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Pop Primer Video: Banned Books Week

Pop Primer Video: Banned Books Week

I made a video for Banned Books Week. It’s party of a video series for a new website, Pop Culture Primer. I’ve been writing there for a few weeks, and it’s pretty awesome.

What is Pop Primer? Well, the site is the brainchild of my friend Matt Cox—something I decided to donate my internet skills to because I wanted to see it happen. Matt is a scholar, studying English Literature with a focus on popular culture. He loves to look at things like video games through an academic lens, and I think that is awesome. So we started Pop Culture Primer as a site for people to write academic analysis of popular culture.

Want to write for us? Click here.

You can see some of my articles here.

And you can watch the Banned Books Week video below.

Ten Banned Books for Banned Book Week

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.

A little Night Vale art from

A little Night Vale art from

10. And Tango Makes Three

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.

936full-scary-stories-to-tell-in-the-dark-cover9. The Scary Stories Series

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.

8. The Harry Potter Series

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.

7. The Wrinkle in Time Series

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!

6. The Giver

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.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird

This book has been banned for the use of racial language. Yes. That’s the point. Morons.

part-time-indian4. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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.

3. Fahrenheit 451

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.

2. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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.

1. The Things They Carried

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.



What is your favorite banned book? Why was it banned? Why is that stupid?

Essay: The Safest Seat In The House

Essay: The Safest Seat In The House

The following essay was written for an exam for my Literature For Young Adults class this spring. The exam question was about censorship and asked students to discuss three of the books we had read during those six weeks to discuss in the essay. Please keep in mind that this was written in a thirty minute window and I haven’t touched it since (save to type it here). My response, which received an A, expresses how I feel about banned books and young readers.

Books are tiny windows, ways of viewing lives. It doesn’t matter that these may be works of fiction. In fact, in many cases, fictions wield more power. Books offer a way for readers to experience all that the world has to offer and all that the world has to take away. While it may be the instinct of parents to shelter their children from the darkness in our world, it is a mistake to shelter them from darker literature. These windows to the darkness offer children a valuable experience at a safe distance. They are allowed to see and understand without being victimized in reality. Censorship of these works does not remove these negative experiences from our world, but instead it leaves children unprepared to manage them.

To a casual reader, Albert Camus’s The Stranger may seem like a horrible little story about a callous man who kills someone and is executed. Meursault is not a paragon of our western Christian values by any means. He is an atheist who lies to please others and sleeps with a woman he does not love. He certainly is not what most of us would raise our children to be. Yet, we can see ourselves in him. He floats along the path of least resistance. He does not engaged in life and friendship, but instead goes through the motions and exists. It is this kind of living that brings him to the beach with a gun in his pocket and an enemy in his presence. Thus, Meursault becomes an example of how anyone who does not make their own decisions can become a killer. He teaches the reader that we have to care about life. Men who just go along with the actions of others can be just as guilty of evil as those who actively seek it. So many teenagers go through high school agreeing with what’s cool and doing the minimum that is expected of them. How easy it is to lose control of your own life when you don’t care!

Another excellent cautionary tale is Steve Harmon’s story in Monster, by Walter Dean Myers. Myers shows a shocking, violent, nightmarish life behind bars. Steve listens as his cell mate is raped in the next bunk; this detail could have been spared, but it is important. Prison is not just a way to earn street cred. It is hell. It is important for Myers’s readers to see this. As with Meursault, we see how easy it is to go along with things, to end up involved in a murder by taking the easy route. Monster tells its readers to think for themselves and, more importantly, to think it through. Steve did not think about how his part in the robbery could lead to murder. Steve’s lack of forethought lead him to a living hell.

Of all of the works we have covered in Literature for Young Adults, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak may be the most important. It is important for the victims to know that speaking out is the only path to healing. It is important for young men to know what rape is and what it does. It is important for communities to understand how this crime shatters lives and how we tend to miss the signs and cries for help. I have actually seen news coverage of a Shelby County mother protesting the use of Speak in schools. She saw it as disturbing, but did not see its value because her daughter had not been raped. In truth, one in five women in America have been sexually assaulted. It is important for us all to understand so that we can fight that startling statistic and help those who are already part of it.

Ignoring our problems won’t make them go away. Fiction gives us the power to discuss real life events through a layer of removal. Fiction provides a safety net to our children so that they can learn about the evils of our world without fear of falling. Taking these works away won’t solve our problems. They did not create the problems; they are a response to our world. They are weapons and armor, tools for teenagers to equip themselves with as they prepare to face the world ahead. Stripping away these tools will only leave them vulnerable.