Given our discussions on age-appropriateness and censorship, you should be ready to prepare a statement as to whether or not a book belongs in a public middle or high school or in the children's or YA department of a public library. Remember that public librarians must also make critical decisions about where to place certain titles. Do middle school titles–for instance, Neil Gaiman's Corline--go only in the YA section or could they also go into the children’s section? What about popular cross-over titles like Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees or King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon? Do they also deserve a place on the YA shelves? Those librarians working in parochial and other church-sponsored schools must agonize over many of the fiction choices they make. I will simplify the issue by requiring you to be either a public middle school or high school media specialist or perhaps even a parent/community member who has been asked to join a committee to determine if a book is appropriate for a certain level. Of course, this exercise is complicated by where we all live. Robertsville Middle School in Oak Ridge is five miles away from the middle school in Oliver Springs, but the two communities might as well be worlds apart. Community values play an important role in which books get challenged, but remember: all it takes is one irate parent to create a stir in your community.
Here’s your task. Select one of the books–I have divided them into two groups–middle schools (grades 6-8, ages 12-14) and high school (grades 9-12, ages 14-18). It does not matter from which group you choose. Read the book thoughtfully and critically, noting language, sexuality, violence, and other potentially controversial issues. Conduct some research--what age group is the book recommended for? Has it won awards? Has it been listed in BBYA? Is it recommended by H.W. Wilson's Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog and/or Senior High School Library Catalog? Think critically about the literary merit of the book. Now consider the community (make sure you tell me) in which you live or work. What should happen to the book? Is it OK for regular circulation? Should it be removed entirely? Maybe checked out only by 8th graders (for middle school) or juniors and seniors (for high schools)? Shelved in a "parental permission" area only? Compose an essay in the range of 3-4 pages explaining your decision. To help you prepare for this essay, I have included a defense of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady I wrote a few years ago for Nick Karolides' Censored Books II. Your essay should in no way be as long as my paper but it might employ a comparable structure and rely on similar reasoning.
Due: July 28. This project is worth 10%. Middle School Anderson, Laurie Halse--Catalyst
Bardi, Abby--The Book of Fred
Bauer, Marion Dane-- Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence
Block, Francesca Lia--Weetzie Bat
Brass, Joshua. The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green.
Brooks, Martha--True Confessions of a Heartless Girl
A Defense for Hastings and Wijngaard’s SirGawain and the Loathly Lady
When Selina Hastings paired up with the Greenaway-winning illustrator Juan Wijngaard to retell the Arthurian legend of The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, the result was simply stunning. In 1985, Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady garnered the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal, the award given to the best illustrations found in a British book for children. Since then, it has achieved near classic status. One finds their book on reading lists throughout the English-speaking world. While there is so much to admire in these twenty-nine pages, there is also much to be concerned about—from profanity to sexual innuendo. Wijngaard’s depiction of the gruesome Dame Ragnelle alone is enough to distress very young children, not to mention parents and educators. Furthermore, its explicit feminist theme is bound to offend some conservatives. Thus, I am left with this question, a dilemma faced almost daily by practicing librarians like myself: do the merits of this book outweigh the controversy it will create? My answer is an unequivocal yes.
I first encountered Hastings and Wijngaard’s Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady while in library school and have not stopped it using since. I booktalk it to help introduce a unit on Traditional Literature and folklore. I have incorporated Wijngaard’s brilliant but at times bizarre illustrations into a lesson on art history and styles in art. Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady remains the centerpiece for my annual multimedia storytelling project. Then again, I am a high school librarian. The students who make up my audience and who check the book out from the shelves are not horrified by the ghastly portrayal of the nightmarish Loathly Lady. Nor does the abusive language of the Black Knight fall upon innocent and sensitive ears. These kids have heard it all and repeated most; foul language is not a concern. As for the sexual themes, let’s be realistic. In today’s sex-charged teen environment, the sexual consummation of a marriage is a mild topic indeed. I figure teen-aged males, as devoted fans of misogynistic rap music, could use a strong dose of feminism. Again, I work with teenagers, and technically speaking, Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady is a picture storybook for children. If I were a librarian in an elementary school or even in a middle school, I would have to ask myself, is this book age-appropriate?
