As a teen, I didn’t like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The ending bears the hallmarks of a cop-out and I swore I could pinpoint the moment when Twain put the manuscript down for seven years before wrapping things up. What I did love was how my high school English teacher facilitated conversations about fiction as a tool for documentation of local dialects, debates on the role of the white savior trope, and explorations of the changing meaning of freedom throughout American history.
Nat Hentoff’s 1982 Young Adult fiction book, “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book,” follows high school student newspaper editor Barney Roth as he navigates writing about and advocating for his teacher’s right to teach Huck Finn and the school library’s right to keep the book freely available after noticing their longtime librarian left her job without a word.
The struggle between a student journalist and a censorial administration is something Hentoff knew all too well. When the late civil liberties advocate, historian, novelist, and jazz critic attended Northeastern University, the university president fired him from his editorial role at the student paper for publishing coverage critical of the administration. When Hentoff later received an academic award, the president refused to attend the ceremony. “I thought that was a tribute,” said Hentoff, who received an honorary law degree from his alma mater in 1985.
“Freedom does not come with any guarantees, you know. You can lose it just by not paying attention to those who are taking it away from you.”
Through talking with his peers and faculty and listening to the public debate at the book review committee and school board meetings, Barney gets a crash course in what it takes to push back against book bans.
The scenes of the book with the protagonist’s teacher and librarians took me right back to those English class debates. They remind me that the only lessons I remember from my K-12 experience are those that stemmed from my teachers putting down the lesson plan focused on standardized exams and encouraging my peers to disagree and participate in our communities — or bringing in speakers with whom they themselves didn’t agree. (Shout out to Mr. Eby for bringing in a Chicago police officer who may well have put him in a paddy wagon during a Desert Storm protest in Chicago.)
Like my memorable teachers, Hentoff does an excellent job of humanizing those involved in book banning debates. From showing how the knee-jerk instinct to censor can come from a real place of hurt or a desire to perform allyship, to examining the imperfect decisions of advocates with whom one agrees, to revealing the emotional and social toll all parties pay for taking a stand, he paints a rich picture.
Barney’s debates about censorship bear an uncanny resemblance to the ones we are seeing today. All you have to do is swap around the main players and the grievances against the books. These debates function like “Dialogues of Plato” for readers, priming them for difficult conversations with those they care about on the follies of censorship.
And the analogy of “arresting the book” is, unfortunately, not too far off.
A lesson this book makes clear is one to which FIRE can attest: If you are hearing about a book ban controversy, a censorial battle has likely quietly raged long before that particular story went public, and will likely continue long after that single case closes. These cases do not happen in a vacuum.
As one of Hentoff’s characters pontificates after the local Huck Finn debate seemingly ends, “[T]he other side is going to think they don’t have to organize, they’ve already won. And so a lot of them aren’t even going to bother to vote [in the school board election].”
If you’re wondering how best to join the fight against censorship once it reaches your ears, and why it’s worth getting involved at any stage, “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book” is a must read.