There’s Something About Baby Be-Bop
By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
What should we do? What should we do with the four self-described elderly claimants from the Milwaukee branch of the Christian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU)? Their complaint filed with the City of West Bend, Wisconsin, seeks to publicly burn, bury, shred or otherwise dramatically destroy Baby Be-Bop, a novel so offensive to them that they require damages of $30,000 a head to compensate for exposure to the book’s mere cover, egregiously displayed at the West Bend Community Memorial Library. CCLU reviewed Baby Be-Bop as “explicitly vulgar, racial and anti-Christian,” a “hate crime” for, among other perceived sins, use of the words “nigger” and “faggot.”
“Obviously, not one of those people even read Baby Be-Bop,” my daughter Kate said, “because if they had, they would know that it promotes love, peace and acceptance, not hate crimes and violence. What the hell are they doing sniffing around the young adult novels anyway? Shady old creepers! It's people like this who give Christianity a bad rep for being all about violence, hatred and idiocy.”
Spoken with edgy but well-informed passion: Kate devoured Baby Be-Bop and every other book by Francesca Lia Block in print during those excruciating years that most folks manage to forget by the time they’re old enough to read to their own kids. When Kate wouldn’t speak to me, I knew she was safe in the arms of Francesca’s loving words, delivered with the candor, the sensitivity, the magic of a writer who spies the world’s beauty through the painful mire of growing into self-acceptance. “Francesca Lia Block’s stories helped me realize I could love myself for the little freak I was during a time when it seemed impossible to love myself.”
Block, a best-selling author who describes Baby Be-Bop as “a gay coming of age story about the healing power of love,” said of CCLU, “Of course I’m using the racist word to expose and criticize racism. But they’re making it sound [as though I used it] in a different way. Either they didn’t read the book or they’re misrepresenting it intentionally.”
And it is “intent” that makes this all curiouser and curiouser.
The CCLU complaint followed on the heels of the ad hoc West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries (WBCFSL) campaign for a hit list of supposed “pornographic” books, including Baby Be-Bop. WBCFSL’s goal? To remove, re-label and/or physically sequester away from youthful readers anything that addresses their budding (or broiling) sexuality — hetero, homo, bi, tri or otherwise.
Like any savvy writer, Block saw some advantage in the two groups’ mischief: “My first reaction was, ‘Cool, I’m banned!” But then it sank in. “I felt it a little bit more as a direct threat, with the climate right now.” Nonetheless, Block said she has probably received more media in the last week than in the last twenty years. “That tells you something about where the world is today.”
But WBCFSL — whose acronym is as unfortunate as its attack on a hefty list of books that give the group’s instigators, West Bend grandparents Jim and Ginny Maziarka, the vapors — failed on June 2 when the library board voted 9 to 0 that the books would stay put.
All the Maziarkas and CCLU have achieved to date is eliciting some unhappy publicity for a nice little town and rousing to action West Benders with a fondness for free speech and the Library Bill of Rights (drafted in 1938 in response to “growing intolerance, suppression of free speech and censorship affecting the rights of minorities and individuals”). Of course, there’s also the probable increase in sales of the targeted books, in particular Dangerous Angels, the collection of Block’s Weetzie Bat books that includes Baby Be-Bop.
And Block is in good company: Her book joins such challenged classics as To Kill a Mocking Bird, Catcher In the Rye, Go Ask Alice and the many contemporary books that address coming of age with honesty — particularly for kids who are gay — and, consequently, bring out adults who persist in burning, or at least spurning, what scares them.
West Bent parent Maria Hanrahan saw what was happening in her town of small appliance manufacturers and happy summer reading programs, and she didn’t like it. “[WBCFSL] began by focusing on a category called Out of the Closet — lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender themed materials. They wanted that reading list removed from the library’s website. Then they wanted to move the books out of the young adult section and into the adult section. Then, when they realized that wasn’t going to work, they changed their complaint to the materials being too explicit. I said to myself, ‘Someone has to speak out against what they are trying to do.’ Well, I’m somebody. I’m a resident here. I have a right and a responsibility as a library user to speak out against this.”
So Hanrahan organized West Bend Parents for Free Speech and had a potluck.
“Then the CCLU filed their case,” Hanrahan continued. “We didn’t think it was surprising that it came on the heels of this other complaint. We haven’t been able to find too much about this CCLU. They have no website. We know from the claim there are four [claimants] — only one is local — and they’ve been involved in other similar litigation. It’s not surprising that something like this would happen following the publicity about the [WBCFSL].”
Neither would it have been surprising — and it would surely have been lovely — if WBCFSL and CCLU had simply re-shelved the books they didn’t like. Or if they had wisely counseled their offspring on what they may and may not borrow from the library and trusted in other parents to do the same. Or if they refrained from using the library as a babysitter, setting the stage for their children to gobble up any books, regardless of parental preference.
But they didn’t do the commonsensical thing, and the curious battle isn’t over.
“I’m feeling very good,” Hanrahan said,” because so many people have come together in support of the library and in support of parents being able to make these decisions for themselves. I’m almost gleeful that so many more people are signing up for programs at the library. That’s a clear indication that the community doesn’t agree with this group. But it is worrisome they are not just going to go quietly into the night. … The [Maziarkas] are prolific bloggers, and they have said the issue is not over for them. They plan to promote the library as being an unsafe place for children, although they haven’t said how they’re going to do that. But they’re not going to let it drop. … We never expected West Bend to become such a hotbed of controversy. After all this, it was, 'Wow, West Bend is not just about slow cookers anymore!'”
And just what is it the CCLUs and WBCFSLs are about? Just what is their intent? Just what should we do with them? They seem so angry, so fearful, so uncomfortable in the world.
But there’s something about Baby Be-Bop they don’t seem to grasp; something about the books that encourage our children to love themselves; there’s something magical. Perhaps the WBCFSL and CCLU folks should settle in with a nice cup of tea and read the books they would ban, in whole, not the miniscule excerpts bandied about by would-be censors. Perhaps then, they would learn to love the world’s children for who they are.
If not, Harry Potter could just wave his wand and make them disappear.
©2009 Kit-Bacon Gressitt