As you may remember, I took on a new project for the new year. The American Library Association has published a book of 52 of the titles that most often provoke an urge to ban those publications. The challenge is to read every book on the list and record your reaction to each.
At the moment, over 2,500 books have appeared on various lists from different sources. Some proponents want to remove these books from school libraries. Others are intent on removing them from public libraries as well. Censorship to enforce someone's beliefs upon everyone is the goal. School and public librarians are under fire. Library board meetings that are usually open to the public have degenerated into shouting matches with threats of shutting down a town's public library not unheard of.
While I believe book banning is a horrific option, I do understand that not everything published is appropriate for everyone. In most cases, we should defer judgment on appropriateness to the parents of a child. When I get my hackles up is when a group of people decides their choices for their offspring must be applied to all, regardless of age or circumstances.
So, I am reading as many of the books on the ALA's list as I can this year. I promised to approach each with an open mind, attempting to understand why a listed book would generate such opposition. I am also interested to see how of the 52 books on the list are available at my library. As an additional benefit, the ALA notes that keeping these books in circulation helps deflect attacks and complaints.
A little over one month in, here is a progress report:
* I have read five of the listed books. My reaction to each will be noted below.
* So far, every book has been readily available in my library. That tells me minority pressure has yet to limit everyone's choices.
* The bulk of the books in this challenge are YA, or Young Adult, in orientation. I would select very few of them as a personal choice, not because of their content but because the narrative is not meant to appeal to me.
* Spoiler alert: none of the first five are so offensive they should be banned. However, age restrictions are reasonable for most.
1) The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
About a native-American boy who grows up on a reservation but decides to go to school in the primarily white community nearby. This a story about building self-confidence, learning about acceptance and community, seeing things from different perspectives, and understanding the need to appreciate one's roots.
There is one paragraph about self-pleasure and a few instances of rather mild teenage boy fantasies. The major complaints are about profanity and the above-mentioned sexual references.
My thought: Not appropriate for most preteens. Older teens and others would find nothing terribly shocking by today's standards or find it uncomfortable.
2) The House of The Spirits by Isabel Allende
This novel takes some time to find its pace. There are a lot of characters and settings to unravel. This is a rather deep dive into family and generational dynamics in an unnamed South American country. Once the reader understands the who, what, and why, this book is a worthy read and well-written.. There are obvious parallels to today and class divides in society.
There are sections describing rape, spirituality, and conflict. Several of the characters hold unusual religious beliefs and are unpleasant people. This is not a book that would hold much appeal to most under 18. The major complaints are sexually explicit, religious viewpoints, offensive language, occult beliefs, and abortion.
My thought: This is not a book that would appeal to anyone under 16. Making it unavailable without parental approval in elementary or Junior High makes sense. Above that age, it is worthy of consideration and belongs in general circulation.
3) Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
This is a graphic novel autobiography. Yes, it is graphic in some of the language, drawings, and tone. But, graphic also means Fun House is primarily drawings, like a comic strip, with text to explain the context of the depictions.
The focus is on Alison and her family, with the father having an outsized influence on her and her development. Subject matters include lesbianism and homosexuality within the family. While frank in both drawing and text, I did not find the material is meant to shock. Rather, the novel attempts to realistically portray what fractured family relationships look like.
My thought: as a "coming out" story, Fun House feels very realistic to me. For someone going through this situation, there is a frank explanation of both the problems and strengths that come from honesty.
This is inappropriate for most children under 14 or 15 due to content and drawings. Someone who is going through identity issues would probably find this book helpful. Anyone else would likely not find this novel appealing.
4) Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
If you have seen the movie of the same name starring Tom Hanks, the book version is more intense and, frankly, a much more complete tale. The narrative bounces around a lot, making it hard to pick up and put down without getting confused. There are segments I found irritating but stuck with it. In the end, loose ends are tied together.
The lead character, nine-year-old Oskar, lost his father during 9/11; the effect is profound. He is brilliant, inventive, endearing, and sometimes appears to be bipolar in his responses. There are some descriptions of graphic sex as perceived by a young boy through observations and the Internet.
My thought: Not appropriate for preteens. The story and inventiveness of the character and the plot would require a certain level of maturity, not because of the minor sex scenes but simply to follow the complexity of the story. If a preteen has seen the movie, do not assume he or she would be attracted to this version.
5) Looking For Alaska by John Green
A television version of this book is available on Hulu; the two are very different. This novel is much more mature in its subject matter and how these events are portrayed.
Based on the experiences of the author at a boarding school in Alabama, this novel strikes me as realistic in its portrayal of some of the darker episodes of growing up.
There are descriptions of explicit sex, a possible suicide, the loss of love and innocence, and the effects of poor choices. In the end, the author portrays a sense of what he calls "Radical Hope," a belief that in spite of all the problems of life, we have a future and a part of us that continues after we die.
My thought: This is not a novel I would have read except as part of this banned book project. Teenage angst is not normally my choice. However, if a person is mature enough to handle the subject matter, then no restriction seems necessary. I see the plot as supportive and ultimately encouraging.
You thoughts are encouraged!