Thursday, September 30, 2010

Your Favorite Banned Books

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?


Grace Bradley said...

Like Kelli, I read “Forever” when I was twelve. I remember sneaking a copy into the pile of books my mother was purchasing for me. She wouldn’t have been aware of the content, but a classmate had told me so I was aware I was pulling a fast one and was appropriately worried. The purchase went off without a hitch, however, and I remember the thrill of reading the book.

The banned book that stands out the most in my memory is “Native Son” by Richard Wright. It was required reading for my seventh grade English class and the only required book I recall not being able to put down (I thought I would literally die before I finished 1984… Wasn’t my thing back in the day). I was enthralled. The story, the characters. The chopped-up body parts in the incinerator. The false accusations, the scandal. The experience was made even richer by the passionate teacher who pointed out aspects of the book a twelve-year-old would miss.

It sickens me that my children will be “shielded” from the great literary works I read in school. Books that left lasting impressions on me. I can’t help but wonder… Which books will my children remember once their school days are long gone.

Well, I’ve got to make a quick visit to Amazon to purchase a copy of “Forever” for my daughter. She’ll be twelve before I know it. I don’t want her to miss out on anything.

Samantha Kane said...

"Forever." Ah, Judy Blume. Sixth grade. I read it first, then passed it around to my friends. Our teacher was a man, name withheld, who felt the need to take us girls all out in the hall and lecture us on the appropriateness of reading material. Mind you, we were not reading it in math class. Quiet thing that I am, I of course got right in his face and told him we could read whatever we wanted on our own time. He threatened to tell our parents. I beat him to the punch and then my mother lectured him on the fact that I could indeed read whatever I wanted on my own time and he better not drag a bunch of 6th grade girls out in the hall to talk about sex again or there was going to be trouble. I love my mom.

Francesca Hawley said...

"And Tango Makes Three" is not unlike "Three Men and a Baby" when you get right down to it. I understand both male penguins mated with a female the following year to father chicks of their own. I guess the boys are bi-sexual. Or is it a m/m/f thing? :-)

I remember reading "Go Ask Alice" when I was a young teen. It was one of those books that wasn't preachy when it talked about the dangers of drugs and teen sex but it got the point across...and then some.

Judy Blume was an authors whose books were passed from girl to girl when I was in school, so we could read "the good parts." She was so good at writing about young women just like those of us who read the books. We could relate to the characters and the books spoke to real life and pitfalls of certain behaviors without being preachy.

Helen W said...

Reading under the desk seems to be a theme here. I was caught in fifth grade reading Ian Fleming (James Bond). The teacher was horrified and made me read "I, Claudius" as punishment. I never did tell him I actually enjoyed that book too!

Regina Carlysle said...

My favorite banned book is To Kill a Mockingbird. The book made me cry over injustice of those times and the bravery of those who fought against it. Maybe it was because I grew up in the south and recalled, as a little girl, when water fountains and bathrooms were seperate and some folks had to go to the 'back door' of a restaurant to buy food for their families. Even then I knew it wasn't right. It was a book that made me lay awake and think about things and made me wonder if I could ever be as brave as Atticus Finch. Years later, my daughter read the book in high school. She cried and then read it again. I credit this book with her love of reading. After To Kill A Mockingbird, I recommended Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath to her. Love them all and so did she.

Marianne Stephens said...

Catcher in the Rye. Read it in college and thought it was great. Didn't know I was a rebel back then, I guess!

C.J. said...

One of my favorite banned books is "The Color Purple." Beautiful book. I didn't even know it had been banned until way after I had read it.

KellyNJ said...

I was horrified when my kids school district banned a book last year. Me being me, the next week I took my kids to the bookstore and ordered 3 copies of it. After each of them read it, it got passed onto their friends. Any book that a school wants to ban, I WANT my kids to read!