February 3, 2023

My Banned Book Project: Update

 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!


  1. Bob,

    I oppose the wholesale banning of any book--it bumps up hard against my support of free speech, a fundamental belief that I will not negotiate or compromise. However...

    I do think some books should be "restricted," not banned and that the primary reason for doing so is (as you point out) age appropriate content. This is obviously more complicated now than it was for me as a kid. As an adolescent, one of the raciest things I could do was to join one of my friends to view his dad's Playboy magazines. I can't even imagine growing up today in the age of the internet and the explicit porn that kids now have ready access to. In a way it seems pointless to ban books with sexual content, given what is available to anyone online, but it is still symbolic gesture and may convey to young people that this should be considered a serious subject.

    I can remember an experience in my youth that illustrates this. In junior high I was obsessed with (among other things) aviation and my career goal was to be an airline pilot. There was a book in the catalog: "Three-Dimension Darkness," a biographical account of an airline pilot transitioning to the jet age, but I could not find it in the stacks. I asked our Librarian (Mrs. Miatt, wonderful lady) why I could not find it. She said, "it's in the back." She went away and came back shortly with the book, sat me down at a table and said, "this book has some adult themes in it, but I think you want to read this for the right reasons, so I will let you check it out." There were indeed several suggestions of sexual encounters while on trips (tame by modern standards), but I was taken by the aviation stories and did not pay much attention. The lesson to me then was clear. The motivation and purpose for the read was important, as was the Librarian's judgement of my readiness to have exposure to such things.

    Some thoughtful consideration of content and the readiness of a reader to be exposed to such content should guide our decisions.

    Rick in Oregon

    1. Your example is a powerful reminder of the ability of a qualified and caring adult to help a reader make a decision. Your interest was on flying. By junior high age you had likely gotten "the Talk" from your parents or heard enough on the playground to understand some of the basics. As you say, there were some mild sexual encounters, but you were laser-focused on the flying parts. I bet you skimmed the sex to get at the important parts!

      Restrictions or individual assessments are logical and loving acts; banning a book from anyone's eyes is outright censorship. Defunding a library for simply having a certain book on the shelves is the height of stupidity and rigidity.

    2. Rick, your last paragraph hits the nail on the head. Well said. And a round of applause for your Mrs. Miatt. The world could use more librarians who draw upon their knowledge and understanding to better educate their students and patrons.

  2. Hi Bob. I'll admit I have two minds about this topic. If I was a parent, I would appreciate knowing the themes and content behind certain books in advance so I could monitor my child. However, on the other hand I'm a bit like Rick in Oregon when I say I resist any ban on books. With everything (and much worse) available online for children if they aren't being monitored, to monitor books seems not only pointless but dangerous. As long as books are not being "assigned" by teachers in class, I tend to think that only a child drawn to a particular subject would ever seek them out. And in most cases, what they would read is more deeply explained/expressed than they would ever find about the topic online. Plus, if a parent isn't already monitoring what a child reads and/or consumes online (or even television!) these days, what is the point? We live in a very unusual world right now with so much changing. I don't envy any parent (or grandparent) with the difficult choices they have to make! ~Kathy

    1. Admittedly I am well past the target age of a lot of the books in this project. Even so, having raised two daughters and being an integral part of the lives of three grandkids, I think I have the ability to judge a particular book's appeal.

      The books listed above with the more explicit content or themes, would not appeal to those too young to be affected by the content. No one of that age is going to read two hundred pages just to get to one or two paragraphs of the juicy stuff. As you note, a few seconds will take someone to much worse on the Internet.

      I want to emphasize one of your points: a teacher should err on the side of caution when assigning reading. They understand children mature at different ages and under different parental styles of raising kids. Pushing the envelope is not the teacher's job, until at least the last year or two of High School. Even then, there should be an option to select an alternate title if a student is uncomfortable.

  3. I wanted to thank you for alerting me to this challenge when I read your original post. As a retired librarian, I am really opposed to book banning and most especially all the current rage about books with LGBTQ themes. During my career, I saw many of these kids searching for answers and the current trend of politicians deciding what should be available or not (even with parental consent) makes me very angry. The whole idea of libraries is to be a depository available to all and if we want an educated populace, we need to have materials available even if someone finds them personally distasteful.
    That being said, I decided to try a few of these books as well. I plan to jump around and am especially interested in reading the 1619 project to see why it angers so many. My first book was Front Desk by Kelly Yang. Imagine my surprise when one of the exact things portrayed in the book (an employer charging an Asian worker for repairing a piece of the employer's equipment) caused the recent mass shooting in Half Moon Bay. I admit it shocked me to find such things still happening. It was eye opening. When I was telling my librarian that Front Desk was a banned book due to "anti-racism", she looked at me said, 'wait, anti-racism is good, right?' Apparently not these days.

    1. Front Desk is one of the books I have on hold for later in the month. Now, I am anxious to read it to see the similarity to the horrible shooting of a few weeks ago.

