There are so many amazing things to say about Sharon’s post, but I want to approach them through the somewhat roundabout route of telling you about The Book Fair. The Book Fair was a magical event for kids such as us, who eagerly awaited new spelling lists and reading assignments. Now, with the advent of amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, I doubt whether The Book Fair even exists–or if it does, whether anyone would actually send their kids to school with money to spend on it–but at the time, it was wonderful. Basically, it amounted to a mobile bookstore kids section, which parked itself in the auditorium for a day. I believe that we might have been allowed to make book purchasing decisions right there in the moment, but for the most part, we had already made our book choices in advance with the help of colorful (yet flimsy) Scholastic catalogs, which listed the newest titles and which were distributed in class the week before.
I remember going through the scholastic catalog each time, circling everything I wanted (usually almost every book in print, except for the boring ones about horses or basketball), and then painstakingly narrowing my list down to accord with the budgetary restrictions imposed by my mom. When I was younger, the final list almost invariably included some fantasy or coloring book involving stickers or unicorns. One year, though–I believe in fourth grade–I began to branch out. My Book Fair purchases that year included 1) a biography of Jesse Jackson and 2) one of the Scary Stories books Sharon mentioned.
To be honest, I have no idea where the Jesse Jackson thing came from. I have my doubts about whether I actually knew who Jesse Jackson was. I do remember thinking that the description in the Scholastic catalog made him seem interesting, and that I was beginning to feel weird about the fact that I knew no Black people other than the lovely woman who cleaned our house (Ms. Gertie), despite the fact that I was growing up in a pretty diverse city (which, incidentally, was later ranked by Ebony as one of the best 5 cities for African-Americans to live in the U.S.). So I think I must have had vague aspirations of self-education, but these were sadly never realized. I still remember bringing the book home, and hearing my dad ask why I would possibly have wanted a Jesse Jackson biography–and putting it onto the shelf, never to be opened again. I’m not sure that he meant to be disapproving, but his tone–the same one he used when asking, “You don’t like those New Kids on the Block, do you?“–was enough for me, a lifelong Type A pleaser, to take the hint (or at least, what I perceived as the hint).
In a way, the Scary Stories book is even more enigmatic to me. Sharon’s suggestion that I had a “complex” relationship with fear is–for me–putting it generously. I was a full-on fraidy-cat, wuss, chicken, whatever. I hated, and still hate, scary movies. It’s hard for me to remember what things were like then, since there’s something about adulthood self-awareness that makes the childhood versions of our present neuroses seem unrecognizable. For whatever reason, though–maybe it had something to do with the fact that we were starting to go to camps, and have sleepovers, and ghost stories were a consistent part of the TV versions of these things–I got the Scary Stories book, and read it with Sharon. That is, I read most of it (minus “The Black Dog,” since I had a black dog of my own). I still remember some of the more vivid phrasings in Sharon’s voice:
The drum beats grew louder and faster! Suddenly, Jack pitched forward, dead.
Ah, childhood! So many beautiful stories. I do wonder how it was possibly acceptable for us to acquire such a text, given its general morbidity.
Of course, I don’t actually remember The Westing Game being forbidden. In fact, I was almost certain that we read it in school…or at least, that we read some mystery book that had a cover with a black background and a spooky looking old mansion. Though this may have happened after I left for the alien world of public school (more on this later!). Still, I do remember at least one instance of literary censorship at the Unnamed Religious Private School, so it’s far from being out of the realm of possibility.
At some point (I don’t remember when), our class read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Having seen the movie with Gene Wilder several times (and having had a chocolate addiction from a young age), I was pretty excited about this…though was somewhat disappointed that the book was a bit darker than the movie, with fewer bright colors and decidedly less singing. Nevertheless, it was an exciting time in my elementary school life, not only because it was a story about chocolate–two of my favorite things!–it also involved getting a new book, copies of which Ms. Ditch (we’ll just say it was her) had passed out to each of us on the first day of the unit.
A couple of days into our reading, we came to the part of the story where Willy Wonka explains to Charlie and his grandfather that they should never ever drink the Fizzy Lifting Drink, since it previously resulted in the death of an Oompa Loompa. The book description is much more intense than that of the movie, culminating when Wonka recounts the dreadful scene, in which he desperately shouts to the rapidly ascending Oompa Loompa: “Burp! Burp you silly —, burp!”
Or, at least, that’s what he shouted in my book. He shouted that in all of our books, actually, because the copies Ms. Ditch passed out to us had that word blacked out. Interestingly, however, rather than moving along past the offending passage without remark, our class was then forced to have an in-depth discussion of why Roald Dahl (or Willy Wonka?) would have used such terrible language in the first place, thus drawing even more attention to the fact of its censorship. I don’t remember what the outcome of that discussion was, or whether it was decided that Willy Wonka was a bad person. But I do remember that, holding the page up to the light, I could barely make out the word: A-S-S.
I didn’t really know what it meant, but I did know one thing: whatever it was, it was worse than The Devil’s Birthday and Jesse Jackson. And that seemed like kind of a big deal.