This year Banned Books Week is September 24-30, and we’re celebrating the right to read! For our monthly staff picks post, we took a look at the American Library Association’s new publication “Field Report 2016: Banned and Challenged Books” by Robert P. Doyle. We each chose a title from the report that we were familiar with and that had been publicly challenged in 2016. Here are our personal responses to a few of the books that have recently come under fire, as well as some of the deeper discussions that the challenges or that the books themselves have inspired for us.
How I wish I had this book when I was a kid! Robie H. Harris’ title says it all, It’s Perfectly Normal, and this is what children need to hear over, and over, and over again. The message that what you experience during adolescence and puberty is normal, we all basically go through the same feelings and changes –and sometimes we don’t and that is ok too—comes through loud and clear. What I love about this book is the updating it undergoes and the kindness and understanding it conveys. With new information on LGBTQ youth and transgender issues, It’s Perfectly Normal maintains its spot as my go-to book for all children (and adults for that matter) looking for honest, factual, and lovingly presented information on our bodies and growing up. Bird and Bee guide you through the ups and downs of growing up and remind you that It’s Perfectly Normal!
Christine Baldacchino’s picture book Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress is an endearing story of a little boy who knows what he likes and doesn’t let gender norms define his play. His favorite outfit in the dress-up center at school is the tangerine dress. He likes it because the color reminds him of tigers and his mother’s hair, and he likes the sounds it makes when he walks. When the other children start bullying Morris and tell him he can’t wear the tangerine dress because he is a boy, Morris gets so anxious that he stays home sick from school. After spending a few days at home being himself with his supportive mother, Morris remembers why he likes the dress, and that it doesn’t matter what the other kids think. Morris returns to school and wears the tangerine dress, making sure the other kids know he is confident and comfortable in himself. When they realize Morris is still just as fun and interesting in a dress as not, the kids forget about what he is wearing and start just having fun.
This One Summer follows a family at their usual vacation destination, Awago Beach. This is not a perfect summer adventure—our hero and main character Rose is feeling the pressure of growing up and hurts people around her constantly. She fights with her friend Windy, talks about older girls behind their backs, and yells at her depressed mother. Though it stings, I felt most connected during those rougher parts that channel how I felt as a young teen leaving a familiar childhood world behind.
As a counterweight, the book’s quieter moments give the characters room for vulnerability and let the art shine. The book is skillfully illustrated throughout by Jillian Tamaki. It’s one of the most gorgeous graphic novels I’ve read (the printing is all blue!) and worth picking up for the art alone.
I believe it’s important to read books that describe all the messiness of being human. The characters of This One Summer may not be perfect (or even likeable sometimes) but their humanity is what drew me in.
I was a newly minted Teen Librarian when I first read Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. At the time, I was loving ALL teen fiction, and E&P charmed me with its underdog protagonists, 80s mix tape nostalgia (THE SMITHS), and the tragedy created for these teenagers by external forces they can’t control. For many, this is a new teen classic with a laundry list of accolades and prestigious starred reviews (Kirkus, School Library Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly). It has appeared on best-lists and is recommended by teachers and librarians.
Eleanor & Park has been formally challenged for being sexually explicit or even “pornographic,” for its depiction of bullying, and for excessive profanity, and these challenges are easy to dismiss as typical by those of us who read and promote books for Teens. This is my response to the most common reasons why Eleanor & Park is challenged by parents, community members, and others.
We read to explore the world, to not only find characters like ourselves but those that are having experiences we have not or will never have. This is especially important for young people as they are forging their own identifies.
Teens, maybe not your teen but maybe your teen, are experimenting with romantic relationships and sexuality at some level; wouldn’t it be positive for them to read books about other teens who are realistically experiencing the same emotions and choices, especially if those characters are treating each other with respect?
Likewise, bullying and abuse are happening to, by or around your teen. It was happening in the 80s, and it was happening now. Wouldn’t it be helpful for teens to see how realistic characters their age experience these traumas as well?
Teens are intelligent and able to read critically, and most young people are not going to rob a bank or jump off a cliff because a character in a book does.
Lastly, please read the book and don’t simply skim it in order to count the number of times profanity is used, #context.