      Like you, I have noticed a preponderance of gender-oriented books on these lists. By now one would think the gay/lesbeian/gender issues would be common enough to not cause such distress. But, not the case.

      The whole slippery slope of politicians deciding what any of us are allowed to do with our bodies, thoughts, and very personal decisions is beyond distressing.

      I am glad the original post prompted you to take your own look at some of this material. BTW, there is a documentary that was just released about the 1619 project.

  4. Thanks for the uodate, Bob! I enjoyed getting your take on what you've read so far.

    1. One of the unexpected pluses so far is that several of these books are shorter than average, allowing me to finish them in just 3 or 4 days. Of course, if written with a younger reader in mind, shorter makes sense.

  5. Enjoyed your reviews. I haven't read any of these but I did very much enjoy Sherman Alexie's memoir "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" back when it came out. He is a very gifted writer with a distinct point of view that deserves to be heard.

    1. Being native American gives him an insight and realism that makes the The Part-Time Indian feel real.

  6. Count me in as absolutely opposed to banning of books or restriction by age or gender. My personally philosophy is that if you're old enough to understand the then you're old enough to read and if you're not old enough it's still okay because then it goes over your head. I would say book one is appropriate for any middlescooler which probably begins at 11 these days? I was allowed as a child , junior high student and high school student to peruse any part of the library and check out what I wished. This meant I read a Frank Yerby novel before I was a full teen. My mother looked at the book. Asked me if I had any questions and then basically told me if I was going to read potboilers to find ones that were better. This is my philosophy . I believe that reading lists should be varied in every sense to the point if inclusion of all types. Send the list home to mom and dad, let them do their due diligence and inform the teacher of concerns for their child only. But I'm opposed to a school system, library, or teacher limiting book access in any absolute sense. My son read both Mice and men and Maus as a preteen or an elementary student on his own. I mean, where's Judy Blume when you need her.

    1. I understand you position and support it. There is one reality, though, that must be mentioned in favor of some form of age restriction: budget.

      School libraries, in particular, have limited space for storage and a budget for book purchases. To buy books that are likely to sit on the shelf, uncirculated, due to writing style or subject matter, takes the place of another possible choice that would be checked out.

      If money and space were not issues then I would agree wholeheartedly. But, real world limits mean school librarians must buy books that are going to be read. Reccomded age restrictions are a reasonable response to those realities.

      Actually, public libraries must perform a similar balancing act betwen appeal and budget. If a particular book does not circulate enough to "earn" that shelf space, it must go to a book that will. Putting a particular title in the kids section, for example, that just sits there does nobody any good.

      Of course none of this appies to personal purchases. There the rule should be simple: if a book is for sale and I want it, someone's opinion or beliefs are irrelevant.

  7. Reality is that self-pleasure begins at age 3-4 quite normally. There are not words for it at that age, but obviously the feeling is all good. Not intended to argue that the content is not for preteens, but this will not be news to them.

    I think the content of all of these books is a reality in children's lives. Suicide rates (one every 5d for those under age 13) , access of sexual info/images online and via their personal phones without parental controls applied etc.

    It would be interesting to hear the viewpoint of current-day parents rather than the grandparent generation. I know my nephew never says no to books his kids want to read (he reads them as well in order to discuss) nor does he shut down conversations on any topic. Hence he had a trans-daughter rather than a dead son (cutting had been underway for more than a year).

    I think authors who deal with "hot" issues via comic strip style do a great job of communicating. My first read in that style was Gender Queer.

    Keep commenting....I know there are a LOT of readers here :-)

    1. I have been encouraged, fascinated, surprised, and enlightened by the comments so far.

      As a grandparent my perspective is shaped by my age and my upbringing. Frankly, I always saw myself as quite broadminded and open to freedom of selection. But, these comments show I am not quite as liberal as I believe myself to be. This is eye-opening and good for me.

  8. Thank you for the topic, Bob. I'm a proponent of free and open expression, myself. I get the sense that such a position runs against some headwinds these days probably because some people just want others to accept their opinion without consideration, discussion, or debate. Opinions that are not of the cheerleading variety can be seen as threatening or subversive, I suppose. It is probably worth noting that Alexie was discredited in some circles over (if I remember correctly) his connection or lack thereof to the Native American community. I find Alexie's work interesting and worth considering, but I'm sure there are many who would disagree.

    1. The whole issue is based on one group insisting their interpretation is the only correct and acceptable one. There is the fear of casting some doubts on the stories we have been told about our history that are not the whole truth.

      Sherman Alexie is a member of a Native American tribe in the Spokane area. Doubts about his bonafides are likely based on trying to discredit his stories.

      Frankly, the effort by groups to prevent their children from being exposed to our real history is rather pointless. Their offspring will eventually hear the whole story and then question their parents'' motivations. Trying to deny reality is never a good, long-term strategy.