Oct 17 2013 2:30pm

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere Banned Due to Racy Jumper Fumblings

Neverwhere Neil Gaiman Mini Series

A mother in Alamogordo, New Mexico, decided to celebrate Banned Books week a little late this year by asking her daughter’s school to pull Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from its reading list. She objected to the fact that her daughter, a sophomore student at the town’s lone high school, was expected to read the book after she found what she considers an “R-Rated” scene in the book.

For those of you who haven’t read it, Neverwhere is about a young man named Richard Mayhew who finds out that the London he thought he knew is actually divided into two worlds: London Above, where he lives, and London Below, which is a pseudo-medieval society completely invisible to London Abovers. When he attempts to help a girl from Below, he finds that his kindness not only puts him in mortal danger, but that he, too has become invisible. And it is a desperately lonely scene meant to drive Mayhew’s isolation home that has caused the controversy.

The passage in question, on page 86, shows Richard Mayhew unwittingly sharing a park bench with a pair of adulterous lovers, who cannot see him. “The man had his hand inside the woman’s jumper, and was moving it around enthusiastically, a lone traveller discovering an unexplored continent. ‘I want my life back,’ Richard told the couple.” The word fuck is then used three times by the couple, while the woman licks the mans face and “giggles drunkenly.” Their intentions are quite clear, but the scene’s intention is equally so. When put in context it’s very clearly meant to graphically show us Richard’s invisibility.

The mother of the student decided that this passage made the book inappropriate for teenagers, and went straight to the administration. Met with this single complaint, the school system pulled the book from the reading list, despite the fact that Neverwhere has been part of the curriculum since 2004, with no prior complaints. For a report on this incident, check out KRQE’s broadcast, or read The Alamogordo News.

Gaiman took to Twitter to find out more, and then posted a lengthy response from Kathy Wallis, one of the teachers in the school’s English Department on his Tumblr:

“English Department at Alamogordo High School do not agree with the knee jerk reaction of pulling Neverwhere from the Dept. library. It has been successful as a supplemental novel and since our goal is to get students engaged and encourage their thinking, this novel is a keeper — the students love it.”

The teachers also specifically took issue with the way this case has been handled, saying that the parent never spoke directly with the teachers, and also clarifying that no one was forcing the student to read the book. The teacher offered an alternate reading assignment as soon as she learned about the objection—presumably from the administrators, as seemingly the parent never spoke with her. She continues:

“I am sorry our school administrators did not stand up and support the material the way we all would have expected them to do […] We simply cannot stand for banning a book for hundreds of students this year and in the years to come because a single parent objected over one brief passage on one page. [...] Our students have enjoyed Gaiman’s novel for almost ten years, and it saddens us to think that our future students will not have the same opportunity.”

Neil Gaiman, speaking at the Second Annual Reading Agency lecture last week, mused on the role of adults in children’s reading, and was quoted in The Guardian:

“Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading. Stop them reading what they enjoy or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like—the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian ’improving’ literature—you’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant.”

He also provided an account of inadvertently nudging his daughter’s reading habits toward tamer material:

Gaiman revealed that he too had been guilty, once telling his 11-year-old daughter that if she loved [R.L.] Stine’s horror books, she would absolutely adore Stephen King’s Carrie: “Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.”

You can read a full transcript of the lecture here.

Obviously, parents should have a role in what their children are exposed to, and I certainly don’t want to flippantly mock someone’s values or reading tastes. However, the idea that one person’s opinion about her own child’s needs is then allowed to impact every other child in a school district (as well as presumably the careers of the teachers involved) frankly horrifies me. Neverwhere is about many things, including kindness, self-sacrifice, social responsibility, and homelessness. The entire plot hinges on one young man’s decision to help someone, despite the fact that it would be easier for him to ignore her pain. And while it does occasionally use graphic violence to make its points, I think it’s a huge stretch to describe it as “inappropriate,” as the parent did in this case. It is not trying to disabuse young people to the horrors of the world, its trying to argue that it’s worth it to stand up and confront them.

Leah Schnelbach is grateful she was encouraged to make her own choices when she was young, because it led to a debauched life full of words and thoughts. You can read a few of them on Twitter

1. Shariq
The thing that boggles my mind is that this woman seems to think she's shielding her daughter from the very idea of sex as a thing that happens. Her teenaged-high-school-student daughter. Do people really not understand that by simply attending high school, their kids are being exposed to foul language and the idea that sex is really real?
2. JBWocky
Obviously, parents should have a role in what their children are exposed to, and I certainly don’t want to flippantly mock someone’s values or reading tastes. eave children in the care of people who impact their entire lives negatively out of ignorance or misguided over-protectiveness (to put it gently). Some parents shouldn't have ANY role in what their children are exposed to.

