Peter Pringle's America: Where's Waldo? Not on the shelf

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UNTIL recently, the pupils at Springs public school, on Long Island, New York, spent many enjoyable hours poring over the crowded beach scene in the picture book Where's Waldo? Unaware that their virgin minds might be corrupted, they searched for the tiny nerdish figure in his red- striped jersey, walking stick and sensible shoes. But then along came a diligent and watchful American mother with extremely good eyesight and a lot of time on her hands who spotted something in the beach scene that shocked her to the core: a woman's bare breast.

About the size of an 'O' in the typescript of this column, the breast is hardly distinguishable in the sea of humanity on the double- page beach scene, and it is nowhere near the intrepid Waldo (who is called Wally in the British edition). For the curious with a magnifying glass to hand, this bare breast can be found in the top right-hand corner, beside the man with terrible sunburn and not far from the ice- cream seller. The woman to whom the breast belongs is no nudist or sex object but the victim of an old schoolboy prank.

As painted by the author, Martin Handford, she is sunbathing on her tummy without her swimsuit top and a small boy has sneaked up on her and plunged the top of his ice cream cone on to her bare back. She reacts as any person would, with a flailing of her arms, an action that exposes her left breast. The outraged American mother decided that Long Island schoolchildren should not be exposed to even such unintentional nudity, and she demanded the book be taken off the shelf. The school obliged.

Sometime later, news of the Waldo 'pornography' reached the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association in Chicago. The office's tired watchdogs groaned. Here was another example of the sudden surge in efforts by self-righteous mothers and fathers across America to purge libraries of books they feel are offensive because of the inclusion of dirty words or hints of

sex. Most of the complaints these days are about the mention of homosexuality. To followers of the Christian right wing, even the word homosexual in print is unacceptable.

In a land that prides itself on freedom of expression, attempts at censorship are always somewhat of an oddity, but they are not new. Since the Sixties, when these efforts were first tracked, more than 500 serious attempts a year have been made to remove books from library shelves. Volumes regularly challenged, and sometimes removed for reasons of profanity or sexual references, include Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird and Catch-22.

More recently the would-be censors have focused on Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, which was challenged because it uses the word 'ass' and parts of the book deal with wine, tobacco and snuff. William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying was challenged because of coarse language and the use of dialects, and there was an objection to Ibsen's play Ghosts because it deals with venereal disease, incest and suicide. John Steinbeck's East of Eden was challenged in South Carolina school libraries because it used the names of God and Jesus in a 'vain and profane manner along with inappropriate sexual references'.

Liberals have challenged Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its repeated use of the word nigger and for damaging the self-esteem of black youth. Women's groups have protested against books that they argue perpetuate stereotypes to a new generation. But nothing has so far compared with today's agenda of the Christian right wing to purify, as they see it, the American mind. Even Little Red Riding Hood has not escaped their fury. An edition that had the small girl put a bottle of wine in the basket of goodies for her grandmother was said to be promoting thoughts of alcohol consumption in the young.

Two new volumes in particular have become targets: Daddy's Room Mate, a picture book about a boy whose divorced father is gay, and Heather Has Two Mommies, about a girl who is brought up by two lesbians. In several libraries the books were put in the children's section

and in came the complaints. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, parents argued that the books promoted 'a dangerous and ungodly lifestyle from which children must be protected'. One of the complainants admitted that she had never read the book and another, who was president of the local anti- abortion group, argued that it was not a matter of censorship but one of 'responsible choice'.

He said: 'The choice here is material for your children to read, who are not themselves capable of making decisions about social adjustment.' The librarian, who fought the removal of the book and won, argued that what a child reads and how reading material is interpreted is, in the end, the parents' responsibility, not the child's.

The idea behind the US Constitution's First Amendment ensuring freedom of speech, religion and assembly is that people should be free to try to convince and persuade others. By exercising critical judgement, the citizenry will accept the good and reject the bad. Ideally, if a library comes under unbearable community pressure about a certain volume, the book can simply be made available on request, but it can never be removed altogether.

In Springs, Long Island, the only way children can find Waldo these days is to pay dollars 12.95 at the local bookstore.