As we reminded you earlier, this is Banned Books Week, an annual event to encourage freedom of speech and reading and to discourage censorship. This year's slogan is "Think for Yourself and Let Others Do the Same."
We, along with other writing-oriented blogs, are inviting you to post a review of your favorite banned book in Comments here. You can find a list of banned books on the American Library Association website.
So we'll kick it off with a couple of reviews from our own editors.
When I looked at the “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009” list, I was totally gob smacked. Many, many of these books are on assigned reading lists for high school students here in Australia. (High school starts at the seventh grade here, not the ninth.)
And not just books from lower down the list. Harry Potter (#1), The Chocolate War (#3), Of Mice and Men (#5), Huckleberry Finn (#14), Forever (#16), Go Ask Alice (#18), and Catcher in the Rye (#19) are compulsory reading books. I counted 20 I had read for class in school without even scratching my head to remember.
But the book I’d like to talk about is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. This is an incredible book with detailed historical research (early 12th century Britain), fascinating facts about architecture and medieval life at different levels of society from the highest to the lowly, absolutely brilliant characters — engaging, well-drawn, fully rounded and the kind of people you love or hate or both in the same breath.
I cannot imagine why this book was banned. Yes, it has sex in it, but it is by no means erotic. Yes, at times it is a tad disrespectful of the established church of those days, but it is a sympathetic disrespect, not at all mean or nasty. There is some magic in it, but nothing evil. Basically it is a stunningly well-written epic novel that is ideal vacation—or long plane trip—reading. And the Cathedral they build is every bit as much a real character as the humans in the book.
This book gets 10/10 for characters, for plot, for story, for historical realism, and for romance. I have read and reread this book many times.
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson & Peter Parnell (2005, Simon & Schuster)
This picture book is about real penguins at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. I'm not a big fan of anthropomorphizing animal actions--I wasn't fond of a few lines like "They had no baby chick to feed and cuddle and love." But overall this charming story focuses on instinctive penguin behavior in pair-bonding and that both parents share the nest-sitting and chick-care duties. It takes two full-time adults to provide enough warmth, food and protection to give a chick any chance of survival. In this case, it's two male penguins. Their keeper noticed that they were a "pair" and even built a nest; he placed an orphaned egg in the nest to see if they'd care for it, since it would not have survived otherwise. And it doesn't seem odd that they do indeed hatch the egg and raise the chick, since the males are only doing exactly what they'd each do anyway with a female partner. For penguin chick-raising, two daddies perform the same as a mommy and a daddy in their parental duties.
Same-sex attachments have been documented in a number of species. And in many studied cases, it is not a sexual attachment, it seems more based on the need to have a partner to survive in tough conditions. This true story has been demonized by those who feel it "promotes" or "condones" homosexual relations, who read between the lines or inflate what is really there. If you must compare it to a human situation, it is two men adopting and successfully raising a child. As the story describes to a child all the things adults do to care for babies, it is a celebration of parenthood. As the story says, they were "just like all the other penguin families."
Forever by Judy Blume
“Ms. Kwiatkowski, would you like to come to the front of the room and read some of your book for the class?”
Fuck no! No no no! Please God, oh shit no!
I was only twelve years old when this conversation took place but, thanks to my billions of older brothers and sisters, already well versed in the cursing arts.
The book in question was Forever, by Judy Blume. And I was reading it in class. In math class. Instead of paying attention. The reason for my colorful inner monologue? I had just gotten to the good part. You know. The part where Katherine and Michael do it (!!*teehee*!!) on his sister’s bedroom floor (on a multi-colored towel thoughtfully provided by Michael in case any bleeding occurred).
Of course, I had no idea this was about as far from “good” as sex could get. I was twelve, what do you want from me? And [spoiler alert! if you’re one of the three people who haven’t read this book] Michael and Katherine even break up in the end, which I realize now was the point of the title but as an impressionable pre-teen, was I pissed!
I learned years later how realistic Katherine and Michael’s timeless story is, however. In fact, if more schools and libraries allowed it space on their shelves, Forever probably would have scared some young tarts off sex until they were old enough to handle it emotionally. Because Ms. Blume had it right. For most of us, it does hurt the first time. We do indeed bleed (though not the buckets of blood I’d previously imagined). And while first loves seldom last forever, the emotions tied to them are everlasting. I credit Ms. Blume for helping me understand the difference, and teaching me to let go of the former by embracing the latter.
Oh, and that teacher? She took my book away, forcing me to save my allowance for three whole weeks to buy another copy! For all I know, she read the thing, possibly making me the reason it was later banned in our junior high school library (the reason I had to buy a copy to begin with; damn thing was always checked out). If that’s the case, um…sorry, Ms. Blume.
It's So Amazing by Robie Harris, with (wonderful) illustrations by Michael Emberley.
I have a seven-year-old daughter, and about two years ago we got the dreaded question: "Mommy, where do babies come from?" So we bought this book. And I could see right away why people would want to ban it--it's aimed at children and, horror of horrors, it's a really lovely, inclusive book about where babies come from. It starts with a discussion of biology, clearly and concisely addressing vaginas and penises, and skipping all the horrible "va-jay-jay" and "wee-wee" nonsense that you sometimes find in books aimed at children. It talks about how people get pregnant, how babies develop, and how families end up with babies.
It addresses different types of families (a mommy and a daddy, a mommy or daddy alone, two mommies, two daddies...), adoption, and medically assisted pregnancies in easy-to-understand terms. It manages to talk about complex, loaded topics like masturbation, people who get pregnant without meaning to and even STDs (including HIV and AIDS) in a very non-judgmental, child-appropriate way.
The book is presented almost like a comic book, with fantastic, colorful illustrations. It's narrated by a bird who's totally excited about everything...and a bee who's sort of embarrassed by the whole thing. The funny, awkward parts of sex and biology aren't glossed over, but are used to lighten and liven up reading material that could otherwise be dry.
Obviously, when you have a book that provides kids with loads of useful, age-appropriate information, the right thing to do is ban it as quickly as possible! Or you could do what I did--run out and by a copy for the kid in your life, and then spend some time reading it with them. We've gone over the book in full, and Maura keeps it in her bedroom, looking at it on a regular basis, and sometimes coming back to ask questions about this or that chapter. Engaged reading, age-appropriate material, and a kid who's educated about her body. What could be better?