My Favorite Banned Books

We’re right in the middle of Banned Books Week, which this week runs from September 26 through October 3. In honor of the occasion, the American Library Association has a spiffy new Banned Books Week website that even includes a map of recent book challenges. Not only that, but this year the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Booksellers’ Foundation for Free Expression have teamed up to bring us the Kids’ Right to Read Project which tracks book censorship incidents and supports those fighting challenges and making sure that kids and families have a rich and varied array of reading materials available to them.

As a librarian and a reader, I love Banned Books Week (even though I think that “Banned and Challenged Books Week” would be a more accurate name for it). Last year, I wrote about one reason I think it’s misguided to censor books for young people. This time around, I’m featuring five of my favorite recently-banned-or-challenged books, from youngest to oldest age group:

  • ·         And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell; illustrated by Henry Cole

Unlike many books about same-sex parents, which tend towards the didactic, this true story of two male penguins and their adopted chick is totally charming.

  • ·         The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman (Volume I in His Dark Materials series)

For years I wondered why so many book challenges were directed towards the Harry Potter series while Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, published at about the same time, are so much more subversive of organized religion. They’re also riveting, stunningly imaginative, and gorgeously written.

  • ·         The Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Various titles in this series have been challenged over the years, and usually for the same reason: too much information about sex. But that’s part of the point of the books, which follow Alice as she navigates her way through adolescence. Alice’s mother died when she was a baby, so she’s constantly looking for information about growing up. Relatives like her father, her college-aged brother, her stuffy aunt, and freewheeling cousin, and friends, like devout Elizabeth and daring Pamela, often give her contradictory advice, which she does her best to sift through. Along the way, her readers get a wide range of information and perspectives with their story.

Georgia Nicholson is a silly, feckless, unabashedly (well, sometimes abashedly) boy-chasing British teen. Sometimes I get impatient with her character, who makes some missteps along the way and isn’t always a great friend, but this book isn’t a primer on How To Act; it’s just a kick to read. The language alone is so funny and breathlessly zippy (and the over-the-top Britishisms are so goofy) that I find myself smiling over and over while reading it.

I can see why this Printz-award-winning young-adult novel might disturb some parents: its hero, a self-described fat kid drifting through high school, finds redemption and meaning through his friendship with a teenage drug addict who encourages him to play drums in a punk band. But that pulling of no punches, combined with a real sweetness that comes through in all the main characters (our hero, his friend, and even his straitlaced dad) is what gives this novel its power and poignancy.

For more about Banned Books Week from a librarian’s perspective, and a handy list of the most frequently challenged book titles, take a look at Scholastic’s web page on The Freedom to Read!

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The Gift of Reading

My daughter had her ninth birthday at the end of August, and we celebrated with not one but two parties: a biggish one at home with her Vancouver friends, and a smaller one on the beach with three of her oldest friends from Seattle and their families.

My daughter is the youngest in the group, so now these four “girl’s gang” members are all nine years old. They’ve always shared interests—at least some interests—and I was quietly thrilled to see that those interests now include books, specifically Rick Riordan’s popular series of books about Percy Jackson, and that one of my daughter’s friends gave her a copy of The Lightning Thief, the first volume in the series, as a birthday present.

My kid was immediately obsessed with the book and started reading it on the drive home. She got distracted by birthday and back-to-school stuff and forgot about it for a couple of weeks, but then picked it up again and read it continuously—in the car; at Rosh Hashanah services; in bed; at meals (when we let her)—emerging only to ask the occasional question about the pronunciation or meaning of some Greek-mythology-related word before dipping her head back into the book. Last night, she triumphantly turned the last page, and immediately dove into the next book in the series, The Sea of Monsters, which my spouse had considerately brought home from the library already.

I've often been astonished at the textbook developmental pattern my kid appears to be following for reading: she listened eagerly to picture books in preschool and kindergarten; learned to read on her own in first grade; struggled through early readers in second; spent last year gaining confidence and fluency by tearing through reams of short, easy chapter-book series and listening to books on CD; and now, just as she turns the corner on fourth grade, she’s tackling meatier stuff in print.  It’s exciting to watch, and it makes me (and her) happy that it’s also a way for her to stay in touch and in tune with the friends she’s had since babyhood.

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