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Banned books made me a reader! by Kerry Zagarella

I remember the first moment I became a reader. I’m not talking about when I first learned the mechanics of reading; that happened when I was very young. The first book I could proudly decode was entitled, “Ann likes Red” and it was written by a local teacher to create an instructional text with repetitive sentence patterns, predictable picture cues and a riveting story line of a little girl shopping and getting everything she wants. I carried that book proudly in my pocket book with my rock collection and read and reread it. I bragged about being able to actually read it with my eyes closed, knowing exactly when to turn each page without even looking. But after the initial thrill of cracking the code faded, and my bag no longer carried my rock collection, I spent many school years thinking that reading was something done to me by teachers. It wasn’t until sophomore year in high school that I became a reader.

My life was changed by Mrs. Puleo’s high school English class. Most days I would show up to her room and try to dodge participation in whole group discussions about the book they were reading. The one I was supposed to be reading. I would grab a few lines, get the main ideas from listening to the other kids and craft some type of response to contribute, just in case I was called upon. Most of the time I was playing defense and strategizing on how to hide the fact that I never did the reading homework. At that time, if I didn’t have to produce paper work, I felt like I didn’t have any homework at all. “It’s just reading,” I would tell myself.

Mrs. Puleo woke me from my passivity during one particular class discussion. That day Mrs. Puleo explained that the book we, well, they, were reading had been banned. She got me. I was hooked.

We were reading, Johnny Got His Gun by blacklisted author Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo and his works were banned. Trumbo had refused to testify in the 1947 Un-American Activities Committee hearings. His anti-war novel brutally details the horror of a wounded soldier as he slowly regains enough consciousness to become aware of the extent of his injuries. When Mrs. Puleo told me the book was illegal to read, I began to read it, and did so cover to cover. I became a passionate participant in discussions and was sad when the period ended, forcing me to go fake learn in some other class.

Mrs. Puleo was so patient with kids like me who did just enough to get by. She was a teacher who searched for ways to engage each student, to find the key that would unlock the possibilities of reading for each of us. She cracked my code! From that point on I looked forward to Mrs. Puleo’s class discussions and always wanted to be prepared.

Book banning is back. The NY times reported, “It’s a pretty startling phenomenon here in The United States to see book bans back in style, to see efforts to press criminal charges against school librarians,” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of the free-speech organization PEN America.

The youth of today grow up with almost everything at their fingertips. They know the history and motivation of banning books is not hard to find. This renewed threat of being “anti” american seems to be an effective slogan to shackle free thinking and inhibit our growth as a nation.

There are states trying to make it a criminal act to provide access to certain books. Florida is trying to pass a law banning the use of the term, “gay” in school. We must support our public schools and public librarians who are under siege for being the constitutional gatekeepers of access and intellectual freedom.

Organizations like, The Freedom to Read Foundation continue to advocate for our constitutional rights to intellectual property and information. “The Foundation is devoted to the principle that the solution to offensive speech is more speech. And the suppression of speech, on the grounds that it gives offense to some, infringes on the rights of all to a free, open, and robust marketplace of ideas.”

I once carried my first treasured book in a bag with my rock collection; a collection I also successfully used to ward off neighborhood bullies. Now, the thought bullies want our books, but instead of swinging my heavy bag at a misguided and dangerous ideology, I joined the bigger fight. There are many ways your voice can be heard on this topic without lugging heavy rocks. I joined The Freedom to Read Foundation, and my rock collection decorates my window sills. What are you going to do?

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Cindy Clenard
Cindy Clenard
Feb 26, 2022

I recently watched a movie about Dalton Trumbo. It was very good and showed the battles he had to withstand. A terrible time in our history to say the least. Thanks for telling your story. ❤️

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