Now, there is a different set of recurring complaints about this book which require discussion. Those who have issue with it are often readers and writers, so they do not challenge anyone’s right to read Eleanor & Park. But they’re vocal about why they think the book is problematic, arguing that it is riddled with cultural stereotypes, harmful fetishism of its Korean characters, and even racism. It has been pointed out that many (recurring) mistakes could have been prevented by proper research, by a careful editor, or by interviewing several Korean-Americans to learn about their real experiences. And there are claims (with evidence from the text) that these steps were not taken with Eleanor & Park. See here, and here.
“To unquestioningly accept any-and-every form of representation means dismissing and devaluing the fantastic stuff already out there. Representation of marginalized groups in YA lit shouldn’t simply be a matter of putting a check mark next to the diversity box. It shouldn’t involve stereotypes, exotification or cultural appropriation. It can and should be done right.”
I am a big fan of Rainbow Rowell’s writing (I have gifted Fangirl to every younger cousin going off to college for the first time). That said, I was a little ashamed of myself for not reading her most celebrated novel with a more critical eye. Eleanor & Park is worth reading, and worth discussing, but not because it is profane or inappropriate for teens to read.
A book that I loved, loved, loved when, paradoxically, I read it under duress in high school has a history of challenges to its suitability for kids the age I was when I read it and loved, loved, loved it. Apparently, A Separate Peace, John Knowles’s 1959 novel, has ruffled the odd feather.
Last weekend I read it again to see what I thought close to 50 years after my first revelatory foray. While it didn’t thrill me like it did when I was wearing a plaid uniform skirt and regulation navy blazer to school every day, it still resonated.
The milieu is Devon School, a New Hampshire prep school for boys. The focus is a small band of students, including Phineas and Gene, Class of 1943, a fraught time if you were staring down your 18th birthday in a world at war.
The confusion inherent in figuring out yourself, your companions, and the rest of the world isn’t particular to a time or place. Pendulating between trusting your best friend more than you trust yourself and wondering just how foolishly naïve you are if you do, alas, is not peculiar to prep school boys in the 1940s. Neither are the conflicted feelings of being best friends with someone who infuriates you, stymies you, fills you with self-doubt while he—how can this be? —bestows the gift of knowing you are special. Wrestling with the fallout of an act committed in the thick of this confusion never loses relevance, nor do the questions it spawns: Where does happenstance start and stop? How do we go on when we are bereft, and always, always and still, confused.
Gene observes, “I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me.” If there ever was a high school sophomore who didn’t feel this way at least three times a day, I can promise you this: that sophomore was not me.
Looking for substance in the chaos of puzzling out my place in the world, in A Separate Peace I found comrades in the struggle. I found tragedy to satisfy my adolescent craving for drama. And heck, you can’t learn too young that tidy resolutions aren’t the stuff of life. Life is shadowed with ambiguity and regret as well as brightened by the occasional chance to begin again. Time and distance can refine what we see if we choose to take a second look, whether it is through Gene’s eyes as he revisits Devon School and his past or through my own as I traversed Knowles’s book again with my young self as companion.
As for ruffled feathers and challenges and adolescents, I have this to say: I was encouraged to read whatever came my way, and was allowed the space to decide for myself what I thought about it all. I offer belated gratitude to my parents for their trust; and to my teachers for assigning books I didn’t know I wanted to read.
I usually make a point to read a banned book or two during September—one for me and one to my five-year-old son. I started earlier this year and did a second time around with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I read it in high school through required reading.
That was over 20 years ago, so this second time around was like the first! It is amazing to me how much has changed since the story was written. A teen that I know was reading this for summer reading and was really struggling with the dialect. Language has changed so much that this is common when someone is attempting to read older texts in present day.
Elijah Wood of Lord of the Rings fame narrates an amazing audio version of this title. His performance, as always, is phenomenal. Listening to spoken words clarifies things when reading lines such as “Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.” I highly recommend listening along as you read so that you can deduce meaning through inflection and intonation.
I think timing is everything when you pick up a book. I tried reading The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls years ago and couldn’t get into it. Then my daughter read it this summer and insisted that I give it another try. This time, I loved it and couldn’t put it down. It was a hard read because of the neglect and abuse the children suffered. It also reads like a work of fiction, and you have to remind yourself that this is a true story full of dark times. Walls describes her hardscrabble upbringing and captures her complex and conflicting thoughts about her parents and childhood eloquently. Her descriptions are vivid and beautifully captured, and I found the way she told her own story so much better than the scenes in the recent Hollywood version of this book.
