It’s banned books week! In September, PPL staff members look at banned or challenged books they’d like to (fearlessly) celebrate. What are banned or challenged books? Books that have been challenged have been formally objected to in an attempt to remove or restrict access to those materials. Books that have been banned have been successfully restricted, removed from an institution’s shelves or from a school’s curriculum.
What books are still being banned or challenged? In 2016, the American Library Association and the Banned Books Week coalition have discussed how issues related to diversity result in the majority of challenges to books. (You can read about the ALA’s definition of diversity here). At the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom blog, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Ellen Oh, Alex Gino, and others have posted their thoughts on banned books week, diversity, and the freedom to read in “Words on Restriction.”
As author Jewell Parker Rhodes notes, “While there weren’t many diverse books when I was growing up (and there still aren’t enough!), character-driven stories opened new landscapes, new possibilities for living, and deepened my empathy…Reading widely helped me to understand that I, too, had a narrative — that my life could be positioned in opposition to cultural “isms” that devalued difference as integral to humanity, and worse, devalued the common humanity of us all. Reading widely, I was encouraged to write inclusive, celebratory narratives…Diverse narratives enlighten and empower. The freedom to read promotes a more just and integrated world.”
Here’s to a more just and integrated world, and our own thoughts on a wide spectrum of some of our favorite banned or challenged books. We’re glad to have the freedom to read.
My father read it to me almost every night, until I had the whole book memorized and I could read it to him. My love of reading began with that book, so it will always be very dear to me. I love the story of the little boy, Mickey, falling out of bed into the imaginary night kitchen. He builds an airplane out of bread dough and flies to the Milky Way to get milk for the morning cake the bakers are making. My favorite part has always been when the bakers celebrate by chanting “Milk in the batter! Milk in the batter! We bake cake! And nothing’s the matter!” The story is delightful and the illustrations are enchanting; it’s classic Maurice Sendak. I highly recommend it for a bedtime storybook for parents to read to their children.
2016 is the 40th anniversary of the publication of Mildred D. Taylor’s Newbery-award-winning Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It’s a classic of children’s literature that also appears on the ALA’s list of Frequently Challenged Books with Diverse Content, exploring our country’s history of racial injustice through the Logan family’s life in rural Mississippi in 1933: how to face discrimination, violence, and educational and economic injustice, keep their land, and help their neighbors, friends and loved ones?
As a young reader, I read and re-read Roll of Thunder: Cassie Logan was a nine-year-old-question-asking–hero. Her experiences (rejecting an inferior and degrading textbook at her segregated school, visiting a lynching victim burned by “nightriders,” worrying over her mother being fired for teaching about slavery and oppression and over her family being threatened, beginning to understand the importance of her family’s ownership of and stake in the land) were powerful and memorable. In a 2008 interview at The Brown Bookshelf, while acknowledging the pain children could face in reading racial slurs (which appear in her book) Taylor also wondered: “But how can readers understand the true history of the past or the need for a civil rights movement unless they have begun to understand the pain of those who suffered through slavery, discrimination, and segregation? How can readers feel the pain if I pretty up the way things were?”
For this year’s anniversary, all of Taylor’s books about the Logan family were published with new jacket art by Caldecott Medal winner Kadir Nelson. The final book in the series is set to come out in 2017.
Growing up is tough enough: children need accurate, and developmentally appropriate, information about their changing bodies and minds. Robie Harris has been providing children and families accurate and up-to-date information about puberty, sex and sexuality for over 20 years.
“Sometime between the ages of eight or nine and fifteen or so, kid’s bodies begin to change and grow into adult bodies. Most kids wonder about and have lots of questions about what will be happening to them as their bodies change and grow during this time. It’s perfectly normal for kids to be curious and want to know about their changing and growing bodies.”
Challenged for “cartoon nudity” and being “sexually explicit,” It’s Perfectly Normal even made national news when a Lewiston, Maine, grandmother refused to return them the book, and national media outlets ran headlines such as “Grandma Refuses to Return Library Book, Could Face Jail Time.”
It’s perfectly normal for children, and the adults who love them, to check this book out many times during adolescence.
Although a quick search didn’t produce any evidence that this book has been banned, I’m sure it’s seen some challenges in its short life.
Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth (2015)
This book doesn’t try to explain it all, and that’s what I loved most about it. What it does instead is give young people an outline to shape their own understandings of sex and inspire curiosity. Fiona Smyth’s illustrations are vibrant and represent extraordinary diversity, while Silverberg does an excellent job of talking to kids on their terms without taking down to them. Every chapter concludes with a series of questions encouraging readers to think about their bodies, sex, and relationships, either by answering on their own or by having conversations with someone they trust. The result is a book that feels playful, safe, necessary and remarkably aware of the kinds of questions and concerns many of us actually had, or have, as children.
The Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark series leaps to mind, frequently challenged/banned mostly due to the excellent although rather frightening illustrations by Stephen Gammell.
Forever, by Judy Blume
I loved Judy Blume as a child. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is an all-time favorite, one I enjoyed revisiting as an adult. When I got into middle school, I thought I had left Judy behind but then I heard about her book Forever and found that it had been removed/banned by my middle school library. Luckily my friend got a copy at the public library and we passed it around our friend group. I read it in one sitting, staying up late and reading by flashlight while sitting against my bedroom door in case my mom tried to come in. I haven’t read the book since that first time, but I remember loving it and connecting with it.
It was published in 1975 so I have no idea if the topics are that controversial anymore or if it would be of interest to teens today. This love story is not set in a time of sexual freedom and acceptance so the content was controversial then. Forever’s heavy subjects put it at the top of the challenged books list. According to Blume’s website, Forever has been banned and challenged from many schools “due to its detailed depictions of sexual intercourse, implications of the homosexuality from Artie, and because the protagonist, Katherine, uses birth control.”
More than anything though, Forever is a sweet, truthful story of first love. So I like to think it would still appeal to teens today.
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Warning: this novel might make you angry. Invisible Man is the story of a man’s search for place and belonging in the first half of 20th century America. Invisibility is Ellison’s metaphor for blackness, and the unnamed narrator recounts his life story from his hidden home, a basement lit up by hundreds of light bulbs and his own thoughts. He was born during one of the heights of racial discrimination, and try as he might to work and educate himself, he is up against a system of oppression. It’s a revealing exploration of the struggle of rationality (education, logic) versus irrationality (racism, Jim Crow), and an emotionally charged novel that will leave you stunned.
Ellison is a powerful wordsmith, and writes with beautiful poetry. “I remember that I’m invisible and walk softly so as not awake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.” This book was banned as recently as 2013 for causes of “lacking literary value,” which is an injustice for a novel that won the 1953 National Book Award for Fiction.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita is a book that forces you to take pleasure — at times unharnessed delight — in language; it is also a book that makes you feel complicit in something morally dangerous for engaging in that side of the narrator’s pleasure. In an era when the conversation seems blocked by black-and-white assumptions about other people (and perhaps even about ourselves), books like Lolita, which grapple with complexity, is a critical staple in our reading diet. Yes, a flawed mind is capable of extraordinary beauty. Is there really such danger in acknowledging that? Does acknowledging that beauty conjoin us in the flaw? Are we, perhaps, not so morally unambiguous? I will read this book, and grapple with these questions, many times during my lifetime, much to the detriment of absolutely no one.
As always, thanks for reading.