@Shariq - very true, I would even go as far as to say that simply reaching a certain age exposes kids to the concept of sex, in some form, even if they are home schooled and you live in a cabin deep in the woods.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
3. Lisamarie
If this were a forced book, I might see the parent's point - not that I think that scene is particulary heinous and that if my child is exposed to something I disagree with it's going to ruin them forever (and I happen to enjoy that book). But at the same time, I do think as a parent I have the right to mointor such things, and maybe even raise/publicize concerns about the book, and I absolutely do NOT think the school has a right to go over my head if I decide I don't want my child to be exposed to something (although for me personally, making that kind of judgment is NOT one I would make lightly at all or as a knee jerk reaction to every single thing that contains something I might be opposed to. In fact, many of my favorite and most thought provoking books contain such elements).

But given that she was given an alternative, I don't agree that it should be banned for everybody. It's up to other parents to decide if their children should be exposed to it or not.
4. Nicholaus Vinson
I read Madame Bovary in high school... by FORCE. AND Lady Chatterley's Lover. It was a part of the ciriculum. Those books are far "racier" than anything in Neverwhere.

Also, I agree with @1, @2 and @3. You have very level headed comments. Thank you.
5. ozone88101
Sounds like the banning of 1984 all over again lol
6. Conrad King
Another reason the world thinks America is crazy.
7. drc413
Yay, time for a good argument!

Based on this description, the mother didn't do anything wrong:
asking her daughter’s school to pull Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from its reading list. She objected to the fact that her daughter, a sophomore student at the town’s lone high school, was expected to read the book after she found what she considers an “R-Rated” scene in the book.
The mother did not ask them to "ban" the book, just to remove it from its reading list based on the assumption that her sophomore (approx 16yo) daughter was expected to read the book. Based on the description that the f-word was used multiple times in the scene, "R-Rated" is certainly an arguably correct description (BTW, when did the f-word become so socially acceptable? It's such a base, uselessly offensive word not even worth shock value anymore. People who use it sound stupid, which is why you rarely hear any mature adults in a corporate setting use it. And don't give me the whole "realistic" garbage - so are bowel movements and nose-picking, and how often do those show up in books?) As an accurately described book, she was perfectly within her rights to request that the school live up to the minimally held standards of even the MPAA and the movie industry.

I find it a sad commentary that a parent showing an active interest in not buying into our society's over-sexualized culture is the subject of scorn rather than thoughtful commendation, regardless of whether you agree with where she personally has set the line for her child.
8. Andrew Horn
drc413 (if that IS your real name...)

Apparently, it's not time for a good argument. A good argument requies that both parties actually have all the facts at their command. You do not.

The article (and the links contained within) make it clear that the daughter was not "expected" to read the book- she was given another option. And the mother was not asking for another option- she was asking that the book be taken off the reading list- meaning that students would get no credit for reading it- despite the fact that it had been used as part of the curriculum for years with no objections, and was being taught at that very moment in the daughter's class- meaning that the class time spent on the book was wasted, as far as the school was concerned.
9. butchie34
How sad that a misguided parent wants a book removed from a reading list for a single scene on a single page in a brilliant book.

If the girl was a sophomore then her parents should have already had the talk with her about 'the birds and the bees'. The fact that she is in high school and exposed to other children means that if the girl had not been given the talk by her parents her peers would have enlightened her by that age anyway.

It can only be a parent who never wants their children to grow up and if they could have, she would have wrapped her daughter up at the age of 7 and never allowed to grow up and leave the parent's house. As a parent myself I can understand the sentiment, but there is a moment when you have to cut those apron strings and let your child grow up and become, as Phil Dunphy says, a parent-chute.
Ian Gazzotti
10. Atrus
@drc413: Actually not even the MPAA is so strict with its rulings. There are several T-rated films where the f-word appears a few times, and of course several family movies with abundant graphic depictions of sex. So, no, three instances of the f-word in a whole book do not an R-rated novel make.

Also, do you know how many beloved classics we should label as adult-only if we adhered to the language standards of the time? Phrases that are pretty tame nowadays were incredibly lascivious in the eyes of the original readers, and books we now find in required reading lists have often been banned at one time or another. My high school Italian Lit professor made us read some bawdy sonnets as an example of 'popular literature' in the Renaissance that make that Neverwhere scene incredibly tame by comparison, and that was in the syllabus.