Depending upon which bibliographic source one uses, Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady is recommended as appropriate from anywhere from first grade to fifth grade, from age nine to adult. I tend to agree with the latter. At this point, we must recognize some of the inherent differences between the aforementioned British Greenaway Medal and its American counterpart, the Caldecott Medal. Librarians and educators often rely upon awards for justification of a challenged book. If a book has won a major award, then that award alone speaks for the merit of the book. However, that argument does not necessarily prove effective in the case of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady. One can argue that the British define “children” and “children’s books” more liberally than Americans do. After all, Richard Adams’ classic Watership Down was published in the U.K. as a children’s book. While American picture storybooks are typically designed for the primary grades of kindergarten through third grade, British picture books are marketed toward a broader audience. Past winners of the Greenaway Medal include Charles Keeping’s illustrations for Alfred Noyes’ epic poem The Highwayman, Michael Foreman’s biography War Boy: A Country Childhood, and Alan Lee and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Black Ships before Troy. Few American educators would argue that these books—with their mature themes and extensive text—are age-appropriate for children in the primary grades.
The same holds true for Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady. The vocabulary alone would make the book difficult even as a read-aloud for first and second graders. Indeed, the library vendor Follett lists it with a reading level of 4.0. Based upon the Fry Readability Index, the vast majority of American picture storybooks have a reading level between 2.0 and 3.0. The reading level alone should give us an indication for which audience Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady is best suited. Only the star readers below fourth grade could easily handle many of Hastings’ polysyllabic phrases. Melancholy, grotesque, rheumy, hideousness, and penitent represent but a few of the words bound to be unfamiliar to the primary reader. My point here is simple; that in some books but certainly not all, there exists a correlation between the Readability Index and age-appropriateness. Not only might the vocabulary of the book be confusing to the primary reader but so also might be the story’s complex plot and mature themes.Yet that which only so few students could read might easily be read to them. For that reason, I see this book as a perfect read-aloud for those intermediate grades. Having established the readability of the book does little to help us determine its appropriateness. For that, more detailed analysis is needed.
The legend itself is simple enough. While hunting in the forest, the unarmed King Arthur becomes separated from his party and must make his way back to Carlisle Castle alone. As he treks through this foreboding forest, he comes to a pond. On the other side of the pond stands the Black Knight, armored and ready for battle. Without his mystical sword Excalibur, the king is helpless. Realizing that there would be little glory in a killing a defenseless opponent, the Black Knight gives Arthur a riddle to solve. If the king cannot answer the question of what do women most desire, then he will be killed, and his kingdom will fall into the hands of the Black Knight. For the next three days, Arthur queries every woman he sees, from high ladies of the court to the goose girls in the market without finding a sufficient answer. On the third day, Arthur, having resigned himself to defeat, returns to the forest to meet his certain death. He has no answer for the Black Knight.
Along the way, he hears a voice from the forest, a voice that is calling him by name. At the edge of the forest, he spies a creature so hideous it takes his breath away.
Hastings describes the Loathly Lady as:
Her nose was like a pig snout’s; from a misshapen mouth stuck out two rows of yellowing horse’s teeth; her cheeks were covered in sores; she had only one eye, rheumy and red-rimmed, and from a naked scalp hung a few lank strands of hair. Her whole body was swollen and bent out of shape, and her fingers, on which were several fine rings, were as gnarled and twisted as the roots of an old oak.
