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San Marcos High School librarian Helen Murdoch reads from “Always Running” by Luis Rodriguez, a memoir about the gang lifestyle banned by the Santa Barbara school board. (Rob Kuznia / Noozhawk photo)

One way to get children interested in reading a book is to ban it from their school.

So for some authors, getting a book banned might actually be good for business.

In the eyes of Helen Murdoch, the new librarian at San Marcos High School, that’s a small consolation.

Murdoch decided that San Marcos should begin participating in the annual National Banned Book Week, an event sponsored by the American Library Association that aims to get word out to the public that the practice attempting to ban books from public libraries and schools still occurs with regularity.

For Murdoch, part of the idea is to get more students interested in coming to the library. An exhibit on banned books seemed like a good place to start.

“They’re banned, so they must not be boring,” deadpanned Murdoch, who taught at the school as a history teacher for 13 years before assuming her new post this year. “The library shouldn’t be seen as a place that’s depressing. It should be where some of the more interesting stuff happens.”

The association releases several lists of books and authors that have been challenged, which it defines as a formal attempt to remove the book from a library. It does not compile lists of books that have actually been banned.

On the nationwide list of frequently most challenged books of 2007 are several classics, such as Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which, ironically, has been challenged for “racism” (the book is fiercely critical of racist attitudes), and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” which some find offensive for its passages on homosexuality, sexual content and offensive language, according to the association.

The most challenged literature of the 21st century nationwide has been the Harry Potter series.

Closer to home, four years ago, the Santa Barbara school board responded to a parent complaint by banning from required reading lists a memoir about the gang lifestyle by Luis Rodriguez called “Always Running.” (The school board chose to allow the book to remain in school libraries.)

On Monday, that was the book Murdoch chose to read.

“It gets into what life is like for an immigrant, what life is like for people who are poor,” she said. “It’s a side of things that lots of kids in Santa Barbara don’t hear about.”

In keeping with the unwritten rule of banned books, “Always Running” also happens to be among the most popular selections at San Marcos, Murdoch said. Often, she added, the students who check it out come from the same background as the author: low-income Latino families. Murdoch said she would like the book to also reach a broader audience.

Her method of participation in the national event is decidedly low key.

All this week, during the lunch hour, Murdoch will sit on a couch surrounded by three or four chairs in front of the library, on the outskirts of the frenetic outdoor lunch scene in the commons area. If and when any student stops to take a seat, she begins to read out loud, and is barely audible over the din of the lunchtime chatter. On Monday, Murdoch read to an audience of two students.

Students who don’t have time to listen to the readings can peruse a list of facts and figures on a poster nearby.

On Monday, several students ambled over to take a look.

Junior Casey Harding-Brown was surprised to see that author Judy Blume is No. 2 on the top-10 list of challenged authors from 1990 to 2004. “I feel like those books are so kiddish,” she said.

Casey and other students had to laugh when they saw the name of the ninth-most challenged book of the 21st century: “The Captain Underpants” series by Dav Pilkey. “That’s just funny,” she said.

Usually, formal challenges come from parents. That was the case for 60 percent of the roughly 3,000 books that were reported as challenged from 2000 to 2005, according to the Office for Intellectual Freedom. (The office says that as many as four out of five challenged books go unreported.)

The most common reason for a challenge is offensive language, followed by sexually explicit content.

Murdoch admits that the award-winning “Always Running” contains some heavy themes, and adds that she wouldn’t recommend it for children younger than high school age.

The autobiographical account, which is No. 86 on the list of 100 most frequently challenged books during the 1990s, includes explicit depictions of rape and oral sex. (The scenes don’t happen until the middle of the book, and Murdoch reads only part of the first chapter.)

The 1993 novel is also widely recognized as an important cautionary tale for young teenage boys who think they might be attracted to the gang life. The prizes it has garnered include the New York Times Notable Book Award and a Carl Sandburg Literary Award. 

Murdoch said she agrees with the school board’s decision to take it off the required reading list, so long as it remains in the library.

“I don’t think it should be forced on people who would be really offended by it,” she said, but “I think it’s appropriate for high school students who are ready for it.”

She said the book has many students excited about reading for the first time.

“If it helps some kids get turned on to reading, and they can relate to it, I think it serves a purpose,” she said.

Murdoch said she doesn’t know of any other books that have been banned or restricted in Santa Barbara’s schools.

Another book to be read this week includes “Go Ask Alice,” supposedly a diary written by an anonymous author. The book has been challenged for content involving drugs, sexual scenes and obscene language. Others to be read this week include “The Color Purple,” “The Giver,” “Annie on My Mind,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Flies.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at

Rob Kuznia, Noozhawk Staff Writer

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at