The Glass Castle is banned from many schools due to the scenes of sexual assault, profanity, and situations dealing with alcoholism and abuse. However, many challenges have been met with opposition, including student petitions, and proponents of the book say that the book is a real look at childhood neglect, poverty, and overcoming adversity.
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States was challenged in 2016 in a New Jersey school for being a “biased account” of history. An earlier version of the book was required reading in my own high school in 1997. Our history teacher, Joan Davis, used it as part of a range of other historical texts and primary sources in a biased attempt to hone our youthful critical thinking skills. I remember Zinn’s text as one jumping-off point for interrogating historical narratives as well as thoughtfully examining any source of our intake of information: lessons from our teachers, other books, the media, our families and our friends. (If all histories are flawed, we reasoned, then A People’s History was too).
Mostly, the content of A People’s History and our discussions of it and other texts affirmed a number of sensible questions to keep at hand. Is history always written by the powerful? Who has the power in any given situation? Where does that power come from? How is that power sustained? Who is controlling the story? Whose story is missing? Why are facts important? Why should we keep asking questions? Why are “the people” important? Can the people influence social change? If these questions sound dated, they feel important as ever. Twenty years on I’m glad when, at school or in the library, students do have the chance to encounter a range of history books—and a chance to decide for themselves what questions they want to ask.
Is it possible that Donald Trump was right when he said there are many fine people among white supremacists? Can deplorable beliefs be separated from the people who believe them? Can people change? What is worth risking to find out?
“Let me tell you a story,” Daryl Davis says at the beginning of “Accidental Courtesy,” and he proceeds to tell a story–one of many–about how he befriended some members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Davis is a black man in his late fifties, a Grammy Award winning musician who has played with the likes of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, and Chuck Berry. He is also an actor, and the author of a book called “Klan-destine Relationships: A Black Man’s Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan.”
Since 1983, Davis has made it his mission to sit down with Klan members and talk with them about their beliefs. His original goal was to find the answer to a question that has plagued him since childhood: How can someone hate him when they know nothing about him?
What he has found, he says, is that hate is rooted in fear, and fear can be overcome. As evidence of this, Davis displays a collection of high level Klan garments–robes and hoods belonging to Imperial Wizards and Grand Dragons and whatnot–that were given to him by Klan members who ultimately left the Klan because their association with Davis changed their beliefs. Says Davis:
“The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be…
[C]hallenge them…politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he [Roger Kelly, former Grand Dragon] and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.”
Davis and Kelly are now friends, and Davis is godfather to Kelly’s daughter.
We often say that Americans need to have a conversation about race, but with whom should we have it, and of what should it consist? As Davis points out, if a group of people who all agree that racism is bad get together and talk about how bad racism is, what is being accomplished?
Certainly Davis’s approach is not for everyone, and the movie documents some of his conversations with people from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Black Lives Matter movement, who clearly take a different view of how to deal with hate groups. Which is not to say that one approach is right and another is wrong; the Southern Poverty Law Center has shut down entire chapters of the Klan, while Davis has converted perhaps two or three dozen people, not by setting out to convert, but by making genuine human connections, with humor and compassion. By listening, and trying to understand.
This film, directed by Matthew Ornstein, has won numerous international awards and special prizes, including Special Jury Recognition for a Portrait Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival, the Jury’s Recognition for a Film that Provokes Continued Conversation at the Athens International Film and Video Festival, and the Nashville Public Television Human Spirit Award.
Ornstein opens the film with a quote from Robert F. Kennedy, one that is worth repeating here:
“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of [each] generation.”
Our August staff picks focus on a few of our favorite reads (and a little music) from over the summer. We’re so glad it isn’t over yet.
Savor this book. Garvey’s Choice, by Nikki Grimes, is a novel in verse, using five-line tanka poems, that will inspire you to find your passion. Disappointment, despair, friendship, hope, books and music. What more could you ask from a sweet little book to cherish this summer? For me this book was a stand out in a summer full of wonderful reads. Enjoy!
Where would the city of Boston—the buildings, the churches, the library, the bridges—go on vacation? Like so many others…the city of Boston decides to head up to Maine to visit the city of Portland in this beautifully illustrated book from Robert Priest. The buildings of Boston visit companionably with the buildings of Portland—from the Longfellow House to the library—all smiling and swapping art and books. A fun New England children’s classic.
