September 21-27th marks the #BannedBooksWeek, an annual event that brings all members of the book community to celebrate the freedom to read. To honor the scores of challenged books of our time, I read Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian earlier in the week and am currently reading Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. I wanted to pick a contemporary book as well as a classic to celebrate the freedom to read and I had those books on my e-reader for a while.
Here is a list of my favorite banned books. I read many of these in high school and college. I read a couple of them (To Kill A Mockingbird and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry) in middle school. I read Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in fifth grade! I have re-read some of these beautiful works of art as an adult, but not all of them. I very likely will when my children read them as part of their curriculum. Here is a FULL LIST by the American Library Association of the most frequently challenged books over the last few years.
These books are amongst my favorites because they all have important lessons to teach us. I am horrified that there are tweens and teens out there who will not experience the beauty of these literary masterpieces because some overzealous helicopter parent or a cowardly school board bureaucrat challenges the book as "inappropriate" or "unsuitable" for children. When these books are banned or challenged, children's education suffers. They also learn not to ask questions that may cause incendiary reactions from their parents. Think about that as you go through this list.
1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
I first read the tale of Offred and her fellow concubine slaves by the queen of post-apocalyptic dystopia when I was in college. I was an idealistic, Mexican-American, dewy-eyed, pre-med beneficiary of the feminist and Chicano activists who fought for my right to sit in a university classroom. But those bra-burning and lettuce-throwing scenes seemed so long ago. They may as well have happened on another planet as far as I was concerned. Until I read about Offred. All of a sudden, regulated misogyny and ethnic genocide were no longer scary stories of the past. They were possibilities in the future. Fast forward more than two decades, and Atwood's book seems prophetic. We are living in a world where government continues to regulate women's bodies. Young girls are still sold into marriage. We built a damn wall to keep my Mexican brothers out of my country.
Lesson Learned: Never let your guard down. All of us that are members of marginalized groups should take full advantage of the rights afforded to us that were not available many years ago. Nevertheless, we should not become complacent. They can be taken away if we do not continue to advocate for equality for all and stay vigilant.
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
I just finished reading this book over the weekend. Alexie's voice rings authentic, raw, honest, and funny. He draws humorous cartoons to show his heart-ache about the plight of his fellow Indians on the "rez". While so many writers romanticize the poverty of Native Americans living in reservations, Alexie paints a poignant, painful, but realistic picture of the harsh truth. This book is supposedly banned because of "offensive language, racism, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violence". OK, Junior, the main character and his friends use profanity. They are high-school students, of course they do. As far as the violence, Junior is beaten several times and a few of his loved ones die violent deaths, but he does not use gory detail. These passages are not superfluous. Their purpose is to give us a glimpse into life on Junior's reservation and the impact of alcoholism on Native American's impoverished quality of life. These scenes add to the authenticity of the Alexie's voice. As far as sexuality, there is absolutely no sex in this book. Junior mentions he likes to masturbate (this takes less than one brief paragraph and is not graphic) and he wants to have sex with his girlfriend, but he never does. So I am baffled that this book is labeled "sexually explicit". Despite the content, this book does not feel like an "issue" book. The ending is uplifting and hopeful.
Lesson Learned: This book gives us an accurate portrait of the cycle of poverty and alcoholism plaguing Indians living in reservations but gives us a glimmer of hope that the cycle can be broken. As a Mexican-American who grew up in the barrios of Hidalgo County, one of the poorest counties in the US, I related to the main character's fears and desires. This book transcends ethnic barriers to provide hope to all who read it.
3. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
This was the first "dirty" book I ever read. As a fifth grader, I thought it was dirty because it talked about menstruation and breast development and kissing boys (or the possibility of kissing boys!). I actually have a funny story about Margaret, just bear with me.
Kara, my thirteen year-old daughter, is a voracious reader. She is also fiercely independent and will not read anything I tell her to read. She read the first three Harry Potter books because I literally forced her, but she spouted nothing but contempt for all of them. I finally gave up and told her she did not need to read the series anymore. One day last year, we were at the Quaker library when we were living in Monteverde, a small town in Costa Rica. I pulled Margaret from the shelves and handed it to Kara, then twelve, to read it. She said, "No, thanks. I will pick something to read myself."
At that point, Matthew, Kara's young, long-haired, tattooed English teacher walked into the library. We lived in a tiny town after all. He saw Margaret on the table and said, "I remember that book. It was very controversial." We both started talking about the issues that made Margaret controversial, including religion, puberty, and bullying. When Matthew left, Kara picked up the book and said she would read it. She finished in less than 48 hours.
That event marked an important turning point in my relationship with Kara. She finally took book recommendations from me. After that she read other Judy Blume and Lois Lowry books on my advice! We are now reading the Harry Potter series together as a family and she freely admits she is enjoying them!
On a serious note, Margaret also generated important mother-daughter discussions for us. I am forever grateful to Judy Blume.
Lesson Learned: Everyone develops at a different pace. Your body's appearance does not define you. What matters is that you are a kind, honest, and generous person.
4. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Between eighth and tenth grade, I read most of John Steinbeck's books. I loved his writing. Of Mice and Men was one of the last ones I read. While it is not in the caliber of the epic East of Eden or Grapes of Wrath, it is still a well-written, poignant story of friendship and making hard choices. I am baffled as to why this book is banned.
