Once upon a time, my mom tried to ban Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" from my Christian elementary school library. She confessed this summer over lunch in her Florida home, seated next to the love of her life, a woman. My mouthful of water nearly burst when she told me. How had my spunky, gender-nonconforming mom been the type of person I'd lobby against today?
I thought she loved reading "Where the Sidewalk Ends" to my brother and me as kids. I can still see the twinkle in her amber eyes, watching the poems give voice to our secret fantasies. My brother was obsessed with the loud-mouthed boy who wouldn't stop shouting "one sister for sale." My favorite was sick Peggy Ann McKay who becomes well enough to play once she realizes it's Saturday. Mom can't remember which poem inspired her to visit the principal's office. But I know what she must have looked like doing it.
Thirty-five years ago, the 1980s had their way with her straight, mousy hair, permed into spirals with voluminous flower bangs. On Sundays, she wore calf-length floral dresses punctuated with shoulder pads and flesh-colored nylons. When a pastor chastised her for wearing slacks to church, she complied. My dad had less luck imposing his preferences on her wardrobe. Despite his protests, she swore she'd die in her nature-themed T-shirts from Northern Reflections. In hindsight, they were hints of the person she would become.
* * *
When my mom first mentioned her past objection to Shel Silverstein, I assumed she was the only person in the world who had a problem with his poetry. I was wrong. A cursory Internet search placed her in proper context: on the cutting edge of the '80s book-banning efforts.
A vocal minority led the charge. Their seeds of discontent would land Shel Silverstein and his next book of poetry on the American Library Association's list of 100 most banned books of the 1990s. Televangelist Jerry Falwell had probably worked his way into their brains. One of the leaders of the '80s book-banning efforts, he was the pastor of a megachurch and founder of Liberty University, where men were forbidden from wearing ponytails and women's bare shoulders were considered immodest. (Fun fact: I went to cheerleading camp at Liberty University and listened to Rush Limbaugh radio during morning carpool on the way to school.)
Even with these cultural clues, I still couldn't guess which of Shel Silverstein's poems offended my mom. Nor could I predict what the principal of my Christian elementary school would say in response. Like many of today's attempts to restrict books, my mom's grievance could have had less to do with the actual poems and more to do with who the author was: a cartoonist for Playboy magazine who frequented Hugh Hefner's mansion.
* * *
A literal interpretation of the Bible was the framework for my parents' rules around media consumption. So with the end goal of solving the mystery of what offended my mom, I decided to analyze Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" with that same biblical rigor.
My eyes first caught on "Magic," a poem flaunting leprechauns, witches, goblins and elves, all of which were anti-Christian. Only the miracles of Jesus were acknowledged in our home. "Joey" features an illustrated butt (a side view, but still). The story about a unicorn is a blasphemous version of Noah and the Ark. "Peanut-Butter Sandwich" mentions suicide; although, I don't see how eating a sticky sandwich qualifies as a feasible plan.
It's a miracle I grew up open-minded enough to critique the book my mom once tried to ban. Maybe the Bible's literal inconsistencies tipped me off to alternative ways of reading.
"If I Had a Brontosaurus" could have been controversial, as we didn't believe in dinosaurs. "Paul Bunyan" controls his own destiny, entering and leaving heaven at will, and even rising from the dead. Could that have been the one? "Just Me, Just Me" hints at polyamory. "Hungry Mungry" promotes parental disrespect, quite possibly the ultimate sin.
When I compared my findings to past objections logged by library patrons, my guesses weren't far off. A problem I hadn't considered, reported by the Central Columbia School District in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, referenced the poem "Dreadful." They feared the line "someone ate the baby" might encourage students to engage in cannibalism.
Though it sounds absurd, I also found cause for offense when I switched to the liberal lens I tend toward as an adult. How we talk about people and identities has changed over the past few decades. Though I don't mean to suggest time excuses all wrongs, I've been writing long enough to be offended by my own early works. So in the spirit of good-natured critique, here's what else I found in the 30th anniversary edition I read to my kids today.
"No Difference" encourages color blindness, a popular way of thinking in the '80s that has revealed itself to be short-sighted and problematic. "If the World Was Crazy" implies it's insane to call boys "Suzy" and girls "Harry." "The One Who Stayed" includes the word "crippled," a demeaning term for a person with a physical disability. And as cute as I find the "Naked Hippo" toward the back of the book, the poem reeks of fat-shaming.
It's a miracle I grew up open-minded enough to critique the book my mom once tried to ban. Maybe the Bible's literal inconsistencies tipped me off to alternative ways of reading. But if I had to guess the real reason we became the people we are today, I'd say it's because our stories didn't unfold how we thought they should.
* * *
I predicted my mom's book-banning story would end in the way of Judy Blume, the author whose books I wasn't allowed to read because they were alleged to encourage masturbation. Blume didn't stand a chance at my Christian school. But when my mom showed up at the principal's office cradling an original edition of "Where the Sidewalk Ends," the script changed course.
I remember the soft-faced man behind the principal's desk well. Yearbook photos place him in a suit and tie. My vision of him at morning chapel tracks closer to sweaters and shiny shoes, ankles kicked one over the other.
"Hello, Melinda," he must have said in his Mr. Rogers voice to my mom.
Maybe she drummed the pads of her fingers on the black and white jacket, detailing her questions about the content inside. I wonder if she expected an apology for a poorly vetted recommendation.
"I see," the principal said, his kind eyes perhaps melting her guard.
This is where she might have thought he'd congratulate her for sniffing out anti-Christian rhetoric. She couldn't have guessed what he'd actually say.
"This is how we teach our kids to think," he said. It's the one line my mom clearly recalls.
Any other mom might have held fast to her reasons for concern. But my mom, being my mom, performed a radical act. She listened.
"If we don't expose our kids to views that are contrary to our own," the principal continued, "they won't know how to handle them as adults."
The statement has an almost prophetic ring as we enter another presidential election. His solution for raising children like me, who would one day grow up to vote, was to read the offending content out loud, and then say something like, "Mommy doesn't care for this one. Can you think of a reason why?"
This same man would later assure my mom that, at four years old, it was harmless for my brother to play dress-up in women's clothes. Was he the first crack that allowed the light of reason to enter our rigid worldview?
* * *
The mom I know today embodies the thread of possibility running through Silvertsein's poetry. Most days, she gardens wearing T-shirts from the little boys section of Old Navy. Short silver hair grazes the tops of her ears. When she wants to dress up, she whips out a vest with a collared shirt, and for fancy occasions, a red bowtie. She is a staunch supporter of kids assigned male at birth who want to be called Suzy and kids assigned female at birth who want to be called Harry.
At home, I have a case of banned books on display for my own kids. On an eye-level shelf sits my tattered gray copy of "Where the Sidewalk Ends."