Banned Books Week – Of Mice and Men

Did you know that 56% of book challenges take place at public libraries? Libraries which are supposed to represent the communities which they serve. Libraries which are supposed to be places of acceptance and information.

It doesn’t make sense to me that people ask libraries–the public forum for books and information–to ban books. But maybe I’m the backwards one. It’s highly likely. This wouldn’t be the first time.

Here’s the thing. Libraries are magical places. They hold all the books I’ve ever wanted. And if my library doesn’t hold the book I want, there’s a high chance that they have digital access to it. That’s why they’re so amazing. They hold all the stories I could want to read. And they hold information. They hold the secrets to watercolor and acrylic art. To knitting and crocheting. To the lives of great opera composers and presidents and inventors.

To limit libraries’ choice in what books they stock is to take away their power to represent and educate the community they represent.

Of Mice and Men is one of the most-frequently challenged books in history. It has been banned from libraries around the world for various reasons. The most common reasons for Of Mice and Men’s challenges are profanity and taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I’ve already said my peace on taking God’s name in vain, but I will address the issue of profanity. In pretty much the same level-headed, calm manner I’ve used all week in my defense of not banning books. IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ A BOOK WITH CURSING IN IT, THEN JUST DON’T READ IT. Okay? Okay.

Good, now that we’ve cleared that up.

I love Steinbeck. He was brilliant. His writing was emotional and heavy and hard. I’ve never met a Steinbeck I didn’t like. I will admit that when I first read The Pearl when I was in high school, I didn’t enjoy it. But once I got a feel from Steinbeck and his writing, I fell in love with it.

Steinbeck has always just spoken to me in ways that few authors have.

Once, a challenge against Steinbeck listed he was “known to have an anti-business attitude” and he was “very questionable as to his patriotism,” which sounds pretty timely to me. Right? Like right now “questionable patriotism” and business practices seem to be big topics in news media today. Maybe Steinbeck was just a forward thinker. (He was.) Maybe he was just planning ahead for the 2010’s (he wasn’t.)

Steinbeck will always hold a special place in my heart. He was the first serious author I read. He was the first serious author I fell in love with. The Pearl was really the first time I’d read a classic author and thought “I could really get into this.”

And then I met Of Mice and Men and I thought “Oh my God (instance of taking the Lord’s name in vain redacted so as not to offend blog banners), this is the most incredible book I’ve ever read.” I read it all in one weekend. And I cried my eyes out. And I got really frustrated. And it was one of the first books I connected with on an emotional level in a long time (that wasn’t Harry Potter.)

Of Mice and Men was the first book that helped me realize my love of historical fiction (even though it was contemporary at the time it was written.) It also was the first book to help me realize how much I love a book that makes me cry. It’s the book that really shaped who I am as a reader, I think. It revealed to me the experience I hoped to share with books. And for that I will always be grateful.

So, Mr. Steinbeck. Curse all you want, take the Lord’s name in vain, be anti-business and have questionable patriotism. I don’t mind. I just want to thank you for the books that changed my life and shaped me as a reader.

You will always have a spot on my shelf, even if everybody in the world bans you.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Banned Books Week – A Separate Peace

Do you want to know the quickest way to get me to read a book? Call it a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” And in 1980, somebody did just that with today’s challenged book.

You’ll notice from the graphic above (provided by ALA.org) that one of the biggest reasons books are challenged is sexual content. Because, you know, books should not at all reflect real life. Because instead of parents taking the initiative and teaching their children about sex (how taboo), they need to ban any instances of sex in the world. Because people just don’t do that. Right?

It’s ridiculous. Just do your job as parents and stop patrolling what the rest of the world is doing.

Sorry. I’m getting ranty. This is a major point of contention with me in the world, in general.

Clearly, I feel very heated about banning a book for sexual content. If you don’t want to read a book with sex in it, then just don’t. If you don’t want your kids to read a book with sex in it, then just don’t let them. But don’t limit 16-year-old me, trying to claw my way into great literature, because you disagree with the book. That seems simple, right?

Maybe it’s just me.

In any case, I’ve now made this way more about me than about the challenged book.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles is one of my favorite wartime novels.

Set in a fictionalized version of Exeter Academy, A Separate Peace is one man’s reflections on his childhood and the time he spent at boarding school. Gene, the character’s protagonist reflects on his friendship with his childhood best friend, Finny, and the time they spent together. It’s a tearjerker. Like a serious 10-tissue kind of book.

