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From the Dictionary to a Book Called "Horse": The Surprising Complaints Against 6 Books

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This week (September 24 through October 1, 2011) is the American Library Association's Banned Books Week, an "annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment." We've all heard about books like Lolita and The Awakening being banned, especially from schools, for overly sexual content; other books are banned—or at least challenged—for violence, curse words, being "obscene," or otherwise containing content deemed objectionable or dangerous. But some challenged books are more surprising than others...

1. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary

You'd think a dictionary would be one of the least objectionable books possible, but even the classic Merriam-Webster, the standard for spelling bees across the country, was challenged last year. The Union School District in Menifee, CA, pulled the dictionary off shelves when a parent complained about the explicit definition for "oral sex." A committee of parents, teachers, and administrators was formed to review the Merriam-Webster, ultimately deciding to leave the dictionary available for use by fourth- and fifth-graders at Oak Meadows Elementary School, though parents can choose to have their children use an alternative dictionary.

2. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

by Anne Frank
One of the most widely read—and beloved—books discussing the Holocaust, Anne Frank's diary was actually challenged last year for "sexual material and homosexual content." After "a hailstorm of criticism online and...international attention" following reports that the book would no longer be used in Culpeper County, VA, schools, the superintendent said Frank's diary will remain part of English classes, but may be taught at a different grade level than previously.

3. Eyewitness Books: Horse

by Juliet Clutton-Brock
This book is one of the photo-packed "Eyewitness Books" meant to inform readers about a given subject; it's filled with info about the behavior and history of horses, including zebras and donkeys. It was challenged in 2004 at Smith Elementary School in Helena, MT, by a parent concerned that it "promotes evolution." The school kept the book on the shelves.

4. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
This economics smash hit was challenged in 2006 in Illinois' Northwest Suburban High School District 214. One board member, having only read excerpts of the Freakonomics online, objected to the book's argument that legalized abortion led to a lower crime rate. At a board meeting to determine the fate of Freakonomics and 8 other books, the original complainant was the only board member to vote for the books' removal from the reading list. To celebrate, Dubner and Levitt gave away 50 free signed copies of the book to District 214 students.

5. The Junie B. Jones Series

by Barbara Park
This kids series has been challenged more than once by parents. In 2006, Junie B. Jones and Some Sneaky, Peeky Spying was challenged in Wake County, NC, for not adhering to family and social values; parents have complained about other books in the series for Junie's spelling and grammar skills, or rather her lack thereof, her troublemaking, and her mouthiness.

6. Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan

by Todd Tucker
In a highly publicized situation in 2008, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) found an employee guilty of racial harassment for reading Tucker's book in a public area. The decision was surprising since the book—an account of a 1924 clash between Notre Dame students and Ku Klux Klan members—isn't favorable toward the Klan, but was still viewed as offensive to the employees black co-workers because it "related to a historically and racially abhorrent subject." (The initial complaint was based solely on the cover.) After first being ordered not to read the book in the presence of his co-workers, the employee later received a letter stating that "no determination could be made as to whether his reading choice was intentionally hostile," and no disciplinary action was taken. Following involvement by the ACLU of Indiana, IUPUI stated its "regret this situation took place" and its commitment to freedom of expression; according to the university, there is no record of the incident in the employee's file.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About J.D. Salinger
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For the past few decades, if any artist has been celebrated for a slim body of work and subsequently disappeared from public view, they’ve invited comparison to Jerome David (J.D.) Salinger. The author (1919-2010) published only one novel in his lifetime, 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye—but what a novel it was. A bildungsroman (coming of age) story about an aimless young man named Holden Caulfield on a mission to find himself after being expelled from a private school, The Catcher in the Rye ushered in a new era of philosophical literature, becoming a staple of classrooms across the country.

A new film about Salinger, Danny Strong's Rebel in the Rye, is once again stirring interest in the reclusive artist. If you’re a little light on Salinger trivia, check out some facts about his war experiences, his disappointing fling with Hollywood, and one curious choice of beverage.

1. HE WORKED ON THE CATCHER IN THE RYE WHILE FIGHTING IN WORLD WAR II.

Salinger was a restless student, attending New York University, Ursinus College, and Columbia University in succession. While taking night classes at the latter, he met Whit Burnett, a professor who also edited Story magazine. Sensing Salinger’s talent for language, Burnett encouraged him to pursue his fiction. When World War II broke out, Salinger was drafted into the Army. During his service from 1942 to 1944, he worked on chapters for what would later become The Catcher in the Rye, keeping pages on his person even when marching into battle.

2. HE HAD A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN.

Following his service, Salinger experienced what would later be labeled post-traumatic stress disorder: He was hospitalized after suffering a nervous breakdown in Nuremburg in 1945 after seeing some very bloody battles on D-Day and in Luxembourg. Writing to Ernest Hemingway, whom he had met while the latter was a war correspondent for Collier’s, he said his despondent state had been constant and he sought out help “before it got out of hand.”

3. HE REFUSED TO BE REWRITTEN.

Settling back in New York after the war, Salinger continued to write, contributing short stories to The New Yorker and other outlets before finishing The Catcher in the Rye. In literary circles, his name was already becoming known for insisting that editors not change a single word of his writing. When publisher Harcourt Brace agreed to publish The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger broke away from the deal after they insisted on rewrites. The untouched book was eventually released by Little, Brown and Company.