Lesson Learned: Friendships take different forms. Mercy takes different forms.
5. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Yes, this book does depict rape, violent misogyny, and child abuse in gritty form. It is also one of the most important, life-changing books written in American literature. Walker's writing is lyrical and gritty. I read this book in high school. I was shocked, but I also learned for the first time about the harsh realities of life as a woman of color. Growing up in the barrio was not easy, but I was also sheltered. I thought everyone lived like us. Poverty is a psychological state. When everyone around you is poor, you don't feel too bad about it. The few white kids I knew that were not from the barrio lived in a fairy tale planet for all I knew. My ideas about what it meant to be a woman of color living in poverty changed when I read The Color Purple. I realized that abuse and violence were a harsh reality from which I had been very fortunately shielded. I am not suggesting that fifth graders read this book, but I certainly think it belongs in a high school course on American literature.
Lesson Learned: This book marked Walker's rallying cry to unify all women in the feminist movement. She shed light on the plight of women of color who were not simply fighting for the right to vote, but also fighting for the right to live.
6. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
I grew up in South Texas, about six miles from the Texas-Mexico border. All my neighbors and classmates were Mexican, mostly children of recent immigrants. Everyone spoke Spanish. Everyone was just as poor as we were. My second grade teacher was a white woman from Iowa, but other than that I did not know other white people until I was bussed across town to the GT program in fifth grade. There was a black teacher in my elementary school, but I was not in his classroom. I never spoke to him. I did not meet a black person until my freshman year in high school. I read Thunder when I was in seventh grade. This was my first glimpse into the post-Civil War life for African Americans. Reading this book in the 1980's was unnerving. The events in the book, such as lynchings, took place a mere 50 years earlier. Even as I kid, I was jarred by the concept of Jim Crow laws and inequality. Recent data has suggested that children who read fiction are more empathetic and tolerant. I have Taylor's Thunder to thank for introducing me to a world so foreign to me as a Mexican girl from the barrio. Books like these were where I first met people different from me.
Lesson Learned: This book taught me to feel compassion and empathy for people who were different than me.
7. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I feel a little piece of my soul dies every time I see this literary classic on a banned book list. I actually tried reading this book with my children a few years ago, but the language was too advanced for my then six year-old son. I decided to wait until he was a little older. While reading Mockingbird in eighth grade taught me many of the lessons that Thunder did, as a Mexican girl growing up with very little exposure to white or black people, Mockingbird also filled me with hope. Atticus was my hero. He was white and he defended Tom Robinson despite the danger to himself and his family. I deeply appreciated Thunder because the black characters fight for themselves, but Mockingbird gave me faith in the indomitable spirit of human kindness because of the racial heroism that Atticus displays.
Lesson Learned: This book taught me not only to feel compassion and empathy for people who were different than me, but to be courageous enough to do something about it.
8. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
I read this book as an adult as part of the book club to which I belonged during my pediatrics residency in Salt Lake City. I have since then read all of Hosseini's books. He follows the same formula with some elements of coincidence that almost border on magical realism which does get a little repetitive, but his character development and prose is flawless. I loved The Kite Runner. I loved it so much that I spent $60 on a Spanish version for my father. I was so compelled for him to read this magnificent father-son love story. He loved it. My dad is difficult to please. He could not finish Game of Thrones and Harry Potter when I gave him the Spanish versions of those books. He devoured Cometas en el Cielo (aka The Kite Runner), and we still have amazing conversations about this book.
Lesson Learned: This book teaches us about the hard road to redemption after betraying your best friend in the backdrop of Afghan history. It also paints a beautiful portrait of the love between a father and son.
9. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
I read this book in college at the behest of my roommate who was reading it as part of her Mexican-American studies class. I read it again as an adult within the last two years. This book is a literary masterpiece. The story centers around Tony, a Chicano boy growing up in New Mexico who is being groomed to be a priest by Ultima, a curandera or "shaman healer". Yes there are a few sexual references which I do not recall being particularly graphic and there is profanity. These do not detract from the beauty of Anaya's prose and add to the authenticity of the novel.
Lesson Learned: As a Mexican-American person, reading this book marked a defining moment in my life. I learned that my culture is beautiful and worthy of sharing. I learned to never, ever, forget where I came from. I think this is a lesson essential for all young people to learn.
10. Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
I am a Potterhead. I would not be a middle grade fantasy author if it were not for this series. Sadly, the Harry Potter series has found itself under fire because of references to dark magic and the absurd accusation of "occult/Satanism", and violence. I have to wonder if the people who challenge these books have actually read them. Harry spends seven books fighting dark magic. There is not one single reference to Satanism or the occult. I feel pity for any child who does not read these books as a result of book banning. It is an utter tragedy.
Courage and friendship will never fail you.
Love is more powerful than hate.
Prejudice is hurtful and based on fear.
Listen carefully, because things are not always what they seem.
Adults can make mistakes too.
Courage takes many forms.
Stay true to yourself in the face of adversity.
Do not be afraid to advocate for those who are different than you.
Fight against inequality, even if it does not target you.
I hope you enjoy this list and are encouraged to read these books if you have not done so already. Celebrate your freedom to read during #BannedBooksWeek by reading a challenged book. What are your favorite banned books? Let me know in the comments below.
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