Banned Books Week started yesterday, September 25, and runs through October 2. If you're not familiar with Banned Books Week, you can read a short run-down here on the ALA website. But you may already be wondering, why should I care? Because, even in this day and age, books are still being banned. This is not some quaint, old-timey issue. Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian: great book, right? Just got banned earlier this month in Stockton, MO. In this case, what that means is it's not just gone from school curriculum but removed from the school library, period. Laurie Halse Anderson's Printz-Award-winning book Speak was challenged this month, too.
Not just contemporary works but many books considered to be literary classics are still challenged or even outright banned in various parts of our country. Whether you agree with the people challenging the books or not, the truth remains that this is a form of censorship. Celebrating Banned Books Week and reading a banned book (or three, or five) is an easy way to support intellectual freedom—your own and that of others. The vast collective brain here at Guys Lit Wire has gotten together to suggest a few personal favorites for your perusal, all books which have been challenged or banned at one time or another. Read on for the first installment, and then tune in at the end of the week for Part II.
Steve Wolk: People across our country have been trying to ban The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from libraries and school reading lists. Why? Because the main character speaks honestly (and hysterically) about masturbation. Yes, Junior in the book says he not only loves to masturbate, but he is so good at it he is ambidextrous. Given this, and how brilliant this book is, I suggest we tell everyone in the world to read this book, but hold on to it with both hands, so there is no funny stuff. My son read this book when he was 11. He loved it so much he read it again a few months later. This is the only novel he's read twice.
Lee Wind: One of the Two Most Dangerous Books in America is... a true story about penguins. A picture book about penguins. Two penguins who fall in love and raise a baby penguin. That's the story. Really. The twist? The penguins are both male. Here's why you should read it (it'll take you ten minutes. Maybe less): The furor over "And Tango Makes Three" by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole, is an amazing window into the irrational fear of homosexuality in our culture. There's no penguin sex in the book. Or cursing. The penguins ARE nude, but really, you don't see any naughty bits. What you do see is that love is what makes a family. And if that family has two dads (like the baby penguin Tango has) it has just as much love to share as any other family. The anthropomorphized message is a clear smashing of the stereotype of gay men - that we grow old alone, and childless, and that we're not to be trusted around children. This story shows it like it is: if you're gay, you can grow up and find love and be a parent - a wonderful parent. And like all love, that's something to celebrate. That message of the equality and value of our love - the equality and value of two dad families - is why so many people want to keep this book off library shelves and away from not just their own kids, but from everyone else, too. That's why "And Tango Makes Three" was the #1 or #2 most challenged book in the U.S.A. for the last four years. And as a gay dad I'll tell you: that's why you should read it. (here's a link to the review on my own blog)
Jason Ridler: The freedom to read is as important as the freedom write, and all too often the denial of one cripples the other. If we want to understand the value of these freedoms, we need look no further than where they are vacant. In Alberto Manguel's collection GOD'S SPIES: Stories in Defiance of Oppression, we get a terrible panoply of people writing under threat, throughout the world and time; from the US to China, from Nazi German to the Shah's Iran, from South America to Africa. Many were written in lands where to speak your mind carried a lethal penalty, and laced within each story is a clear but powerful message: the freedom to write, and to be read, must be fought for with as much vigor as any other battle against tyranny. WARNING: the stories are tough, often brutal accounts of inhumanity, but the act of writing them at all was an act of courage that should be remembered. Steel yourself before opening the cover.
Kelly Fineman: I was already an adult with kids of my own when the first Harry Potter books were published, but I guarantee you that had they existed when I was a kid, they would have been my favorite books then, hands down; as it is, they are among my favorite books now. Every single one of the Harry Potter titles has faced challenges and attempts at book banning on grounds ranging from Satanism to violence to religious grounds, with a number of challenges asserting that the books were promoting actual witchcraft. Although challenges to the books have declined in recent years, they are still the books that faced the largest number of challenges in the first decade of the 21st century. Many challengers had not actually read the books themselves out of fear of exposure to magic, so they missed out on the magic of good stories, well-told, involving struggles to make the world a better place and a triumph of good over evil. And entire generation of children who read the Harry Potter series of books discovered not only the magic of Harry Potter's world, but the magic of reading in general. It's thanks to the diligence of librarians and concerned citizens that these books remain on most library shelves, waiting to work their magic on the next generation of readers.
David Elzey: The thing that always surprises me about books is that they tend to be books that traffic in ideas and they tend to be banned by schools and libraries, the very places we would assume would want to promote that ideas can be found in books. The fear, of course (and it's always fear), is that somehow these ideas are bad and offensive and that readers shouldn't be exposed to them. Among the books frequently banned include two by one of my favorite author's, Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle. Slaughterhouse-Five is a Vietnam allegory that recounts the story of a character who survived the fire bombing of Dresden in World War II (as Vonnegut did) who finds himself "unstuck" in time, viewing his life in a non-linear progression of absurdities. Cat's Cradle tells the story of genetic engineering gone horribly wrong with the creation of a chemical weapon that would bring about a world-wide apocalypse where the world's water would instantly freeze. With both books there is satire that jabs at dictators, religion, Cold War politics and nuclear war. Sure, Vonnegut can be irreverent at times, obscene in that characters may occasionally use salty language or engage in sex, but using these as grounds for restricting access are covers for what people truly fear: the exchange of ideas that ask the reader to question following authority blindly and the very notion banning books hopes to quash; that ability for a reader to think and judge for themselves. (i posted my take on Cat's Cradle at GLW here.)
Last but not least, Little Willow has a small collection of posts at her blog on the topic of banned books, including I Read Banned Books: Celebrating Intellectual Freedom and Literacy; They Tried to Ban This Book Today or, There's a Sticker on the Cover of This Book; and a look at The Bermudez Triangle by Maureen Johnson: Too Cool for School?