Sunday marked the start of banned books week. As I said on twitter, I was surprised by some of this year’s entries. Looking over the list for 2008-2009 it seems as though we have become less “tolerant” of diversity and developmentally appropriate exploration in our literature and our schools.
Among the books banned are classics in Latin@ literature, critical entries in Native American literature, and a slew of LGBTQI literature. While the latter may be expected by most of us, what I certainly did not expect was what parents and school boards consider “queer” lit, ie too queer for my children. More importantly, the far reaching definitions of “inappropriate” queer exploration have also extended to heterosexual exploration in ways that once again prove my point that oppression multiplies outward from the targeted to those who target.
These are the books on the list that I own and/or teach:
- Sarah Brannen. Uncle Bobby’s Wedding. – (Gay Guinea Pigs get married, children’s book). Banned from library (placed in restricted area) Castle Rock CO
- Parnell and Richards. And Tango Makes Three – (story of the gay penguins in central park zoo) – Banned Bristol UK and multiple banning attempts in U.S.
- Linda deHaan & Nijland Stern. King & King. – (fairytale with gay marriage at end, children’s book) – Banned in Bristol UK as “unsuitable for children” and Attempted ban at Grade School level Lexington MA grade school b/c of “homosexual agenda”
- Stephen Chbosky. The Perks of Being a Wallflower – (epistolary novel written by a freshman about figuring out life, sexuality, drugs and death, to imagined reader) – Banned for High School level Portage IN for sexuality, homosexuality, and drug use (also among the most frequently challenged books in the U.S.)
- Lisa Jan-Clough. Me Penelope (teen girl obsesses with sex as attempt to get love & heal from death of her brother & parent’s divorce) – Banned for Middle School level Tavares FL for sexual references
- Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian – (semi-atuobiographical story of Native American boy’s life on Spokane (Rez) & struggles with attending an all white school)- Banned for HS level in Prineville OR for ref to masturbation
- Khaled Hosseini. The Kite Runner – Banned for High School level MI for homosexual content & rape
- Alice Walker. The Color Purple – Banned Morgantown NC homosexuality, rape, violence
- Alice Sebold The Lovely Bones – (a young girl who was raped & murdered by a neighbor, watches over her family while she comes to terms with her own death) – Banned for Middle School Waltham MA “too scary”
- John Berendt. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – (A queer murder mystery set in the South) Banned 4 days Middle School level- Buelah ND then put on new parental permission list
- Susanna Kaysen. Girl Interrupted – (the story of a young girl incarcerated in mental facility largely for failing to adhere to gender norms) – Banned High School level New Rochelle NY for sexual content and language
- Anonymous. Go Ask Alice – (Young girls decent into drug addiction & depression & abuse) – Banned Middle School level Berkeley Co SC for language, sexuality, and blasphemy
- Rudolfo Anaya. Bless Me Ultima – (coming of age set against backdrop of diff religious/spiritual traditions & their meanings for Nueva Mexicanos) – Banned High School level Newman Ca for profanity & anti-catholic sentiment
- Jodi Picoult. My Sister’s Keeper (young girl sues for emancipation to stop being “just an organ donor” for her ill sibling) – Banned for Middle School level Clawson MI “too racy”
- Mark Bowden. Black Hawk Down (war novel based on failed Somali operation) – Banned High School level Raceland LA for profane language
- Alta Schreier. Vamos a Cuba. Banned from Miami Dade for “inaccurate portrayal of Cuba”
What the vast majority of these books have in common is marginality and abuse especially of young girls. The books provide an opportunity for students who are struggling with similar issues to see themselves reflected in the literature they read and potentially develop a language for discussing trauma, adolescent questioning, and sexuality. Many of these books reflect distinctly female voices from working class or single parent homes, authors and characters of color, and queer voices. Removing these books for such minor infractions like “mentions masturbation” serves to not only police the boundaries of sex and sexuality in a developmental period in which such exploration is already occurring in real life but also limit the exposure youth have to traditionally marginalized and erased voices in the literary canon. Much like the recent attacks on health clinics in the schools, banning books with this kind of content fails to recognize both the realities of young adult lives and the actual uses of such literature. Kaysen’s book will no more encourage people to be promiscuous (espec. since the ban misses that sexual acting out in this book is larger a result of sexual abuse) than Hosseini’s will encourage mean boys to rape quiet ones. What these books will do is help people talk about difficult and stigmatized events in a way that provides insight to those less aware of them. They will also possibly provide a pathway to speaking about these issues for those who have similar ones. Since most of these bans take place at the k-12 level, they also validate the families and desires of young people at a critical moment in their lives when they may feel shame or consider self-harm. For girls in particular, these books warn of the sexual violence in ourworld and provide ways to understand both domestic and sexual violence they may have already seen or experienced. “Protecting them” from these stories is not worth the risk of failing to provide insight and outlets to them protecting themselves or seeking protection from the violence in the real world.