I was glad there was a “graphic novel” category on this year’s Adult Summer Reading list. I have two school-aged children, and while I often take home graphic novels from PPL for them to try, I had never read one myself. I asked my youngest what she was reading, and she handed me Nightlights. This was one of my favorite books of the summer, and since both my children also read it, we had an impromptu discussion group one morning in the car. The central character is Sandy, a young girl who captures light at night and transforms it into wonderful drawings (which are not always appreciated by the nuns at her convent school). Sandy is excited to meet a new classmate who loves her pictures, but when this classmate appears at night – in different form and literally hungry for drawings – Sandy will need to be just as creative with a plan as she is on paper. The author is from Colombia, and the illustrations and the way they helped build the story gave this book the feeling of magical realism that I love from the works of García Márquez. This book is definitely on my “read again” list.
My favorite summer read was the Rainbow Boys trilogy by Alex Sanchez. The first two books, Rainbow Boys and Rainbow High, chronicle the senior year of three high school students: Jason, a football player who is terrified of people finding out he is gay, Kyle, a brilliant student who has been in love with Jason for years, and Nelson, an openly gay student who is often targeted by bullies. The books follow their ups and down as they navigate love, dating, homophobia, college applications, prom dates, and many other high school adventures. In the final book, Rainbow Road, they take a road trip across the country after graduation, meet many other LGBT people along the way, and arrive at their final destination, a new high school for LGBT students where Jason is giving a keynote address. I loved the characters in this book, each one unique and seeming so real. I highly recommend reading this trilogy for your final days of summer, especially the audiobook versions, which can be downloaded from Hoopla. They’ll be a great addition to your next road trip!
Some older books, like 1984 by George Orwell, have recently received new attention. I’d like to add another old book to the list: Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. This is a beautiful story about a 12-year old boy in a small town somewhere in America. Each chapter is like a story in itself, but they all are connected. This book is filled with stories touching most aspects of life. It’s about taking a stand and following your inner compass, without being overly sweet. The characters are people you would like to meet. And there are some wonderful insights to what really matters in life.
The book is an easy read, full of comfort and wisdom, and it takes you back to summers past.
My favorite read this summer was Exit West by Mohsin Hamid:
“We are all migrants through time.”
Urgent, beautiful, and incredibly topical, I consider Exit West required reading, as the novel depicts the world we are or will soon be living in. This is a literary and economical text that can leave you devastated by suffering and hate, but rays of hope filter through via the many manifestations of love and the trembling strength of the human spirit.
Elnathan Jonathan’s debut novel, Born on a Tuesday, is set in northeast Nigeria’s Borno and Sokoto state and follows the life of Dantala from 2012-2014. Dantala begins the story as a member of a group of homeless youths in the city of Madaiguri, but is quickly forced to flee the area during election-related violence. He finds his way to a mosque in the city of Sokoto, where he is taken in by a Sheik whose prominence and political ambitions grow alongside the responsibilities given to Dantala over the following year and a half. When one of the Sheik’s older students (who also happens to be the older brother of Dantala’s best friend) starts a breakaway faction intent on waging a war against the Nigerian government, Dantala’s previously calm and routine-filled life is thrown into turmoil.
Dantala’s first-person perception of the activity he experiences around him propels the story forward, and his growth as an individual is revealed as his thought processes and interactions evolve throughout the book. This novel is also noteworthy in its ability to shed light on life in an area of the world depicted mostly as a place of conflict. Though there are instances of violence, the story is mostly developed through the growth of friendship and love between characters, as well as the examination of the complexity of family dynamics. This diversity of experience is reason enough to pick up Born on a Tuesday.
Reminding me of Lonesome Dove, Jiles’ recent novel is a western that transcends the genre. It’s moving historical fiction set in 1870 Texas, with strong writing and memorable characters: pick up this National Book Award finalist today.
As part of the PPL Adult Summer Reading program I read Rachel Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba. I read it while vacationing on a lake here in Maine and absolutely devoured it. It has many story lines, but it primarily tells the story of the American expatriates who ran the giant Cuban sugar operation for United Fruit Company during the 1950’s. The story is told from the viewpoints of two adolescent children in two different American families living there. You are transported back to a different world, where the brutality of the sugar cane plantations and the insensitivity of the expatriate Americans toward other cultures is truly shocking. At the same time, Fidel Castro is leading an impassioned fight for freedom and the Americans are blind to their approaching demise. Kushner’s ability to take you into this world and let you feel it and smell it, as well as conveying moments of great beauty and subtlety, is absolutely delicious.