Wijngaard’s portrait of the Loathly Lady is, however, what brings this disgusting monster to life. One would be hard pressed to find a more frightening portrait anywhere in the pages of children’s literature. Even the most gruesome portrayal of Baba Yaga pales in comparison to Wijngaard’s eerie Loathly Lady. Though abominable in appearance, she appears to have a good heart, for she offers Arthur an exchange. If he as a king will grant her one wish, then she will give him the solution to the Black Knight’s riddle. Desperate beyond measure, Arthur agrees. The Black Knight had asked what do women truly desire, and the Loathly Lady whispers the answer in his ear. She then asks for her end of the bargain—a husband from one of the knights of the Round Table. Arthur is naturally appalled; how can he ever ask one of his knights, loyal as he might be, to make such an incredible sacrifice and marry his hag? At first, he refuses, stating that the hag has asked for the impossible, but she reminds him of the honor of kings. Though deeply troubled, Arthur agrees. He then bids the creature farewell and rides to meet his adversary, the Black Knight.
Arthur quickly thwarts his rival by correctly answering his question. Having been bested by Arthur once again, the Black Knight shouts “God damn you, Arthur. May you roast in Hell!.” (Hastings, p. 16) If the word “hell” does not scare many teachers away from this book, then “God damn” surely will. What does one expect the Black Knight, as dastardly and malevolent opponent as one can face, to say? As the profanity is completely in keeping with his character, then it is justifiable. A similar example is Katherine Paterson’s controversial and often challenged The Great Gilly Hopkins. Gilly, as an unruly foster child, curses like a sailor, but her language is consistent with her character. The same holds true for the Black Knight. The language issue here differs substantially from that issue we occasionally encounter in films for children—where certain characters blurt out profanities for the sole purpose of obtaining a “PG” rating, a move designed to broaden the audience of the movie and eliminate the “G” rating stigma associated with films for kids. The Black Knight curses Arthur not for the sake of cursing but rather because swearing is what Black Knights do. Would Arthur, Guinevere, or Lancelot use such profanity? Perhaps but we must expect a character as malicious as the Black Knight to be as vile as possible. The fact that he curses makes him just that—the antithesis of the honorable and noble Arthur.
That Arthur is honorable brings us to the next issue in the story. He had promised the Loathly Lady a husband from one of Knights of the Round Table. Although his knights have sworn fealty to him, even the medieval codes of chivalry have their boundaries. Arthur is deeply troubled; he owes his life and his honor to the hideous creature in the forest but how can he ask even his most loyal of knights to make such a humiliating sacrifice so as to marry this hag? Distressed to the point of tears, Arthur consults Guinevere. He asks her how he might save his honor. Arthur does not have to wait for her answer, for Sir Gawain, sitting nearby, has overheard their conversation. To save his king’s honor, Gawain eagerly volunteers, thereby condemning himself to wed this monster of monsters rather than a beautiful maiden of the court. Herein lie several of the significant themes of the book—that a man must be true to his word, that honor should come before glory, and that personal sacrifices must be made for the good of the whole. Educators should always ask numerous questions of a controversial book. One of those questions is whether or not the book contains a worthwhile theme. Ask that question of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady, and the answer is self-evident. We are only half way through the book and have already encountered not less than three critical thematic issues, those of honesty, honor, and self-sacrifice. Arthur and especially Gawain display those personal traits and prove the merit of the story’s themes.
Having agreed to marry the Loathly Lady, Gawain goes with Arthur into the forest to bring the bride-to-be back to the castle for the wedding ceremony. What a dismal affair the wedding is—no dancing, no drinking, no festivity at all. Indeed, the mood seems more like a funeral than a wedding. If there is a wedding, then there must naturally follow a consummation of the marriage. Thus, the scene shifts from the banquet hall to the bedroom. At this point, we have reasons for reservations once again. The sexuality in Sir Gawain and the Loathly is very subtle. We as adults know what Gawain must do, but sexual intercourse is never mentioned in the book. Indeed, sex is scarcely implied to by Hastings. Thus, parents and teachers need not be overly concerned with the sexuality of the book.
