It’s Banned Books Week, so to celebrate, we’re defending some of our favorite divisive books. Conventional wisdom suggests that banning a book makes people all the more likely to read it and see what the fuss is all about (whether that creates profits for the authors is debatable). Conventional wisdom also suggests that a student body or library is not going to be corrupted by a single book (or many books), regardless of whether that book is Catcher in the Rye, Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Captain Underpants. As Oscar Wilde said, “All art is immoral.” So with that, here are some of our favorite banned books.
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple made a big impression on my teenage self. Filled with controversial and often hard-to-swallow topics like gender roles, women’s rights, racism, incest and faith, one could easily be dissuaded by the back-cover overview. But, despite the heavy storylines, I found this book comforting. Set in the southern US in the 1930s – not a good time for black people or women – we follow the life of Celie. She meets and moves past just about every challenge you can imagine, and some you probably can’t. But the substance of the story for me was not overcoming hardship; it was the sense of a community of women who cared for and empathized with each other. Thrown into circumstances that must be simply endured, the book demonstrates the value of a friend.
I read Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted a month ago and was struck by the lucidity she brought to describing mental illness and her institutionalization at the age of 18. The book is supremely readable and intriguing where it could have gotten bogged down with medical jargon and regret. Though the memoir is set in the 1960s, it could appeal to today’s teens since they’re the same age as the story’s protagonists and Kaysen tackles relatable (albeit uncomfortable) topics like freedom, conformity and suicide. And since it’s a book about teenagers, it has a lot of swear words, drug use – mostly doctor-mandated but some recreational – and frank and occasionally graphic talk of sex. The content caused controversy in schools nationwide, most famously in 2008 when teachers ripped out pages before giving the book to their students. (We all know that trying to shield teenagers from cursing, sex and drugs always has the desired effect of keeping them the unsullied, respectful young things teenagers are meant to be.) Luckily, the books were later replaced with editions that had all the pages intact.
His name is Robert Lawrence Stine. Yep, you may have guessed it; I’m talking about the famed children’s author R.L. Stine. And, to my surprise, his Goosebumps series is listed on the American Library Association’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000-2009. I’ll admit it – I’ve read his books. No, I didn’t read that many. I’m no connoisseur of Stine’s works, but, you know, I did leaf through a couple of his scary-for-adolescents stories, and I liked ‘em! His Ghosts of Fear Street series was also solid, bringing about one of my favorites, Hide and Shriek, in which a local ghost is particularly fond of Randy Clay, the new girl in town. The neighborhood kids’ game of choice is hide-and-seek – in the cemetery. And if Randy gets tagged by the ghost, then she will turn into the latest sad spook, hanging around until she can tag the next unfortunate victim. Ghosts, as you might guess, are pretty good at hide-and-seek; so, for preteens, this text keeps things tense. As one Google reviewer put it, “This w0z a reallllly co0l bo0k!!!!!!!!!!!” I agree!
One of my favorite books, Fahrenheit 451, has been repeatedly banned over the years, possibly becoming history’s greatest example of unintended irony. The story centers on a “fireman” who works for a totalitarian government bent on burning all books, no matter their content. During the course of his work, he eventually starts stashing books away so he can read them, causing deep conflicts with both his wife and employer that eventually end in bloodshed. The plot covers, both subtly and overtly, themes of censorship, totalitarian government, freedom of thought and even the dangers of an illiterate society. However, instead of teaching students and helping guide them through the tough questions about these topics, some schools tried to ban the book based on its offensive language and depictions of burning The Bible. Talk about missing the point.
Kurt Vonnegut, author of the perennially banned Slaughterhouse-Five, put his feelings on banning books best in his letter to a school board member who had recently burned Vonnegut’s books in the school’s furnace:
“If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.”