4. THE NEW YORKER DECLINED TO PRINT A CATCHER IN THE RYE EXCERPT.

A supply of Catcher in the Rye copies by author J.D. Salinger
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Despite having published stories in The New Yorker previously, Salinger was dismayed to discover that the magazine wasn’t very supportive of his novel debut. Getting an advance copy of the book in the hopes they would run an excerpt, editors said the book's characters were “unbelievable” and declined to run any of it.

5. HE DID GIVE ONE INTERVIEW ... TO A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT.

Early on, it became apparent that Salinger wasn’t going to embrace whatever celebrity The Catcher in the Rye brought to his doorstep. He insisted that Little, Brown not run an author’s photo on the book’s dust jacket and turned down any opportunities to publicize it—with one exception. After moving to New Hampshire, Salinger agreed to give an interview to a local high school paper, The Claremont Daily Eagle. Salinger was later dismayed to find out an editor wound up putting it on the front page of the local paper. Annoyed and feeling betrayed, he put up a six-foot, six-inch tall fence around his property, further walling himself off from prying eyes.

6. HE DID WIND UP SELLING A MOVIE IDEA.

Although his most celebrated work has been kept offscreen, Salinger did have a brief courtship with Hollywood. In 1948, producer Darryl Zanuck purchased the rights to one of his short stories, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.” Released as My Foolish Heart in 1949, it earned actress Susan Hayward an Oscar nomination (plus a second one for Best Original Song). Salinger reportedly hated it.

7. HE SUED HIS BIOGRAPHER.

Choosing a difficult subject to profile, author Ian Hamilton insisted on pursuing a biography of Salinger in the 1980s. Salinger was so peeved he sued Hamilton to prevent him from using excerpts of unpublished letters. A Supreme Court ruling gave him a victory, barring Hamilton from using the passages. Hamilton later wrote a book, 1988's In Search of J.D. Salinger, an account of his own legal dealings with Salinger.

8. HE PROBABLY DRANK HIS OWN PEE.

By Time Inc., illustration by Robert Vickrey. Time Magazine Archive - National Portrait Gallery Collection, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Salinger’s reclusive habits made him easy prey for a litany of rumors, but some of his more intriguing habits were disclosed by his daughter, Margaret, in a memoir that described her father as speaking in tongues and occasionally sipping his own urine. That practice, called urophagia, is said to have health benefits, although no reputable studies have been able to demonstrate as much.

9. HE ALWAYS LOATHED THE IDEA OF A CATCHER IN THE RYE MOVIE.

With its persistent interior monologues, The Catcher in the Rye might be almost unfilmable—but that hasn’t stopped directors as revered as Billy Wilder and Steven Spielberg from trying. Throughout his life, Salinger famously rebuffed any attempt to purchase the rights to make a film from his book, but did leave open a small possibility that it could possibly happen after he died. “It pleasures me to no end, though,” he once wrote, “to know that I won’t have to see the results of the transaction.” (The Salinger estate has yet to disclose whether they would seek to prevent an adaptation.)

10. A CARTOONIST WON A RESIDENCY AT HIS HOUSE.

In late 2016, the Cornish Center for Cartoon Studies Residency Fellowship accepted applications for cartoonists who wished to live in a one-bedroom apartment above the garage of Salinger’s former residence in Cornish, New Hampshire. The fellowship was granted so the winner could have a place to focus and produce “exceptional work.” The CCS repeated the offer this year, with a guest due to move in on October 16. Harry Bliss, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, is the current owner of the property.

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How the Rise of Paperback Books Turned To Kill a Mockingbird Into a Literary Classic
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If you went to middle or high school in the U.S. in the last few decades, chances are you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee's now-classic novel (which was adapted into a now-classic film) about racial injustice in the South. Even if you grew up far-removed from Jim Crow laws, you probably still understand its significance; in 2006, British librarians voted it the one book every adult should read before they die. And yet the novel, while considered an instant success, wasn’t always destined for its immense fame, as we learned from the Vox video series Overrated. In fact, its status in the American literary canon has a lot to do with the format in which it was printed.

To Kill a Mockingbird came out in paperback at a time when literary houses were just starting to invest in the format. After its publication in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was reviewed favorably in The New York Times, but it wasn’t the bestselling novel that year. It was the evolution of paperbacks that helped put it into more hands.

Prior to the 1960s, paperbacks were often kind of trashy, and when literary novels were published in the format, they still featured what Vox calls “sexy covers,” like a softcover edition of The Great Gatsby that featured a shirtless Jay Gatsby on the cover. According to a 1961 article in The New York Times, back in the 1950s, paperbacks were described as “a showcase for the ‘three S’s—sex, sadism, and the smoking gun.’” But then, paperbacks came to schools.

The mass-market paperback for To Kill a Mockingbird came out in 1962. It was cheap, but had stellar credentials, which appealed to teachers. It was a popular, well-reviewed book that earned Lee the Pulitzer Prize. Suddenly, it was in virtually every school and, even half a century later, it still is.

Learn the whole story in the video below from Vox.

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