"you rarely hear any mature adults in a corporate setting use it"
Mostly because company policies means they could be fired for using it. People who are exempt from that rule, like bosses of pretty big companies, swear like sailors and no one bats an eye.
Also, I tend to judge maturity by how people treat each other, not if they adhere to a 50-year old standard of language, but that's just me.
11. a1ay
"Bluenose" and "prude" and "Church Lady" and so on are all very well, but the Australians, as is so often the case, have a far superior word for this sort of person that is not only accurate but catchy: wowser.

It's derived from the acronym W.O.W. for "Why oh why" - as in "To the Editor. Dear sir, Why, oh why must our innocent 16 year old daughters be subjected to the use of naughty words? BTW, when did the f-word become so socially acceptable? It's such a base, uselessly offensive word not even worth shock value anymore. People who use it sound stupid, which is why you rarely hear any mature adults in a corporate setting use it. And don't give me the whole "realistic" garbage - so are bowel movements and nose-picking, and how often do those show up in books? I remain, Sir, yours faithfully, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells."
Grace McDermott
12. Stormy
BTW, when did the f-word become so socially acceptable? It's such a base, uselessly offensive word not even worth shock value anymore. People who use it sound stupid, which is why you rarely hear any mature adults in a corporate setting use it. And don't give me the whole "realistic" garbage - so are bowel movements and nose-picking, and how often do those show up in books?

There has never been such a beautifully versatile word as "fuck". It can be used in almost any context of a sentence, to uplift, or to decry; it can be a cry of anger, or an expression of the worst disappointment.

It is used, because it is often the best choice: just like any other word.

Corporate settings are an entirely different kettle of fish to fiction – in many ways they are a lot more fictitious than books. A corporate world expects certain things, and for people to behave in set patterns of behaviour in order to not rock the boat.

In a corporate office, queer people often fly under the radar, instead of being out. People who have hobbies that aren’t fishing/reading/cooking may choose to avoid speaking about them. People who have issues such as depression or anxiety may again, choose to avoid speaking about it because it is not expected within that world.

However, obviously in reality, there are queer people, cosplayers and the mentally ill.

And I happen to like books where the bathroom is mentioned, or people get terribly snotty and gross whilst crying, because it’s realistic.

Have a fucking amazing day. :)
Chris Nelly
13. Aeryl
@12 Stormy, You took the fucking words right out of my fucking mouth!
14. Cassie Gipson
As a student at this high school it makes me sick knowing a parent does this. I am a junior and read this book last year it makes me mad because how is this child supposed to read any other book such as the scarlet letter? It makes me sick if you do not want you child reading a class room book take it to the teacher not to the media and this is what the parent did. The libraian has said if they remove that one book they might as well just remove every other book. This mom has some issues.
15. yetidad
Banning books is one of the stupidest things stupid people do. Banning books on high school reading lists for very, very minor sex scenes that are not there for any titillating purpose is especially stupid. School is supposed to teach people things about the world. If parents want to shield their children from things that happen, words that people use, and good literature, then maybe they should home school their kids. They have that right. They really should not have the right to force their values on other people's (perhaps) more mature children or on (obviously) more intelligent parents who are not afraid of the world, as this woman must be.
16. yetidad
I don't want to only attack the parent here. The fact that this school caved in to the demands of one parent without any sort of a fight is also ridiculous. Schools should stand up for what they teach rather than bowing down to every disgruntled lunatic that shouts, "I'm outraged! Outraged, I say!"
17. Nix
Stormy@12, agreed on 'fuck'. I hope nobody ever sees fit to show the shortsighted, foolish mother of discourse the paper _English Sentences Without Overt Grammatical Subjects_, by Quang Phuc Dong* of the South Hanoi Institute of Technology**. Her head might explode. All those bad words being analyzed, oh no!

* the late James D. McCawley
** the University of Chicago
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
18. Lisamarie
While I agree that banning the book was bad, and, especially in this case, not really warranted, I'm kind of irritated at the assumption regarding the mindset here.

While this particular passage doesn't quite ping my 'I don't really want my kids exposed to that right now' meter, I can imagine a few things that might, and I can also understand why a parent might not want their kids to read that book (which is not to say I think it should have been pulled from the library).

At any rate, it's really overly simplistic to say that they don't want their kids to know about sex, that it exists, etc. And it's extremely rude and ignorant to assume that the kids must be less mature, and the parents less intelligent because of that. Usually it's more the context and the message about sex that they don't agree with, the way it's casually handled, whatever - and that's their right. I have to agree - I don't think exposing kids to everything automatically makes them more mature, at least not in a good way. And I think there is something to be said for a little bit of shielding and protecting your children. I know a lot of homeschooling parents, both in real life and online, who homeschool for a variety of reasons (including to 'shield their children', in some cases) and they (the parents AND the kids) are not as stupid or naive as you seem to think they are.

