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Banned Books

By April 19, 2024 11 Comments

You’ve heard, of course, the oddities, like the dictionary and the Bible, but what made the news this week was that Pen America, who tallies such things, reported that more books were banned here in the second half of last year (2023) than in the entire year before, twice that number in fact. Among the states in the running, Florida holds a commanding lead, which should surprise no one since their governor’s failed bid for the Presidency made cleaning up the shelves a campaign issue. By the way, Escambia County, Florida, not to be out scrubbed, presently has the lead–1600 and counting–by including not just one dictionary, but, count ’em, five!

These days, Florida is, I’m sure, a much better place to raise kids, having swept a grand total of 3,135 books off its squeaky-clean shelves. 

Here’s my story.

A gang of guys are playing cards in the dorm. I’m among ’em. The jabbering makes the game secondary. Mostly they’re just talking, getting to know each other–first semester.

It’s fall, 1966, and I’m a freshman at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, far from home. But friends aren’t hard to come by when they all have similarly unreadable last names like Vande Zandeschulp and could sing more than one verse of “The Ninety-and-Nine” a capella. Like I said, we’re playing Rook when some local guy mentions a name I’d never heard, “Feikema,” but it sounds pretty much like everyone else’s.

“He’s a writer,” some other local kid says, “big guy–huge–writes dirty books.” There’s nothing doleful about the way he says it. He was marketing.

“Naah,” I say,  or something similar. “Gi’mee a break. Guy writes dirty books, and he’s from here?”

“Not right here–Doon,” somebody says. I had no idea what a Doon was. And his name wasn’t Feikema, somone said, because he’d changed it–“‘Manfred'” or something.”

Some weeks later, I’m in a bookstore in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where I spot a paperback with the name that came up that night in the dorm, “Frederick Manfred.” If I hadn’t had 75 cents along, I would have walked out of the store with the skinny thing jammed in my pants. This was the local guy, the one who writes books, dirty ones.

I read The Secret Place cover-to-cover (175 pp), a rarity. I wasn’t a reader, never was; and, sure, the story had more than its share of sexual hijinks. The kid at the heart of the novel gets two girls pregnant, both out of wedlock, and this Manfred/Feikema guy brings us out into the country to watch.

But something else happens, something strange. I get lost in the story, especially when the kid in the novel gets brought before the consistory–something in that scene smells familiar. This guy is writing on my ground somehow. Something I’d never, ever imagined happened before–I recognized the characters, recognized the world of The Secret Place (1965). I thought you had to be from New York to write books.

In point of fact, I am so moved by what I only vaguely understand–finding myself in what some call the “felt life” of the novel–that I go to my English prof to ask her if I can write my Freshman English term paper on a novel by this guy, Frederick Manfred. I had to tread lightly, I knew, because those guys playing cards had said–and they seemed to know what they were saying–that somehow that the fiesty little college president had seen to it that no one could check out Feike Feikema’s books from the college library, unless they had some kind of special permission.

She knew that, so I told her I owned my own copy of The Secret Place. Maybe something of a lib, she said yes, so I did, wrote my freshman term paper, English 101, on Frederick Manfred’s The Secret Place. That excursion into strange, felt life made me think most anybody could write, could tell stories. That little contraband novel set me off on a lifelong commitment to watching newly formed letters march over a page or screen. I’ve been at it pretty much ever since, devotionals for kids, novels, short stories, denominational books, family albums for the Back to God Hour, the CRC, and Rehoboth Christian Schools, innumerable personal essays, and now, radio productions.

In truth, it wasn’t just The Secret Place that set me off on a journey, but when I look back at a half-century of sitting here at the desk as I am doing right now–early, first light just now opening the land from a sky full of pink lemonade–this morning, like always, trying to get the words to come out right, to create something worth my time and yours, when I look back the first book I remember is a skinny one, by a local novelist, a dirty book, I guess, banned back then in the college library. 

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    This American need to keep kids safe. . . .
    My mom had a copy of The Man Who Looked like the Prince of Wales, right there on the shelf. So I read it. I think I was in high school. Why my mom had that book amongst all her other food books I’ll never know. Sex in the cornfield and all that.

