By Tom Dalton
SALEM — Jefell Campos, a junior at Salem Academy Charter School, drew stares yesterday as he walked down the school corridor.
"I decided to go all out," said the 17-year-old, who was wearing red, white and blue one-piece pajamas and a Patriots stocking cap with dangling dreadlocks.
On most days, Campos would have been sent home.
But yesterday, he was a celebrity — one of 40 seniors and juniors taking part in "Banned Books Jim-Jam!" a nonstop reading of banned or controversial books. It was part educational sleepover ("Jim-Jam" is British slang for pajama party) and part living lesson about a precious freedom.
Students wore pajamas to school because they were spending the night in the school cafeteria, reading books aloud from 4:15 p.m. until 7:15 a.m. this morning.
It was 15 straight hours of public reading, by teachers and students, from the American Library Association's list of books that have been banned, restricted or challenged in communities across the United States.
Some students weren't sure they could make it through the night without falling asleep, until they heard there would be food and beverages. It was the promise of the energy drink Red Bull, in fact, that swayed one student.
"I said I would definitely come," junior Tyrone Rodriguez said with a grin.
Although the students had fun, this was a serious event. Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union participated in workshops.
This is the fourth year the school has taken part in ALA Banned Books Week but the first time it has staged a major event.
The motivation came from an article this year in The Huffington Post, an online news and opinion website, about the Texas Board of Education accidentally banning a children's classic, "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" by Bill Martin Jr., because it confused its author with the writer of a book on Marxism.
"The kids were justifiably horrified," said Denise Granniss, chairwoman of the English Department.
It was the "Brown Bear" controversy, in fact, that stirred Campos to put on PJs and read through the night.
"Just because your last name is a communist's name, why would you ban a book?" he said. "This country is getting stupider. People's freedom of speech is being taken advantage of, and I think it's time for people to stand up and say, 'Enough!'"
After a group reading of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, English teacher Teague Desmond kicked things off by reading from "Lord of the Rings," the J.R.R. Tolkien classic that was condemned as Satanic in 2001 and burned outside a church in New Mexico, according to the ALA.
Students were treated to movies, games and meatball subs to help make it through the night. Mothers were arriving this morning to cook a pancake breakfast.
When it was all over, and students finally got a chance to sleep, school officials hoped they would awake having learned a life lesson.
"I hope, at some point, that if they're in a community where somebody is mounting a challenge (to a controversial book) that they think, 'Oh no, we shouldn't ban a book,'" Granniss said.
If they forgot the lesson, they had to look no further than their teacher for a reminder. In addition to penguin slippers, she was wearing a black T-shirt with the words "Read Banned Books."
"The Color Purple"
"A Separate Peace"
"The Kite Runner"
"The Call of the Wild"
"Of Mice and Men"
"Brave New World"
"To Kill a Mockingbird"
Note: A sampling of the banned or challenged books read last night at the Salem Academy Charter School's "Banned Books Jim-Jam!"