An important economic aspect to the banned book list is also related to diversity. Not only are many of the authors people of color, queer, and/or women but many of these books were published by independent presses who are more willing to publish marginalized voices and experimental texts. While some people benefit from being on the banned book list, because it raises awareness about their books during the controversies that inevitably ensue, publishers depend on book orders from libraries and schools to make up the bulk of their revenue. Young adult fiction in particular gets most of its exposure in libraries and classroom curriculum. If these books are banned, the independents may go under or take less “risk” on publishing diverse authors in the future. The “underselling” of these books also helps larger publishing companies justify not publishing, providing marginal marketing, or otherwise marginalizing traditionally underrepresented authors. So that the banned book list, at least at the young adult level, has lasting impact on what is available for all of us to read in the future. And the fact that many of the entries on the list are considered literary classics or on Oprah’s booklist should make us no less concerned for the impact on the market as a whole. (Go Ask Alice is out of print, Girl Interrupted was briefly out of print, and many of the most challenged books are never ordered by school libraries for fear of the process of defeating a challenge – ie an unofficial ban is in place in many schools, etc.)
There are undeniable political motivations behind many of this year’s banned books that seem to be more blatant than usual. The fact that books on the basic cultures of Cuba or New Mexico were banned for failing to “accurately portray” country or church smacks of the kind of totalizing agenda that people are always trotting out when trying to ban queer issues from the schools. That these books, along with the gay wedding books, were banned is proof that there are people who want their politics to run the school and that we should all be wary of them. Disagreeing with content of a book or with the identities it represents within its pages is one thing, demanding that all youth be denied access to this material b/c you don’t like it, is another. And for a political ideology that makes so much of the role of parenting, it makes me wonder why they do not trust their parenting and their churches (b/c I am convinced they don’t go to my church) enough to provide context for their children to understand the material they read? Is it the fact that they are discovering that when children are allowed to think for themselves and given material that reflects the lives around them they are more likely to see both their own desires and people who are different from them, or people who are abused and marginalized, as equally human and deserving?
When I was attending a Catholic grade school, we had a banned book cart. It was a stack of books deemed “inappropriate” for youth that the librarian refused to remove from the library. The compromise was to put them on the cart b/c we were all taught that books on carts needed to be reshelved and not to touch them. B/c of my disabilities, I spent a lot of time in doors during recess, and eventually discovered the cart in question. Among the books shelved there were The Color Purple, A Separate Peace, and the play The Children’s Hour, among others. I remember asking if I could read one of the books, and the librarian telling me I had to read it in the library. As the days turned into weeks, Ibegan to read everything on that cart, asking questions about material I did not understand or recognize. As those weeks spanned to months, suddenly several students who had come and gone from the library on days they could not be outside or had been put in “detention” in the library also began to read with us. We were ultimately a core group of 8. The critical skills we developed in those small reading sessions made us better scholars in our other classes, asking new questions and thinking about things in new ways. Then one day, the principle walked in on our group, admonished her daughter, the librarian, and suddenly the cart was gone. I spent my inside days in the art room after that.
Though I was too young to know what was going on, what I do remember was how brilliant and alive thosemade me feel when I read them. How nice it was to see people of color and young people with real problems reflected in the things I read. And how those grade school days seemed to make me so much better prepared than my high school peers when many of the issues like drugs, sex, desire, and dating violence, entered our adolescent lives.
Having had that experience, and being an educator in love with books, I would argue that most of the material listed above helps readers develop critical thinking skills and possibly survival strategies (in the case of rape, domestic violence, etc.) that transcend the material itself. The point of education is to provide people with those skills so that they can better understand and navigate our world. And yes, by teaching all students a diverse curriculum we, as educators and librarians, provide the opportunities for young people to embrace diversity and build a more inclusive society/ies in the future.
If you are interested in any of these books, please go read them or check them out of the library. And if you live in one of the places where the book was banned, consider buying one and making it available for young adults to read.
- official poster for Banned Books Week 2009
- image from King & King children’s book. deHaan & Stern. King and King. Tricycle Press, 2004.
- cover art Bless Me Ultima. Anaya, R. Bless Me Ultima. Grand Central Publishing, 1999.
- The Color Purple movie poster/new release book cover. Walker, A. The Color Purple. Harcourt, 1984.
- cover art True Diary. Alexie, S. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Little, Brown Young Readers, 2007.
- student college project UNC. Borne, C. “Go Ask Alice, Interpretation 3”