  • RZ says:

    Your story is hilarious and heartwarming: Rook, adolescent boys, naivete and all. I have to wonder…..Had you not stumbled onto that book or that dorm conversation, would we have ever experienced the joy of Jim Schaap’s brilliant writing career? This was a joy to read!

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    My wise Aunt June, knowing how many times I had read “Gone With the Wind”, gave me “Andersonville” to read when I was in junior high school. That book began my education into the reality of the Civil War. I’m not sure it would fall on a banned books list, but the harsh history within those pages taught me more about the nuances of that conflict than any textbook ever would. That’s the enlightenment that comes from reading all kinds of books – including those by Frederick Manfred.

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    As soon as I learned to read and we moved into town, living just a short bike-ride from our Carnegie public library, I spent most of my discretionary childhood hours reading there. As a jr high boy, more often I would drift into the “adult” section, where I encountered the James Bond novels. The librarian made a point to tell me because of my age I couldn’t check them out—-but I was welcome to read them on site. “Just don’t re-shelve them—we’ll do that.” I think she was a friend of my grandma, retired teacher who taught me to read

  • Henry Baron says:

    Ah Jim, censorship … it was around the time of your freshman year introduction to a “dirty book” when in my early morning class in Senior Lit there came a knock on the classroom door, and in strode the principal with the demand to have the class march the dirty book I had been teaching to the bookstore. A parent had complained that the paperback stories included African natives who were less than decently clad. It was not long thereafter that I wrote a monograph for the National Union of Christian School titled “Dirty Books” in Christian Schools. The monograph included the application of selection principles to one of the most frequently banned book for adolescent readers – Catcher in the Rye. Interestingly, the monograph was not banned – in fact, it went through a number of printings. But “Catcher” remains on the top of the dirty book list.

  • Lynn Setsma says:

    Jim, I have to ask. Did one of the incidents happen during a snowstorm in Iowa? I read at least one of his books many years ago but can’t remember the title. If so, I remember the details of the bed being quite descriptive. 🙂

  • Wesley says:

    On the other hand, the year before I was in ninth grade, our suburban NY school district had a huge kerfluffle about one of the books in the ninth grade English curriculum. It was not banned, my parents did not object, and I read it the next year. To be honest, I don’t remember any of the dirty parts of that book and don’t remember being offended / titillated / affected while reading it. Some people just have too much time on their hands, I think.

    And the non-Dutch Christian college I went to supposedly had a secret library where all the “occult materials” were stored. I never got access to that, never asked either.

  • Jon says:

    Forgive me, pastor, for I have sinned. I ordered a copy of Frederick Manfred’s book off of Ebay.

  • Valerie Van Kooten says:

    The whole idea of banning books in our schools, or removing certain issues of Sports Illustrated, or blacking out words in a local newspaper that was covering a sexual assault, is just a farce. As junior high kids at Pella Christian Grade School’s library in the mid-‘70s, puberty was in full force and Mrs. Zylstra had her hands full keeping hormone-riddled pre-teens from congregating around the National Geographic with topless African women, or around the dictionary where we looked up “dirty words,” or even seeing who could find the most sex-laden Bible verse (Ezekiel 23:20 always won). The point is, kids will always find a way around book bans, which are an act of futility.

    • Lynn Miley says:

      We’re not talking about National Geographic. We’re talking about books like Gender Queer that have graphic pictures of gay sex, graphic descriptions of anal sex, instructions in how to cleanse your anus for sex, etc. all made available for children as young as young as eight. The kinds of books that are being banned now were not available in your library just 10 years ago. I get the impression that the author of the article has never read the books that are being “banned.”

  • Randy Buist says:

    To see the author’s name after reading this piece, the author who could write a good devotional for our dinner table rather than something that bored me beyond words, the author who helped create a fire in me as a middle school kid via his thoughtful devotional book… While we have never met, you still inspire me, James. Keep at it! And, thank you — again.

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