It’s time for Banned Books again! Well, it’s always time to read banned books, but officially Banned Books Week 2014 was September 21-28. You all know my feelings on book banning, particularly in this country at this time. (And if you don’t, you can find out here.) So rather than get on my soapbox again, this time I’m just going to share a little about Banned Books Week and the two books I read in honor of it.
Banned Books Week is a week dedicated to celebrating the books that have been banned by schools, universities, and libraries somewhere in this country. It is sponsored by several major literacy and education organizations including the American Library Association, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Council of Teachers of English (of which I am a member), and the PEN American Center, among many others. The idea is to bring awareness that book banning is still alive and, unfortunately, well, as well as to what is being done to fight book banning. One of the cool things about Banned Books Week is how it is spreading beyond the confines of these organizations from students who protest the removal of books from their curricula and libraries to organizations like The Uprise Books Project, which is utilizing the Banned Books movement to combat other social issues like youth poverty. Despite all of the horrible events on the news, good things are happening, my friends.
My goal each year is to read one traditional novel and one graphic novel from the frequently challenged books list. This year, I chose Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Jeff Smith’s Bone, the only graphic novel to crack the Top 10 Most Challenged Books list in 2013.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Published: 2007; Top 10 list since 2010
Reasons for Banning: Drugs/smoking/alcohol; offensive language; racism; sexually explicit; unsuited to age group
Well, that’s quite a list. Alexie’s novel follows Junior, a 14-year-old Spokane Indian who makes the decision to leave the school on his reservation for the “white” school in the nearby town in search of a better education and a better life. Junior deals with many of the normal trials of teenagerhood: girls, sports, making new friends at a new school; difficult teachers; and fights with his best friend. However, he also has to deal with the difficulty of being an outsider both in school, where he is the only non-white student, and at home, where his decision to leave the reservation school is seen as a betrayal by the larger community, hence the part-time status he ascribes to himself in the title.
I will be perfectly honest. This book has all of the things it is “accused” of having in it. However, I absolutely disagree with the last charge of being “unsuited to age group”. This book deals with a very specific experience: that of the adolescent. Teenagers deal with all of the issues mentioned above every day, and us closing our eyes, putting our fingers in our ears, and wishing all of that away isn’t going to change that fact. Additionally, Alexie is never gratuitous in his writing. Every element, whether drugs, alcohol, sex, racism, death, whatever is present for a very specific purpose. For example, Alexie uses the cycle of family and societal alcoholism to explain the cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity that many Native Americans, Junior included, face on the reservation. He also explores the interconnected nature of poverty and addiction through Junior’s explanation of his parents’ relationships with alcohol. It is not offensive or obscene. It is truth presented in a remarkably human and affecting way and reflected through fiction. Additionally, none of these elements are the main focus of the book, and anyone who says so either missed the point completely or (more likely) didn’t actually read the book. This is often the case: the moment that causes outrage is just that-a moment. I had the immense pleasure of hearing Alexie speak a few years ago at the National Council of Teachers of English conference, and this book is absolutely his voice. He wrote it the way he speaks and the way he understands his experience as a Native American in the US. You feel his energy as your read. It’s just great.
Honestly, I loved this book. I thought it was hilarious, heartbreaking, inspiring, engrossing, totally real, and all of those other wonderfully gooey words we say about special books that touch us. Instead of throwing a hissy fit over this book, use it as a springboard to talk to your child about their hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, and what’s really going on in their life. That’s a better use of parental time, anyway.
Bone by Jeff Smith
Published: as serial comics starting in 1991; Volume 1: Out of Boneville in 1995; Top 10 list since 2003
Reasons for Banning: political viewpoint, racism, violence
Bone the series traces the adventures of Fone Bone and his two cousins, Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone, after they’ve been run out of Boneville due to Phoney Bone’s corrupt politics. They find themselves in the Valley where they meet Thorn and her grandmother, Grandma Ben, run into evil rat creatures, and make friends with a mysterious red dragon. Ultimately they are sent on a hero’s journey to help free the Valley from the evil forces seeking to control it.
Full Disclosure: I did not realize how big a series Bone was, and so I only read the first volume, Out of Boneville, for this week. It was a delight! I full plan on reading the rest of the series at some point because, of course, the first volume ended on a great cliffhanger. As for the reasons it is on the list? The violence takes the form of the rat creatures attacking the Bones and their friends a few times, though it’s not any more violent that what is on TV these days, and Smith sets up the rat creatures as not being the brightest crayons in the box. The violence they attempt to perpetrate is completely undercut by their general incompetence and idiocy. I did not encounter anything that really could be construed as racism in the first volume. And the political viewpoint, I suppose, comes from Smith’s rather unsympathetic portrayal of Phoney Bone as a greedy, money-grubbing, corrupt politician who probably leans toward some of the more unsavory elements of conservative politics. However, Phoney Bone is so clearly immoral regardless of his political stance that banning this book on the grounds that it paints a negative portrait of a particular political viewpoint smacks strongly of defensiveness and a feeling that it hits a little too close to home. Upon finishing the first volume, I was dumbfounded that this is the number 1 banned comic book in America. At least with graphic novels like Watchmen and Persepolis, the offending material is overt. One of my students assures me that by Volume 4: The Dragonslayer, the series gets a little more dicey, but we’ll have to see. Right now I’m just completely confused over what the fuss is.
So there you have it, folks. Two more banned books reviewed and found far from wanting. They were both easy, fast, and fun reads, and I highly recommend you check them out, not really because they are banned books but because they are good. I often worry about the state of writing for young adults, and these two make me feel like I needn’t worry. Young Adult Literature is in good hands.