Now, as I said, I don't think the passage in general is condoning adultery or anything like that. I believe that every parent should have the right to determine if it is something they want their kids exposed to, so that's why I think it is an overreaction to ban it, and yes, I do think a line was crossed there. I'd be fine with my kids reading it; maybe we'd talk about it, or maybe I'd just assume that our general beliefs in our family are well enough known that reading one passage isn't going to suddenly corrupt them. But I can certainly empathize with parents who may draw the line in a different place.

Also, @17, I think there is an obvious difference between a scholarly paper analyzing the use of words and a book that her high schooler is reading, that, perhaps in her mind, may seem to be condoning and encouraging, or at least densensitizing, words she doesn't deem approriate for use in her family. It's an overly simplistic attack to assume she is too stupid to tell the difference. I come from a pretty vocal Italian family so profanity rarely pings me at all, heh. To be honest, I'm trying to cut down a bit...Still, I feel she (as a person) is being a bit unfairly attacked here, even if I don't agree with what happened here.
Ian Gazzotti
19. Atrus
@18 The gatekeeping role of parents is precisely that: the parents's. The book was not on the required reading list, so all the mother had to do to not have her daughter read it was: 1. pay attention to what her daughter reads, and 2, tell her "Don't read it." The end.

But the bigger part of the blame lays on the school which, because of the report of one parent, prevented every other student from reading the book for credit, because of three lines in a whole novel.
Chris Nelly
20. Aeryl
Now I don't know the particulars of this parent or her beliefs, but I have a big problem with parents who hyperventilate over crap like this, but allow their children to take in even more harmful messages disguised as children's entertainment, like Beauty and the Beast or Hop, which is why I have little patient for this kind of moralistic grandstanding, because this only comes up when it's the S-E-X, and that is why we have rape culture.

My daughter is 12, I've never put any real restrictions on what she's allowed to watch, all I've ever done, if I've felt something had content that was too mature for her, is explain why, but always left the ultimate decison up to her. She's a big fan of Kevin Smith movies, but has never seen Clerks. She wanted to, but I told her that it had some grody jokes that went beyond poop and fart jokes, and that she probably wouldn't like it. And because she knows I don't arbitrarily restrict her watching habits, she trusted my judgement.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
21. Lisamarie
@19, oh, I agree, and that's precisely how I would have handled the situation were it my child, and were it a book I happened to disagree with. As I said, I don't agree with what she did...but I do have an issue with people making indirect comments about how people like her must be stupid or immature or doing it because they don't want their kids to know sex exists in any form.

@20, oh yeah, I definitely agree that there are way worse and more insidious things to get in a tizzy over.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
22. Lisamarie
PS - if I seem kind of nitpicky, it's not becuase I'm trying to stir up dissension or express widespread criticism/disapproval. Even when I agree with 95% percent of an article/comments that is posted, it alway seems more interesting to me to comment on the part I DON'T agree with, instead of just saying, "Yup, I agree."
Risha Jorgensen
23. RishaBree
The funny part of this is that there are very few writers I find less sexy than Gaiman. Romantic, yes, capable of inciting deep horror or other such emotions, absolutely, but sex? Nothing of his I've ever read has come close to invoking an erotic feeling. Including scenes with sex in them.
24. Yugguy
Meh. This has always been one of the weirdest things about American attitudes. You can show violence of the worst kind, that's fine, but a pair of breasts? NO THAT'S WRONG!!!!
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
25. Lisamarie
@24, I know, I find that very odd as well. And America has this strange love-hate relationship with sex as well - on one hand it's bad/wrong, but on the other hand it's all over the freaking place and if you're not having tons of sex you're going to go crazy or there's something wrong with you. It's difficult (as a woman) to find clothes that don't, by default, show more than I am personally comfortable showing. But heaven forbid I try and nurse in public. (Actually, nobody has ever bothered me about it, as I live in a fairly progressive city, although my Mom thinks I'm weird for doing it, but I know it's a problem for many other women). It's actually an area I really like to read about/study, and I think a lot of it has to do with the influence of Puritanism, which is itself a repeat of things like the Mancihaeist/dualist heresies about the nature of the body.

