Michigan Bookseller Defends Freedom to Read

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Cammie Mannino, the owner of Halfway Down the Stairs bookstore in Rochester, Michigan, and an American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) board member, has recently spent a lot of time doing something other than selling books -- she's been called on by the Rochester school board to defend the freedom to read. In the past six weeks, four books being studied in Rochester schools have come under fire by parents -- one of whom formally challenged Walter Dean Meyers' Monster in an attempt to have it removed from the eighth-grade curriculum.

In June 2004, Rochester parent Wendy Waszkiewicz challenged the usage of Meyer's book about a teenaged boy who goes to prison for making a bad moral choice. She contended that because of its violent content, it was not suitable for the eighth-grade curriculum, as reported by the Detroit News. Waszkiewicz asked for a review committee, which was made up of school officials and members of the community, including Mannino.

After the committee voted to keep the book in the curriculum, Waszkiewicz brought the matter to the school board. In December, the board voted 4 - 3 to keep the book in the Rochester eighth-grade curriculum. However, the board's decision did not sit well with at least one member of the community, Mannino said. "After the vote, [one parent] wrote a letter to the town newspaper, which published it. She then handed the letter out and asked people to copy it [and distribute it.]"

Following the challenge to Monster, two parents raised their concerns to the Rochester school board about three other books' inclusion in school curriculum in two separate board meetings. In the fall, a parent at Rochester's Stony Creek High School was concerned about the use of the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, because a character was date raped.

At the Monday, February 7, board meeting, a parent raised concerns regarding middle school students being assigned Shadow Club by Neil Schusterman (who is scheduled to appear at the Rochester middle school in April), because the book was depressing. On the same night, the parent who spoke out against Speak told the board that she was upset that her daughter was reading Push by Sapphire for a class assignment (though her daughter chose the book from a list provided by the teacher), because it contained repeated use of the "f-word," Mannino reported.

In each case, school administrators had called on Mannino and other community members to help research the books prior to the board meetings, which, Mannino noted, takes a lot of energy and time. And though neither parent formally challenged the books in question, she worried that these incidences raised the chilling possibility that the school administrators might self-censor curriculum reading choices in the future. Already, "the school administration -- on their own initiative -- said they would look at ... what [their] criteria is [for choosing books]," she explained.

Mannino believes that the reason for the sudden concern over school reading curriculum is at least partly political: two liberal board members are up for election in May. She hypothesizes that the parents are hoping that, by raising concerns regarding the reading curriculum now, the community will elect two conservatives to the open posts. She also theorizes that conservatives have become emboldened by President George W. Bush's re-election and, as such, are more likely to challenge books than remain silent.

Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, noted that there has been a surge in book challenges. "We are alarmed by the growing number of book challenges nationwide," he said. "There was a surge in censorship following the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and we are worried that we may be seeing the same thing again as activists seek to act on the 'mandate' provided by President Bush's election."

Toward that end, Mannino stressed to BTW that booksellers interested in successfully battling against censorship in schools and elsewhere have to be pro-active. "You need to function as a resource for [school administrators] and work with your library," she said. "Librarians tend to be a great resource for getting information" about things such as how age-appropriate a book might be.

Furthermore, Mannino has "tried building a network of people who support the freedom to read" and recommends that booksellers start creating a "network of open-minded people," especially those who have children in school. She also noted that one of the most effective ways of communicating the importance of the freedom to read is by writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. "On any level, that can be more effective than writing your Congressman," she said.

Most of all, Mannino continued, booksellers should be confident that many in the community will support their First Amendment cause. "The vast majority of people support the freedom to read," she said. "It's the minority -- the squeaky wheels -- [that challenge books].... [Rochester is a] very conservative community ... and even in my community, most people support the freedom to read."

Importantly, Mannino added, "I support the right of parents to have control over what their children read -- I have a problem with people telling other children what to read. I want to be respectful of people's concerns, but compassionate about the freedom to read." -- David Grogan