I’m going to be honest with you now. I kind of misled you with my opening argument here. The reason I chose this novel is not because of the large amounts of sex in this book. Because there aren’t large amounts of sex in this book.

Because there isn’t any sex in this book.

I mean. None. Seriously. There aren’t even any prominent female characters in this book.

And I know, I know. I’ve devoted much of this blog to talking about books with gay protagonists, so that should be a consideration of mine, right? Except they’re not gay.

When I was 16 years old and reading this book for the first time, I never picked up on any sexual or homoerotic overtones. And when I reread this two summers ago, I still didn’t pick up on any of those overtones.

There was nothing in this book to make 16-year-old me (or modern-day me) consider this book to be a “filthy, trashy sex book.” If 16-year-old me had heard this book were a “filthy, trashy sex book” he would have been SO disappointed when he got to the end.

Thankfully, I didn’t know those things then. And I don’t understand those things now.

The other times A Separate Peace was challenged are far less heinous, if I’m being honest. Mostly, people disagree with the explicit language in A Separate Peace, but if we’re not banning human beings (myself included) for their potty mouths, then I can hardly see the argument behind getting rid of this beautiful coming-of-age tale that Knowles wrote.

It’s the age-old tale of a boy discovering himself through friendships and experiences. It’s about Gene and Finny and the things they help each other discover about themselves. It’s about high school boys navigating life, the same way Looking for Alaska is. The same way Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda is. The same way any teenage coming-of-age book is.

So, book banners, you can keep you “filthy, trashy, sex books” off your bookshelves if you’d like. But that should not include A Separate Peace.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Banned Books Week – To Kill a Mockingbird

You’d think that in this forward-thinking society, books would stand a chance, right?

Wrong.

Books are being banned and challenged today. And I don’t mean just new releases. It’s not like people are standing in line picketing the latest Stephen King novel. I don’t mean to say that modern releases aren’t being challenged. I just mean that I’m less surprised when they are. It makes sense for something new to be protested.

What does surprise me is that books–classics that have withstood the test of time–are being challenged. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which I mentioned yesterday, was challenged more than 80 years after its initial publication. It’s like people don’t even know how to move on and hate something else. They’re just inheriting the hate of their parents.

That’s just no way to live. If I hate something, I want to hate it on my own. Not just because everybody else hates it. And trust me, I’ve had plenty of practice hating brand new things all on my own.

The weird new flavors of Diet Coke? That’s something to get worked up about. My students saying things like “lit” and “bet” in connotations that definitely don’t make sense? HATE IT.

Books older than any of my living relatives? Sit down and move on. They’re clearly not going anywhere.

Yet the challenges still persists.

In 2017, for instance, the Biloxi, MS school board voted to ban To Kill a Mockingbird from its curriculum because (and I really wish I were joking) it “makes people uncomfortable.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! Now we’re just banning things because they make us uncomfortable? If that’s the case, I’m beginning a petition to ban (in no particular order): socks with sandals, crawfish, airplane chairs, the weird side of Tumblr, competitive cheerleading, every treadmill in the United States, faculty meetings, cold park benches, that sounds my water bottle makes when I open it, dress pants, and the word gouache. Feel free to add to this list as you please. I’m banning everything.

I’m the Oprah Winfrey of bans.

Of course, this 2017 ban is not the first challenge To Kill a Mockingbird has faced. Scout Finch’s story has been contested and challenged basically since its original publication.

Let’s face it. It’s a heavy book. It does make you uncomfortable. It does make you evaluate your privilege and your predispositions and your prejudices. It exists to make you think beyond and outside of yourself. To Kill a Mockingbird is art, and in the words of Rainbow Rowell, “art is supposed to make you feel something.”

I first met Scout Finch when I was in the eleventh grade. I was sitting in the back of my English class, cutting up as I always did, when this lavender book fell into my lap. I was really opposed to reading this book. For no particular reason. I just didn’t want to do what the teacher told me. (Remember that lifelong issue with authority I mentioned the other day?)

Clearly, you can tell by the cover that I hated this book and I hardly read it all. I mean, it was just atrocious. I couldn’t even stand it. I mean, I practically never cracked the spine. You can tell, right?

When I first opened To Kill a Mockingbird, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it. I was 16 years old. The protagonist was a girl and was too young for my to connect with. Maycomb was not a place I could picture. And I definitely couldn’t connect with having an attorney for a father.

