Ten Banned Books for Banned Book Week
I love banned book week. It’s one of my favorite times of the year. Every year during the last week of October, the American Library Association raises awareness about books we’ve banned in America. These books are pretty much always banned for stupid reasons by well-meaning parents who probably need to read more and calm. the. BLEEEEEEP. down. Last year I wrote a post on Matter Deep’s site about why the commonly banned book, Looking for Alaska, is banned and why it’s important. I also shared an essay about the importance of letting teens tackle difficult topics through the safe distance of literature and the dangers of shielding them from these literary experiences. This year I bring you a list of ten banned books for all ages. I have read all of these books and suggest you read one or give one to a child to read this week.
Last year, this was Carly Strickland’s pick for her favorite banned book. It’s a picture book, the youngest recommendation I have here today, and it’s adorable. And Tango Makes Three is about a pair of penguins who love each other and raise a baby penguin. Why is it banned? Because the two penguins happen to both be boys. This book is beautifully illustrated, non-confrontational, and delicate about the subject of same-sex couples. Within the context of the story, it’s not a big deal that these penguins happen to be same-sex. The story is about families being more than blood—they’re what you make them. These two penguins adopt an egg and raise it as their own. It’s an adoption story.
My brother and I had these growing up. They were awesome spooky stories with great illustrations. We loved to tell them at sleepovers and neither of us were scarred for life. Some places have banned them for being unsuitable for the age group (because post-2000, we shelter our children from the scary stories they so crave) and for being “Satanic” (because there are ghosts and undead monsters). My brother and I easily read these at 7&8 years old and neither of us became a Satanist or a paranoid schizophrenic. Kids like being scared by fiction. We knew the difference between fantasy and reality. Ghost stories are clearly fantasy. Face it, your kids should be more scarred by the evening news. Know your kids and watch what they read. If your kids can’t take it, don’t take it from other kids who can.
The Harry Potter series was the subject of a number of book burnings in the early 2000s. Southern Baptist churches really lead the charge. Where I lived in Massachusetts, nobody ever seemed to have a problem with it (maybe because we had the Salem Witch Trials to look back on and learn from); here in Alabama, however, a woman told my sister-in-law that once she finished the last page of the book, her soul would belong to the devil. More recently some attention-seeking teenagers from Arizona have decided to go to England and try to purge the devil who was brought there by people reading spells from Harry Potter (your insanity is a few years late, girls.) Harry Potter has been banned for portraying witchcraft in a positive light. Here’s the thing: most practicing witches, whether pagan or secular, don’t think sparks shoot out of their wands when they speak single words of latin. And here’s the more-significant thing: Harry Potter is a Christian allegory. JK Rowling believes in God. This series is beautiful and engaging and important. It teaches about love and death and sacrifice. It has inspired a love of reading in an entire generation, leading to the market surge of YA fiction and making books not just something for nerds anymore. Don’t take that away out of ignorant fear. It’s worth too much to lose.
My teacher read the first novel of this series, A Wrinkle in Time, to my class in third grade. It was mind-blowing. I had never read a fantasy novel and I loved it. Later, when I discovered there were more books, I tore through the series. They were emotionally engaging and each book had a profound impact on my life. Still, since its publication in 1962, people have worried that it deals too overtly with the issue of evil and (in true Cold War paranoia) possibly promotes some communist sentiments. Jerry Falwell came out saying it undermined the idea of God and others found it too Christian. In 1990, a town in Alabama banned it because the book cited Jesus along with a list of philosophers. As you can well see, the banning of this book has been propelled by often contradictory waves of ignorance. Even without my need to stick it to the book-banners, I would recommend this series. And there’s a graphic novel now, for ESL students!
This book has often been banned for the mild sexuality in it. I mean super-mild. I read it in the fifth grade at school. Others were upset that it depicted euthanasia and the “degradation of motherhood and adolescence.” So we’ve entirely missed the point. The Giver has also been condemned for featuring “new age” language like “transcendent” that the Bible tells us to avoid. You know what else is transcendent? Most of the events in the Bible. For me, The Giver was an important piece of adolescent literature. In a time when puberty was beginning for my classmates and so many of us were a mess of hormones and emotions, it was important for a novel to understand this awakening and to explain to us that while it may hurt sometimes, it’s necessary. The alternative is no good.
This book has been banned for the use of racial language. Yes. That’s the point. Morons.
This book includes violence, a bit of foul language, alcoholism, and tragic accidental deaths. It’s probably not a great book for a 6th grader, but for a 9th grader, the narrator’s voice is genuine. Last week a group of my students began talking about how they thought scholarships for Native Americans weren’t fair. A few days after they couldn’t understand why the use of peyote was illegal in America, but legal within the context of Native American religious ceremonies on reservations. It’s clear to me that the average white American high school students just. don’t. get. it. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian tells the story of Junior, a kid on a reservation, surrounded by alcoholism, stuck in a failing school, who leaves the reservation for a better education and is torn between the two worlds—and outsider in both. If you judge it solely based on the language, of course you’ll find a lot to hate. If you take into account that your kids hear these words every day on the bus and look at the book as a whole, you’ll find a lot to love.
Most of you know this book because it’s a classic. It has made a lot of eerie predictions about the state of modern fashion and media and is worth a read for just that alone. I just have to say that banning a book about a society that controls its populace by banning all books is one of the stupidest things I can imagine. You might as well stick a sign that says “evil fascist” on your chest, because you’ve become the villain of the book you’re railing against.
Perks features sex, drugs, alcohol, suicide, and themes of mental illness. But it’s pretty much against all of those things. I know you’re probably sick of me calling books beautiful, but this book is beautiful. I read it in eleventh grade (borrowed it from my friend John; thanks John!) and it was one of the first YA books I read that felt real. It wasn’t the glossy sexualized high school experience of the Gossip Girl TV series. It was a book about teenagers (with problems, go figure) who acted like teenagers and made the same kinds of mistakes that teenagers often do. It was an incredibly emotional reading experience that I am grateful for. I tore through it in a night and I loved every uncomfortable moment of Charlie’s story. This book isn’t for 6th graders, but for a high school student struggling with depression, family tragedy, and introversion, it’s a beautiful and touching thing. For some of my peers, it has been therapeutic. Why would you take that away only to shelter your kids from the language they already hear and the situations they already see on prime time TV? At least here it has context and meaning.
This novel is not for young teens, but for emerging adults ready to start voting, it’s a must. The Things They Carried has been praised as one of the best war novels of all time. It’s a work of metafiction—a confusing jumble of truth and fabrication that somehow tells the most honest war story. Perhaps Rat Kiley and Kiowa never existed, but veterans of the Vietnam conflict praise this novel as being truthful in the way that it portrays the war. I think it is important for anyone who casts a ballot to understand what war is like and what it does to people. This is, by far, the most mature of my banned book recommendations, but as a teacher who wrapped up a 12th grade unit on it only this spring, I can tell you that my students loved it and they learned from it. Sex and profanity are terrible things, but you know what else is? War. If you expect them, in the next year of their lives, to be eligible to go to war, you should trust them to read this book and get something valuable out of it.