This is the best book I’ve read in a while, so I’m recommending it to anyone who will listen. The Julia Glass of Three Junes is back! The world of children’s writer/illustrator Mort Lear and his lifelong assistant Tommy (Tomasina) is as colorful as the vivid cover. This one has everything: writing so good you may not even notice it; captivating 3D characters you can love and hate, but probably won’t ignore; and a compelling plot without a single murder. I was sorry to see it end, but happy to pass it on to the next lucky reader.
Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire is my pick for one of my (many!) favorite reads this summer. Throughout my life, Antigone of antiquity has been a beloved character in numerous retellings of her story: she’s a wildfire in a nest of conformity, confronting tyranny, exposing hypocrisy, resolutely willing to stake her life on an act of civil disobedience spurred by love and mourning. I don’t see why we would ever stop telling and re-telling her story. My favorite explorations of Antigone (and all the questions one grieving dissenter might spark) have been Jean Anouilh’s play Antigone (produced in occupied Paris in 1942), Ali Smith’s children’s book The Story of Antigone, and Anne Carson’s translation Antigonik illustrated by Bianca Stone. Shamsie joins them with her own new and compelling retelling, partly set in modern-day London, where Antigone becomes Aneeka, and her twin brother Parvaiz is an enemy of the state…
Variously described as gothic rock, ethereal wave, neoclassical, art rock, and darkwave, Dead Can Dance’s self-titled 1984 debut might seem like an odd choice for the easy, breezy days of summer. And it’s true, it would probably sound out of place if played during the volleyball match at a beach reunion. But if at least part of your summer has involved zoning out in front of a fan, appreciating nighttime for the cool it brings, and wishing you could make your home feel a little more like a cave, then I suggest drawing the blinds for an hour while you listen to Dead Can Dance. Also recommended if you are looking for music to accompany the thought “no one can tell that I’m actually a witch” while walking down Congress Street.
Eileen M’s Picks
I know I am not the only voracious re-reader out there. There’s a whole pile of us who know what we want and which books will supply it. When we are feeling quivery or unsure or off kilter, we just want to sit down with old companions, maybe find something new about them to appreciate. My summer has been like that: a few new books, but mostly I reached for my stalwarts, knowing that I could coast, reserving my readerly energies for attending to some new revelations about characters, plots, and authors with whom I already had a relationship. After all, I wasn’t the same person I was when I last cracked them; maybe they had grown along with me.
I chain-read reliable one-offs, as well as familiar series recklessly read out of order. I devoured the dated daffiness of Angela Thirkell’s long parade of British fiction, comfortably quirky Richard Russo novels and Kate Atkinson’s richly populated Jackson Brodie detective stories.
And the winner of my personal “Favorite Book I Read this Summer” award is… well, to be honest, it is none of those aforementioned books or authors, although I regret not one millisecond spent in reunions with these favorites. All of my dabbling with second, third, fourth readings was part of a rebalancing of my inner seesaw, because my seasonal affective disorderly self had delayed reading my winning entry until the days were long and sunny, even though the urge to read it was born in the dark days of winter.
That’s where Stephen Jenkinson’s nonfiction work Die Wise: a Manifesto for Sanity and Soul comes in. I borrowed it via MaineCat, hoping to sate my curiosity and consciously begin to look at life’s flip-side reality as my own dotage comes a-knockin’.
Die Wise is about death in a culture that doesn’t know much about honoring it. The book is thick and can feel intimidating. It is dense and important. It is poetic, written with care and beauty. Anecdotal, philosophical, practical, mystical, illuminating and opinionated, it is eye-opening and soul-nurturing. I cannot recommend it highly enough. But it was hard going. It got under my skin. Its weight stayed with me long after I put it down. I read it too intently, for too long. It was hard to shake off. It was amazing.
And when I was stunned into foolishness, couldn’t quite regain my bearings, there they were…if not Favorite Book I Read This Summer candidates, then absolutely Lifetime Achievement honorees. They are the books that make it safe for me to step into territory that jolts me well beyond my usual scope. Giving the hard stuff a go was possible because I knew that these well-thumbed bound buddies were waiting to sit with me while I decompressed. I gave them quite a workout and they didn’t fail. Russo’s Sully and company made me laugh and cry, again; Thirkell’s upper crust nonsense allowed me to melt into another time and place, again; Atkinson’s miscreants and troubled souls wound their way through unlikely coincidence, again.