I'm not saying I want to see more sex acts/objectification and less violence - I'd prefer to see less of both (but I do think we can stand to lighten up about breasts/the body in general and not automatically viewing them as sexual). But the only thing I can think of that seems to explain why violence seems to fly under the radar and sex doesn't is that (I think), in general, violence is usually a more unambigous thing...there aren't many 'contexts' in which it's okay to bash somebody's head in, so, presumably, people aren't going to start thinking that's okay (although I really do wonder if we're not subtly desensitizing ourselves). But with sex, especially as there are so many different ideas and views about it, it takes something that is at its heart good, and then portrays it in away that (depending on the viewer) might be seen as twisting it, which in some ways is more dangerous/offesnsive than just flat out showing something bad. Sex is powerful and I think we're scared of that, in some ways, so we'd rather just not talk about it or how to deal with this aspect of ourselves, and instead just push it down until it's 'proper' - except that by then, you have no idea how to deal with it, and might still feel ashamed of it!

Interestingly, I am finding my tolerance for violence - even cartoon violence played for humor, or even READING about it - has significantly waned since having children. I was actually a very macabre teenager, and thought I was very cool/edgy/deep/real because of it. I think this might actually verge on a disorder (I know all parents are anxious about their children but I think this is a bit excessive), but since having children, it triggers panic, and I can't shut the images off in my head or stop imagining them happening to my children. It was really horrible after the birth of my first child (I suspect I had PPD) for about a month, but it still lingers, years later.
26. TRX12345
This is no different than what happens every day in public schools on a vareity of issues. One person complains about a Thanksgiving party because they feel it's offensive to Indians or something. 99.99% of the parents and kids like the Thanksgiving party. But we remove it for one angry, weirdo parent. One person complains about a banner made by a student (expressing their 1st Amendment rights BTW) that has the word "God" in it (obviously a far more offensive word than "f**k"-which funnily enough the comment thread won't even let me write, but children's school books should totes have it) and it's removed (violating the student creator's 1st Amendment rights). 99.99% of people at the school weren't offended or didn't care but we remove it for one angry atheist. Maybe removing this book was silly, but I think everyone on here is lacking clarity on this issue.
Chris Nelly
27. Aeryl
You are so off base here.

Thanksgiving is OFFENSIVE. It's a centuries long whitewashing of American genocide by trying to say, "LOOK, ONE TIME WE ALL CAME TOGETHER". I don't necessarily think it should be banned, but it schools should definitely take the opportunity to educate people about the true history of Native Americans and how they were treated. But if you try to do that, the American exceptionalists will have a field day, and you can bet that shit will get banned.

As far as religious banners in school, while the students have a 1st amendment right to freedom of religion the school does not. As a a matter of fact the school has the responsibility to protect the 1st amendment rights of ALL students, not just the Christian ones, and a school allowing the banner to be posted was an endorsement of those beliefs, hence violating the 1st Amendment rights of other students.

We do not live in a nation of mob rule, of might makes right. We live in a nation of laws, laws that must respect the human rights of all citizens. It doesn't matter if 99% of people think it's okay, if it violates the right of 1%, it must go. Rights cannot be up for a majority vote.
Don Ritchey
28. dritch
One of the things not mentioned in the coverage, and it MAY apply here. If the mother in question was either a Major Figure in the local scene or the spouse of a Major Figure in the local scene, she may have "power" all out of proportion of her position as a lone parent complaining about her daughter's reading material.

If she were the spouse of the preacher at the largest church in Alomogordo, then the school board will bend over backward to avoid offending her, due to the risk of having stood up to her influence denounced in the next Sunday's sermon. Or, she may belong in the category of "Sister Bertha Better'n You" from Ray Stephen's song about the "Squirrel who came to church", where she has the self-appointed role of looking out for the morals of the entire community, whether they welcome it or not.
29. Crane Hana
Another thing to keep in mind is that this happened in Alamogordo, which has a fairly large proportion of very conservative citizens. This is the same town that had, or wanted to have, a mass-burning of Harry Potter books some years back, because the series apparently promoted witchcraft. (New Mexico expat, here: southeastern NM is not that much different culturally than west Texas.)

I give kudos to the teachers for standing up, and a thumbs-down to the school district for being wimps.
30. Onyx
Ironically, the title of this article is misleading.

According to the referenced sites, the book was NOT banned. It was merely pulled from the curriculum temporarily. And in the face of a complaint, is that really too far out of line?

While I certainly don't support banning--I also don't support innacurate and misconstrued facts. In this case, the book remains under review and a panel is supposedly being formed to review future complaints in order to bette handle them.

How much of a difference is there in blocking access to a book based on one person's interpretation, albeit correct or incorrect, and the fervor of these 3rd-hand discussions whose basis is in heresay and not fact?

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