenges center on homosexuality and the presentation of political opinions that at least one squeaky wheel finds objectionable. Freedom to petition the government, or in this case public school administrators, is of course protected by the First Amendment. That said, librarians have broad leeway in constructing a collection for their schools, as they seek volumes to contribute to the broader curriculum. The Supreme Court has made it very difficult to remove books once they are already part of a school library collection.

This case, of course, centers on a book required by the curriculum, not a voluntary alternative in the library stacks. Schools offer often students of parents who object to a required book an alternative, but Kinzie is standing its ground. Principal Sean Egan wrote, "This book was selected for the very important, complex themes it covers, including conformity and the ethical implications of choices we make..." He continued, "A few students have objected to the contents of the book, which addresses mature themes and contains some swearing. Decisions regarding the content of a school's curriculum, however, lie with its educators and administrators."

Kudos to Principal Egan and his staff for standing up for academic freedom. In this spirit, the ALA, in partnership with the Newberry Library and the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, will host a Banned Books Readout this Saturday in Pioneer Court adjacent to the Tribune Tower from 1-4pm. Authors of controversial and challenged books will be on hand to discuss their content and read freely from their pages, including Chris Crutcher, Robie Harris, Carolyn Mackler, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Peter Parnell, Sonya Sones, Marilyn Reynolds, and Justin Richardson. Interspersed between these readings will be performances of challenged songs by the Old Town School of Folk Music and theatrical readings by the City Lit Theater Company.

Admission is free, and guests will be provided with a button inscribed with the slogan, "I Read Banned Books." The Freedom Museum will honor all visitors who enter wearing this pin with complimentary admission throughout the rest of the day. The museum closes at 6pm. (For a more elaborate discussion of the event, click here to watch my interview with Judy Krug, Director of the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom, on CAN-TV)

Back to Cormier. Although not much of a fiction connoisseur myself, I actually read The Chocolate War with a group of special needs students during my training to be a teacher at a high school in the Madison (WI) area. Honestly, nothing in the short, but powerful narrative even caused me to blink an eye. I thought it was an accurate depiction of the struggles that young boys face in an environment filled with peer-pressure, with parallels to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

The the case of Kinzie Elementary, parental objections are coming from parents of students who will not even read the book! Instead, they fear that the contents of the book will be discussed outside of class, as students parlay the content and language to their younger peers. While I certainly don't condone the use of vulgar language, I do feel that we do children a great injustice when we shield them from the realities of the world. Moreover, we should be so lucky if students discussed class materials after the bell rings.

Cormier has since passed, but he left us with volumes of realistic portrayals of the complex world that our children inhabit. Please stand with us during Banned Books Week, attend the Readout, and support the legacy of Cormier and others, upholding academic freedom through these troubled times.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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