But then I read a little more and I realized that Scout and I weren’t very different. And Maycomb and the tiny town I grew up in weren’t so different. And things started to fall into place for me that To Kill a Mockingbird could just as easily be told in 2004, when I first discovered it. With a few minor tweaks, the backdrop of The Great Depression could fit today’s society. To Kill a Mockingbird was somehow timeless in its storytelling, even with its very distinct setting. I think part of its success is its translatability to modern times.

It was brilliant. And I read it so many times. It quickly became one of my all time favorite books.

Maybe it didn’t make me uncomfortable enough.

Or maybe I’m just not a bigot.

I guess we’ll never know.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Banned Books Week – The Wizard of Oz

Banned Books Week always makes me think about my favorite books. It seems many of my favorite books are ones that have been challenged in some way. Whether this is coincidental or some Pavlovian response to outcries against well-written stories, I can’t tell.

Banned books week also makes me laugh, thinking about the books people have taken issue with over the years. Children’s books about talking animals? Get out of here. Young adult fiction with a gay protagonist? Peace out. Adult books with a hint of magic? Begone!

Books seem to get challenged and banned for sillier and sillier reasons. One of my favorite books since childhood is one of those books challenged for beyond silly reasons.

Harriet the Spy, for instance, was banned because Harriet–wait for it–spies. As in, she does what the title says she’ll do. As in someone saw this book, thought “hmmm, I wonder what happens in this book,” read it, and then got angry because the titular spy spies on people.

Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends was banned for telling children to break plates instead of drying them. I’m sure you’re all aware that this book is actually chock full of real life advice. You know, “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me too” they went for joyrides in flying shoes. Watch out kids, it’s a slow fade. One day you’re breaking plates and the next you’re breaking the speed limit on the I-10 in a New Balance. It’s a gateway poem.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum was published in 1900. Since its publication it has been met with dissension. Though it was received well enough to inspire a musical movie and a broadway production, many people found it to be unwholesome and of no value to children. The Detroit Public Library went so far as to ban it entirely for 15 year from 1957-1972.

In 1987, it was challenged by a group of fundamentalist Christians in Tennessee for its portrayal of good witches. Because witches can’t be good. (I’m not going to be the one to point out to said fundamentalist Christians that the Witch of Endor mentioned in The Bible is a necromancer and not a wish-granting, slipper-giving magician…)

“A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others.”

-L. Frank Baum

The most bizarre instance of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz being challenged, however, has to do with the series’ protagonist, Dorothy. Dorothy, the precocious, wise-beyond-her-years heroine of Oz. What could she possibly do that was so wrong she may be banned from the public view?

Dorothy made the grave, sad mistake of being a leader. I mean, seriously. Nothing offends me more than women in leadership roles. I am personally offended at strong-willed women. I take issue with books that feature young women thinking for themselves, solving their own problems, and not waiting for men to save them. It’s detestable and deplorable.

How dare L. Frank Baum create such a role modern of feminism at the turn of the century? I hope he was ashamed of himself for the amazing character that he crafted in Dorothy.

Seriously? How can anybody take issue with Dorothy? She truly is a strong, respectable heroine in literature. In literature, I place her alongside respectable female characters like Anne Shirley and Caddie Woodlawn. They’re definitely characters I would not be opposed to my students and my future children reading. So, clearly, they deserve to be banned. Right?

I have so many feelings about this, I think I’ll just sign off now.

Have a beautiful banned book day!

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Banned Books Week – Looking for Alaska

It’s my favorite literary week of the year! Happy Banned Books Week, reader!

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For those of you who are unfamiliar with Banned Books week I’ve provided some information, before I begin talking about my favorite banned books.

What is Banned Books Week?

Banned Books Week is the annual celebration of the freedom to read. Every year, books are challenged in public schools and libraries around the world for their content or their ideals. Banned Books Week is a chance to raise awareness of these challenged books and the silencing of stories that results.

Why celebrate Banned Books Week?

Every year people try to take away readers’ power to decide what is right for them and their children to read by bringing challenges to remove books from school and public libraries. This ultimately takes away the freedom of choice and the important stories told through books. Banned Books Weeks is an opportunity to celebrate and educate people in the importance of diverse stories.

What kinds of books are being challenged?

All kinds of books are being challenged: historical fiction, fantasy, science fiction, religious fiction, narrative nonfiction, self-help books. You name it, there has been a book in that genre that has been questioned. (Okay, to be fair, I’m not sure about cookbooks, but I wouldn’t doubt it.)

