Sunday, September 30, 2007

Banned Books Week, Sept. 29-Oct. 6

Our fabulous Heidi Ayarbe pointed out that this week, September 29th – October 6th is the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week.
More information can be found on the ALA’s website:

Although I’ve read lots of banned books in my life (Tropic of Cancer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, countless others – anything anyone didn’t want me to read, I was always determined to get my hands on,) the most powerful book in this category that I’ve had any experience with wasn’t banned, exactly. It does appear on the ALA’s most frequently challenged books list.

The book is Toni Morrison’s BELOVED. In eleventh grade, our amazing American Lit teacher (Judy Williams) passed out permission slips. For a novel. The school had never tried anything like it before – it was, in their words, “an experiment.” If our parents signed the slip, we would read BELOVED. If they didn’t sign, we had to read Zora Neale Hurston’s THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD, which is a great book in its own right, but really, when the idea of something so juicy that it requires a permission slip is the alternative, who wants to read the “safe” book? There were one or two unfortunate kids who had uber-conservative parents, and they spend the next month being shut out of one of the most singular experiences of my high school life.

Because that book set us on fire. Seriously. People were talking about BELOVED at lunch, calling to each other in the halls – “What chapter are you on?” The question didn’t need any preface or context. There was only one book they could have meant. It wasn’t just the English Geeks, either. Jocks and musicians and skaters and even the math/science crew were in on it. I remember coming into the classroom and finding people from the class before still sitting at their desks, debating and discussing. The teachers who had us after Lit knew that we would be late, and though they grumbled about it a little, we could tell they didn’t really care. Everyone was too thrilled that we were obsessed with a book, instead of a football game or a television show.

I still have my original copy of that book. It’s full of green felt-tip ink, underlined passages, exclamation points in the margins. When I flip through it, I instantly remember the stunned feeling that passed through all of us when we first read it. The writing shone like polished copper, the story moved us to tears and filled our guts with horror. Why would someone want to keep us from reading it? If there was art like this in the world, how could it be kept in the dark? We talked about that in class, a lot. How something so powerful could be so scary. It had changed the dynamic in our school – and maybe the “men in charge” liked the status quo, liked that society was obsessed with the football games and television shows. The idea horrified us. We wanted everyone to read BELOVED, to be as changed by it as we had been.

So. That’s my personal “most important banned books moment.”

As an aside, it bothers me immensely to see how many of the “most challenged authors” from 1990-2004 on the ALA’s website are those who write for children. It is not the job of concerned parents or worried society members to decide for everyone what children should or should not read. I will decide what my son can read, and when, thank you very much. And, for the record, I would not deny him the sadness of Katherine Paterson’s work, or the magic of J.K. Rowling. If anyone else tries to keep him from reading them, I can guarantee that I will be furious.

Okay. I’m off the soapbox now.

1 comment:

Lisa A. said...

wow, really moved me with that. Now I want to read Beloved!