On Shuttered Libraries, Censorship, the Threat of Book Bans
Mark Dunn Mulls Considers What His 2001 Novel Ella Minnow Pea Can Teach Us About Today
Freedom of expression in America—especially the use of language to imprint thoughts and ideas upon a page—has always been under assault. The removal from classrooms and school libraries of material deemed injurious to young minds is nothing new, but its recent resurgence as promulgated by many of the school and library boards of today reminds us that the freedom to share ideas via the tools of language has never been inviolate. The censorship of books—this most venerable manifestation of thought preservation in America—can undergo periodic, politically-engineered recrudescence just when you least expect it.
Or, perhaps, when you do expect it, given the full-stop cultural clashes now insulting the country.
Upon the publication by Dzanc Books of the twentieth-anniversary special edition of my novel Ella Minnow Pea this month, a friend of mine noted sadly, “It’s like America has become the island of Nollop.”
The nation of Nollop, dolloped off the coast of South Carolina (which was founded by former American slaves and abolitionists in the nineteenth century), had always maintained a special, adulatory relationship with the English language. They revered it, elevated it, and then, with bewildering capriciousness, decided to destroy it, through misguided attendance by island leaders to a dead man’s perceived postmortem wishes.
The dead man was, significantly, one Nevin Nollop, purported author of the familiar pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” On the island of Nollop, the fox stopped jumping, and the lazy dog, lapsed right into canine coma.
Ella Minnow Pea was intended as a cautionary tale about the fragility of language and the risks attached to assuming that the use of language as a public tool and commodity is an inalienable human birthright. The pen, as it has been famously put, is mightier than the sword. Which means that it’s far more effective for oppressive forces to go after the pen.Ella Minnow Pea was intended as a cautionary tale about the fragility of language and the risks attached to assuming that the use of language as a public tool and commodity is an inalienable human birthright.
The publication of my novel about Miss Minnow Pea and her fight against those who would eviscerate language through the progressive outlawing of letters of the alphabet put Ella and her fellow equally-beleaguered Nollopians on a two-decade-long journey. She found her way to the shelves of bookstores and libraries throughout the world, was discussed in book clubs and chat rooms and literary forums, was used as clues in both the New York Times and the New Yorker crossword puzzles, and even wound up in stage-musical adaptation as LMNOP (the “muzical!”).
For a book that never made the New York Times bestseller list, Ella slipped into the zeitgeistian cultural consciousness of America through the backdoor. Which put me as the book’s author in the interesting position of having to introduce Ella to those who had still never heard of it, while at the same time hearing it lauded by others as their favorite novel.
There were some who told me, “Of course I know Ella Minnow Pea. I had to write a paper on it for one of my high school English classes.” Those folks are now the parents of kids whose own English teachers have tucked the novel right into their own classroom curriculum. (There are now student study guides written for Ella, which have taught the book’s author a thing or two he didn’t know about his own novel.)
Ella Minnow Pea isn’t alone in addressing the struggle to oppose those who seek to outlaw or, at the very least, put ludicrous fetters on language. On the isle of Nollop, its citizens are forbidden, under heavy penalty, to use, first, the letter “Z,” then “Q,” then “J,” then, significantly, the letter “D.” And the “illicitabetical” laws keep piling up to a ridiculous extreme.
Is this any different from Vladimir Putin’s directive to throw people in jail for the “crime” of using the word “war” to describe his country’s invasion of Ukraine? In some parts of America, a man is allowed to read a story to children in a public space, but only if he doesn’t dress as a woman; then the words that come out of his mouth become bizarrely suspect.
Coincident to Ella getting early attention after its original hardback publication in 2001, a community outside of Kansas City, Missouri, decided to publish its list of books that should be removed from local school libraries. (Note: “should,” not “will.” This is otherwise known as the “good old days.”)
Lest one believe that this particular community didn’t recognize the contrasting existence of “safe” and “non-controversial” literature when they saw it, Ella was put on a second list of books of which they approved—this novel of mine about censorship and book banning. In this town, located in suburban middle-America in the year 2001, irony took a powder.Could the shutting down of libraries actually happen in today’s America? Ask members of the community in Texas who have recently expressed their desire to do just that.
In my novel, the Nollopian Library is eventually shut down and boarded up, since, with the passage of anti-alphabet laws, its shelves are now filled with books that contain the illegal letters. Could the shutting down of libraries actually happen in today’s America? Ask members of the community in Texas who have recently expressed their desire to do just that.
I am sure there are those who wonder what it’s like to write a book that suddenly becomes topically relevant. But, of course, I’d have to correct them: my novel hasn’t stumbled inadvertently into political pertinence. Destroying the ability of members of our species to express themselves through language, through art, through the discourse that flows from untrammeled freedom of thought isn’t without historic precedent. Its antecedents stretch back through the ages.
But today, the weapons are different, or at least differently configured, and, interestingly, freedom of thought and expression—especially through the employment of the many linguistic riches to be found in the gleaming treasure chest that is the English language—doesn’t fall neatly and conveniently on one side of the political and ideological spectrum, as those who decry excessive attendance to political correctness will tell you.
Ella Minnow Pea, I’m happy to report, has found a timeless place in the literary canon, and I’m equally happy to have my name attached to it. But my quirky novel about letters of the alphabet which literally (and literally!) disappear from its pages does find itself invoked in timely moments, just like those we’re living through today. If I’m lucky, its relevance—whether advertent or inadvertent—will keep it on the shelves far into the future.
Which, of course, is a good thing. But it is also an indication that fighting for the ability to use the tools of language without government intrusion is a cause that will never be put out to pasture.
As the son of two visual artists, I’m excited that Dzanc Books has chosen in this special commemorative edition to include illustrations by the very talented Brittany Worsham. And Ella and her cousin Tassie are pleased to see their story illuminated upon crisp new pages. I would imagine that at this very moment, one cousin is writing to the other, using all the letters of the alphabet, not taking a single one of them for granted.
Ella Minnow Pea: 20th Anniversary Illustrated Edition by Mark Dunn is available via Dzanc.