It’s important that we don’t allow our right to choose what we read be taken by somebody else. And it’s important we continue to fight for the freedom for authors to publish the stories they need to tell. Books are important. The stories they tell are important. Lives are changed by books daily, The limiting of stories limits voices, and diversity, and freedoms in ways that are unacceptable.

The first time challenged books became a real issue to me was in 2008. John Green posted a video on the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel about his book, Looking for Alaskabeing challenged by parents at a high school in New York. I had not read Looking for Alaska, yet, but I was appalled that people were trying to limit students’ access to a book at all.

After watching this video, I fell down the research rabbit hole of challenged and banned books. And what I found was disconcerting to say the least. People were banning and challenging books for the stupidest reasons! Winnine the Pooh was banned because the anthropomorphic stuffed bear didn’t wear pants? Of Mice and Men was banned because it took God’s name in vain? This is ridiculous. I know entire human beings who use God’s name in vain and we haven’t petitioned to ban them, yet.

I grew a deep affinity for banned books. There was something magical about a book that upset somebody so badly, they had to seek to have it removed. Do you know what I noticed about these books? They’re good books. They’re well written and they hold great stories (mostly; there are always exceptions). And it makes sense, I guess. Books that are poorly written are ignored, right? They have their own slew of other issues, like–I don’t know–being bad books.

I have an issue with authority; it runs deep. It’s been a lifelong problem. It is probably this lifelong issue that causes me to really love the books that somebody else tells me not to read. And I know I’m not alone in that. It makes me wonder how many banned books have been read by my fellow rebels-without-causes just to “stick it to the man.”

This week, I’m going to write each day about a different banned/challenged book that I’ve loved.

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Looking for Alaska is a Young Adult fiction novel by John Green (one of my top favorite authors.) Though it came onto my radar in 2008, when it was challenged, I didn’t wind up reading it for the first time until 2010. College was an interesting time in my reading life. I had decided that college meant a more mature me, a me who didn’t read kids’ or YA fiction. I read serious books and thought serious thoughts.

Not reading Looking for Alaska didn’t stop me from being offended over its challenge, however. It made me angry to think that there were parents who believed they were entitled to limit not just the freedoms of their own children but the freedoms of every child in the school. And while I know that many students had access to public libraries and bookstores at the time, I also know that many students–myself included–did not have access to a public library or ready access to a bookstore. I lived in the middle of nowhere and if my school didn’t have the book, there was a large chance I wouldn’t get to read it.

It brought me pure rage.

What really enraged me was the reason it was being challenged. It was challenged because of a scene of a sexual nature.

Now, I’ll be honest, as a teacher of middle school and high school, I don’t always want my students reading about teenage sexual relations. But it has nothing to do with the content and everything to do with the emotional maturity of the student in question. I wouldn’t just blanket dismiss a book because of sexual content.

And if parents were so up in arms about kids reading a book with sexual content, why weren’t they going after television? Why weren’t they angry that shows like Sex in the City were allowed to exist at all? Why weren’t they mad that the cast of Friends freely and openly talked about their sexual relationships? Why weren’t parents angry that prime time was filled with innuendo?

Why weren’t people coming after the radio? Since the music of The Beatlesmusic has been getting increasingly more sexual in nature. Were these parents running with their flames and pitchforks to their local “Mix of the 80’s, 90’s, and today” stations to demand they only play wholesome music about patty-cake and yellow ribbons? Why was it acceptable for these forms of media to have content of sexual nature but not the books their children read? Especially when the content in the book was minimal, compared to the content in other forms of media.

The only conclusion I could come to at the time is that parents didn’t actually want to limit all media. If Friends-in-syndication were taken off the air for its sexual content, they wouldn’t get to watch it. If all media had been regulated this way, they wouldn’t get to listen to Boyz II Men or Marvin Gaye. It’s much easier to regulate media you never intend to consume.

“I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
–  François Rabelais

Looking for Alaska is a wonderful book about a boy seeking is own Great Perhaps. It’s a coming of age tale and deals very seriously with heavy topics important to today’s teenagers. It was a book that captivated me and held my attention. Anything I can say about Looking for Alaska, John Green has already said in the video I linked earlier in this post.

What I know about banned books, I owe to Looking for Alaska. It is the book that inspired me to learn more, to fight harder, and the treasure the diverse and wonderful stories that captivate people so strongly, they feel the need to end their existence completely.

What are you favorite banned books? Leave a comment and let me know!

Yours,
The Plucky Reader