Nor should they be overly concerned with what happens next. As Gawain is a character in an Arthurian Legend, we know that his loyalty to his king will be rewarded. His act of marrying Dame Ragnelle alone has broken half of a horrible curse. When he turns around in his bedroom, he sees not the deformed Loathly Lady but a stunningly beautiful young woman. Yet he is immediately faced with a dilemma. The young maiden tells him that she can only take her current form for half the day. Which would he prefer—that she be beautiful during the day but hideous at night or beautiful in the evening and hideous during the day? Again, we encounter some implied sexuality. More powerful than the subtle sexual theme at work here is the strong feminist one. Essentially, she is asking Gawain to choose between a “trophy wife” to parade around the castle during the day or a magnificent woman to be his lover at night. Dame Ragnelle challenges him on both accounts, pointing out the flaws in either choice. Frustrated and unable to decide, Gawain gives up; he asks her to choose. Inadvertently, Gawain has broken the other half of the spell. He has given his wife that which she most desires. A woman most desires the right to have her own choices. That is the answer to the Black Knight’s question and perhaps the root of more controversy.
The theme that a woman deserves the right to have her own way is stated so explicitly and at such a critical juncture in the narrative that it cannot help but have a powerful impact on its audience. Again, we must ask ourselves if this theme is a worthy one. While few would deny that women should have the right to freely choose what they want, such overt feminism—especially in a picture storybook for children—may offend some conservatives. Here we must remember that the story is set in the Middle Ages, a time in history when the everyday lives of women was truly “dark.” If the no longer Loathly Lady and her husband can agree that a woman has the right to make empowered choices, then what does that say to us in our more enlightened times? I do not wish to delve into the issues of pro-choice vs. pro-life, but few would disagree that women still are not always entitled to have their own way. Because the women of today are still constrained by the rigors of a male-dominated culture, Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady could be used in the classroom to stimulate critical thought on a sensitive issue.
In the introduction of this essay, I asked myself if the merits of Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady outweigh the controversy it might create. Whether or not concerned parents, teachers, and administrators will buy into my rationale is uncertain. Indeed, any defense of a challenged book puts the defendant in a precarious position. When I teach censorship to my students in my children’s literature class, I always stress the significance of community standards. That Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady has won awards in the United Kingdom and appears on reading lists in Canada, Australia, and New York state would be a weak justification on my part if I were defending the book in rural East Tennessee where I grew up. To religious fundamentalists, international awards do not equate to merit. Medals alone will not vindicate this book. Nor will reading lists. The true measure of the worth of this book can best be determined by what appears between its covers.
Sir Gawain and the Loathly possesses a quality I shall call—for lack of a better term—universal intrinsic value. In essence, I am saying that this is a good book. Period. End of debate. And what constitutes a good book? By using the word intrinsic, I am stating that the book is valued solely on what it is and not what awards it has won or where and how it has been used. If nothing less, the book contains Juan Wijngaard’s stunning illustrations, illustrations so well crafted that Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady could stand alone as an art book. Add to those illustrations Selina Hastings’ masterful retelling of this well-known Arthurian Legend, and one has the makings of a classic picture storybook. Hastings’ style turns a good tale into a great one. What makes this book so successful is that it combines a work of literature—Hastings' retelling—with a work of art, Wijngaard’s illustrations.
If a book is to have near universal appeal, then it naturally follows that its themes should possess a universal appeal. I can safely say that the story’s feminist theme will not appeal to everyone. However, that theme is only one of four. Let us not forget that:
Arthur kept his word to the Black Night and Loathly Lady, both honorable and noble
deeds, B) Gawain chose humility over personal glory, and C) Gawain was willing to make an incredible sacrifice for the good of the whole. When I ask my students to evaluate a work of literature, I urge them to consider whether or not the book has more than one idea. Great stories have multiple themes and layers, all ripe for analysis and discussion; the mediocre ones represent “one-idea wonders.” Because a picture storybook contains four integral themes, I realize its value, not only as piece of quality literature but also a tool to teach students to think critically.
Finally, my last rationale comes from the students to have experienced this book. After my students, be they the high schoolers who check the book out from my library or the future teachers in my children’s literature class, have read Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady, I know they will say, “This is a good book.” For me, that is rationale enough.
Hastings, Selina. Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady. Illustrated by Juan Wijngaard. New