Saturday, March 5, 2022

Reading Banned Books

In the midst of the horror of Putin’s attack on and invasion of Ukraine, it seems petty to write about anything else. Another part of me says those of us who are able also need to keep living and functioning while we still can. The outpouring of aid in the way of helpers, goods, and money going to those having to flee their homes because of that man’s madness is at least something to give us hope. Reading and writing is a way for me to keep a grip on what still works in this world.

Before Putin’s war started I was planning my reading strategy for the next few months: focusing on books banned at some time and place in the US during the last several decades. That began after I found out that Art Spiegelman's Maus had been removed from the 8th grade curriculum in a Tennessee district due to nudity (it’s a graphic novel about the Holocaust featuring mice as the main characters) and a few “naughty words.”

Not pictured: Looking for Alaska
I gave it to a friend to read.

Notice: This post contains no spoilers. 

I ordered the book again (having left my first copy in my German classroom when I left the US), though I accidentally ordered the German version. Therefore I can’t speak to the “naughty words” other than assuming “verdammt” (damn) was a problem. And indeed, there is a drawing of a human in a bathtub – the author’s mother in a flashback scene – and two curved lines and dots amount to human breasts. In a drawing. These book-banners are unbelievable. Spiegelman’s graphic novel is a brilliant way to introduce young readers to the horror of the Holocaust. The fact that the Jews are mice and the Nazis cats softens the shock a bit for younger readers. But because of two breasts and a few swear words, this group of parents and/or school board members thinks the book should be removed.

From there I moved to the Handmaid’s Tale, which I found less shocking than I expected to. That one has been banned/challenged for profanity and “sexual overtones.” Those who aim to ban books haven’t been listening to their children or their children’s friends, have they? It's more than a little ironic that the book-banners don't object to the fact that an entire class of women are nothing more than breeding machines with no rights, but a few swear words put them on alert.

Looking for Alaska was the next one, having earned a spot on the Office of Intellectual Freedom's Top Ten Most Challenged Books list several years running. Challenged because of a sexually explicit scene that could lead readers to experiment and for profanity. I’m sorry to say I don’t even remember the sexually explicit scene. Very briefly put, it tells the story of several teenagers at a boarding school and the struggles of growing up. 

George, by Alex Gino, was my next banned book, having appeared as #1 on the above Top Ten list for the last 3 years in a row. This is a YA (young adult) novel about a child in grade school who was born a boy but is sure she is really a girl. It’s a story told from the point-of-view of a trans girl, and that apparently scares book-banners. One of the stated reasons for the challenge is that the book contains a transgender character. I think they fear that reading such a book might make a reader say, “Yes, that is the life I want for myself.” I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that’s not the way it works.

My most recent book was The Kite Runner. I’d heard of it before but didn’t know anything about it. This multigenerational novel tells the story of two boys from Afghanistan: Amir and his family’s servant’s son Hassan. I got choked up on the last page, and that does not happen to me often. The objections to the book that I find most ridiculous are that it could promote Islam (several of the characters pray, some regularly) and that it contains homosexuality. It does NOT contain homosexuality, for heaven’s sake. There is a rape scene and both perpetrator and victim are boys. But that is not homosexuality. Do we describe a rape scene where the perpetrator and victim are different genders as “heterosexuality”? Honestly…

I’m now reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou, and feeling somewhat scornful of myself for not having read this earlier in my life.

The other books I have read so far this year, with the exception of Getting Along with the Germans, would very likely also be banned or challenged somewhere in the US because of “profanity.” It seems that the appearance of even one “goddamn,” “fucking,” or “holy shit” can get a book challenged by people who clearly don’t spend much time around the young readers they are pretending to protect from the realities of the world. 

I watched the part of a school board meeting in McKinney County, Texas in which students, parents, and teachers were invited to speak about a list of 282 books a set of parents wanted removed from the library shelves, and my jaw dropped several times. Already during the second speaker a man had to be thrown out for trying to shout her down for opposing the ban. Happily there were others who also spoke against the challenge. Here is an open letter from the author of one of those books, which I have on order. The letter fell on deaf ears because it was published before that school board meeting. What else would you expect?

One parent said he objects to his tax money paying for books he finds offensive to be on the shelves. I could almost understand that, until he said parents who don't object to those books should just go out and buy them. Some children can only read what the library provides because their parents cannot afford to order from Ama*on every time their child wants to read a book. How much of that first dad's tax contribution goes toward a $14 book? Or even 282 $14 books? He needs to sit down.

As one person on Twitter wrote, “Parents, your kids have access to the entire internet on their phones almost all day long. Books are not the problem.”


On the other hand, the best way to get kids to be interested in something is to tell them they shouldn’t be. The best way to get kids to read a book is to tell them it’s off limits.

But seriously. Stop banning books. Go to your child's library, give the librarian a list of the books your sheltered child is not permitted to read, and leave the rest of the world alone. Better yet, when your child wants to read a book, you read it also and talk about it together. Oh damn. I forgot. One of the challenges to the book George (see above) was that "schools and libraries should not 'put books in a child's hand that require discussion'." Good grief.

By the way, book banning is not a thing in Germany nowadays. It was once, but they've wisened up since then. 

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