Banned book club a real-time lesson in censorship

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Chicago Tribune metro editor Angela Rozas and Printers Row Journal editor Jennifer Day discuss the controversy over whether to pull graphic novel 'Persepolis' from Chicago Public School curriculums.

Four Hundred Fifty-One Degrees is not a boy band. The group was founded by a boy, and it is led by a boy, but its ranks are primarily girls. It came together just 18 months ago and, depending on the week, it claims 15 to 20 members. That fluctuation should not be misread as a lack of commitment: The members have matching T-shirts, with “451 Degrees” emblazoned across the fronts. That said, matching T-shirts should not be misread as popularity: Until the other day, 451 Degrees was not especially well-known.

This is, after all, a book club — a small book club at Lane Tech College Prep High School, which has 4,200 students and more than 60 official clubs, including a Dr. Who Club, a Lithuanian Club and a Ping Pong Club.

Then, about a week and a half ago, word swept through Lane that a Chicago Public Schools directive ordered all copies of the Marjane Satrapi graphic novel “Persepolis” removed from classrooms and libraries.

And suddenly, 451 Degrees' existence seemed unnervingly poignant: The club, founded by 16-year-old Lane Tech junior Levi Todd partly because Lane Tech didn't have a book club, reads banned and controversial books.

Only banned and controversial books.

Its name, of course, is a clever nod to the temperature at which books burn in “Fahrenheit 451,” Ray Bradbury's dystopian classic about a repressive, book-confiscating future America. In fact — well, what do ya know? — about the same time “Persepolis,” which tells the autobiographical story of a young girl navigating her way through a repressive, revolutionary Iran, was being yanked, 451 Degrees was having its regular Wednesday afternoon meeting in room 231, talking about the themes in “Fahrenheit 451.”

Irony wasn't among them.

Not until later.

Said Todd, 451 Degrees' president: “It cracks me up to think, just as the email about pulling the book was going around the school, we were wrapping our conversation about ‘Fahrenheit 451' — which we're named after but hadn't read yet — having the greatest discussion ever, about freedom of speech, its limitations …”

Said Evie Lacroix, the group secretary: “It was super-eerie in retrospect, because here we were talking about manipulation and repression, and here the CPS were, trying right then to manipulate and repress us!”

Said Grace Barry, the vice president: “We were a chilled-out club. We ate snacks, we talked. We planned to read Margaret Atwood next, now we had to go for immediacy and start ‘Persepolis.'” She added: “I don't want to end up on some list or something, but I think I might want to read ‘The Anarchist Cookbook' next.”

Remember, CPS: No one is born a revolutionary.

To be fair, the school district, which began pulling copies of “Persepolis” because of a complaint about a single page that contained brief and harrowing (though hardly gratuitous) images of torture in Iran, later backpedaled and said the directive was misunderstood, badly worded and intended only for seventh-grade classrooms.

“But you have to wonder why a student in Chicago, not exactly a backwater, would feel the need to start a group like this a year earlier,” said Barbara Jones, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the Chicago-based American Library Association. She had never heard of a banned-books club in a high school, but wondered if someone in 451 Degrees had ever had a book taken away — “which, frankly, is how I ended up doing this; I remembered how chilling it was to be told by a librarian that I couldn't read Karl Marx. Which I finally read and was incredibly bored by, but it's the principle of the thing.”

Indeed, 451 Degrees began mildly.

Todd told me his first experience with a controversial book was “The Hunger Games.” He read it as a freshman, and though it was not banned in Chicago, it had been controversial elsewhere. Todd reads a lot; he said he plans on being a book editor.

“But I never found a club I was into at Lane,” he said, “and if I was going to do a club, I was going to have fun, not just throw something on a resume.” He also didn't want a general-interest book club, but after he saw a sign for Banned Books Week (which is in September), he thought there would be a specificity and purpose to a club devoted only to books challenged in libraries and schools.

He landed a faculty adviser, began making posters (an image of a book silhouetted by a flame) and started recruiting friends: “When Levi said we would read only banned books, that sounded extra awesome,” said Tori Lieggi, the group treasurer. “Have you ever heard of someone in a school seeking out banned books?”

Talking to members of 451 Degrees, it's hard not to be reminded that a banned book becomes a forbidden fruit. On the other hand, do not assume that a book club like this is a fleeting teenage act of provocation.

Last week I met with Todd after school. We sat in a cafe in Lincoln Square, not far from his North Center high school. He brought along senior Alexa Repp, 17, a friend who also happened to be one of the leaders of the student protests that sprang up after “Persepolis” was pulled. She had long red hair and was stylishly bundled in a scarf. Todd was lanky, poised, with a small curl of hair that made me think of Tin Tin. They were also alarmingly self-possessed, ridiculously well-spoken for teenagers and fond of air quotes. (“To be honest with you, I frequently ask myself where my son comes from,” Todd's father, Stuart Iseminger, told me later.)

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