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Archive for the ‘Banned Book Week’ Category

Banned Books Week review of:

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA

by Katherine Patterson

Author’s Website: http://www.terabithia.com/

Once again, today’s review comes from the ranks of the Newbery Award-winners. Katherine Paterson’s wonderfully-crafted Bridge to Terabithia was (like so many YA books of late) recently made into a film version, which, rather surprisingly, was quite a faithful adaptation of the book. Nevertheless, I stand by my firm belief that, 99.9% of the time, the book is better than the movie, and this is no exception. Paterson’s story is thoughtfully and poignantly told, and the digital fantasy animation of the film just doesn’t do justice to the nuance of Leslie and Jess’s imaginations….

Summary:

Growing up in rural Virginia, Jess Aarons’ greatest ambition is to be the fastest kid in the 5th grade. Jess’s life is not a happy one—he is mostly ignored at home, is bullied regularly at school, has few friends, and carefully conceals the fact that he loves art because of his reputation as “that crazy little kid that draws all the time”. All of this changes, however, when Leslie Burke comes to town. Leslie is unlike anybody else who has ever attended Lark Creek Elementary; she is tomboyish, talented, creative, and wise beyond her years. She is also faster than Jess, and beats him and every other boy in a playground foot-race on the first day of school. In spite of this inauspicious beginning to their relationship, the Leslie and Jess gradually become close friends, creating (with the aid of Leslie’s powerful imagination) the magical kingdom of Terabithia in the woods, where they reign as king and queen. One day, however, a terrible tragedy strikes out of the blue, and Jess must use everything he has learned from Leslie and Terabithia to come to terms with it.

I’m going to say it: this is the kind of book that can easily make you cry. This is not simply due to the aforementioned tragedy, but also because the entire story rings so true, and the ending of the book leaves you with a beautiful ringing that lingers long after you’ve closed it. I love this kind of resonance—it’s the feeling you get when you finish a book and know for sure that the author has done her job extremely well. The characters are wonderful, finely-wrought, and oh-so believable; trust me when I say that it is worth your time to read this book.

The main reasons this book has been banned so frequently are the use of “coarse language” by some characters and the devastating event that shapes the book’s ending so perfectly. Author Katherine Paterson explains the former thus:

“Jess and his father talk like the people I knew who lived in that area. I believe it is my responsibility to create characters who are real, not models of good behavior. If Jess and his dad are to be real, they must speak and act like real people. I have a lot of respect for my readers. I do not expect them to imitate my characters, [but] simply to care about them and understand them.”

Parents argued that the topic of death was inappropriate for middle-grade readers because it was not a topic kids should have to deal with. I could not disagree more—Jess’s experience, while hopefully one we would never wish on ourselves or our families, is as real as it is heart-achingly painful, and Jess’s reaction is utterly convincing (the story is actually based on the childhood of the author’s son, who, not coincidentally, wrote the screenplay). For kids who have experienced the tragedy of loss, this book is a confirmation that they are not alone in their feelings; for kids who have not, it is a window into that world. Finally, I have to emphasize that the book does have a positive ending, as the characters struggle and eventually come to terms with the event that has shaken their lives so deeply. Although Bridge to Terabithia is without doubt a sad book, it also offers the reader the gifts of courage, friendship, love, and hope.

I would recommend this book for ages 10 and up (but older readers and adults shouldn’t be put-off by the recommended age range or the age of the protagonists).

That’s it for Banned Books Week! I’ll be back soon to review some more great novels…in the meantime, happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

-Noam Chomsky

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Banned Books Week review of:

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (or, NORTHERN LIGHTS)

by Philip Pullman

Author’s Website: http://www.philip-pullman.com/

 

This is one of my favorite books. Ever. I’m just putting that out there before I do this review, because I don’t want anyone to get ridiculously high expectations about this book (only to be disappointed later). But I hope you’re not disappointed, because I think this is a truly spectacular piece of literature…

My first experience with this book was when I received it as a Christmas present from my aunt and uncle—I was twelve at the time. I had never heard of it, and was consequently a bit dubious about reading it. But several days after Christmas, when all of my other gifts had lost their novelty, I was bored. I wandered into my room and, seeing The Golden Compass lying on the floor just inside the door, sat down right then and there on the floor (in the doorway to my bedroom) and began to read. I wish I could say that I remembered more about that initial reading experience, but instead, I only seem to remember what I did after the first chapter—I walked into the dining room to eat dinner and gushed to my parents about this fascinating story of a girl who was sneaking around where she wasn’t supposed to with this shape-shifter called a “daymeon” (it’s “daemon”, and is pronounced like “demon”, but I didn’t know that at the time). It was completely and utterly unlike what I had expected, which turned out to basically be my experience of the entire book—it was never what I expected it to be, and every time I thought I had it pinned down, it took some twist or turn that made me completely reconsider what the story was actually about. I was hooked. 

Summary:

Eleven-year old Lyra Belacqua may be of noble birth and a resident of the prestigious Jordan College, but she is far happier running wild in the streets in the company of her daemon, Pantalaimon, tormenting scholars and waging war with the children of Oxford. But Lyra’s carefree life changes forever when she witnesses an assassination attempt against her uncle, the intimidating Lord Asriel, and in the process, overhears a discussion of something called “Dust”. Before they know it, Lyra and Pan are embroiled in an adventure beyond their wildest dreams, involving stolen children, benevolent witches, armored bears, and a rescue mission to the far north, all with the help of the Oxford gyptians and an alethiometer (a golden compass whose hands point not to north, but to truth itself). But the reality of what they face is far bigger than Lyra and Pan’s understanding of it, and the consequences far more devastating than they could ever imagine…

The Golden Compass has made the list of the top-ten most banned books in the US for several years now, due to its so-called “anti-religious” message, but it remains immensely popular nevertheless. While Philip Pullman has certainly declared himself an atheist and publicly stated his dislike of organized religion, those who criticize the books on these grounds obviously haven’t read them, or else read them looking for “anti-religious” stuff to point out. A quote from Pullman himself on the subject: 

“I think what I would say to the people who criticise me for besmirching their religion and telling children that they should all go out and be Satanists is simply this: what qualities in human beings does the story celebrate and what qualities does it condemn? And an honest reading of the story would have to admit that the qualities that the story celebrates and praises are love, kindness, tolerance, courage, open-heartedness; and the qualities that the story condemns are cruelty, intolerance, zealotry, fanaticism. Well, who could quarrel with that?”

Yes, the Church in Pullman’s world is definitely a negative force, but a lot of people are missing the point that this is fiction. Does Philip Pullman actually believe that the modern Catholic Church is committing the kind of atrocities we read about in Lyra’s world? No, of course not. If you remain unconvinced, go here to read a very thoughtful review of the book (and the rest of the trilogy). There are some other specific religious “sticky points” mentioned by the book’s opponents, but I don’t really want to talk about them because a) they give away critical plot elements, and b) they take place later in the trilogy.

For my part, I completely, passionately, and unreservedly recommend this book. Pullman’s writing is graceful, but still occasionally surprising, and there are passages of text in this book that—as a writer—I find simply beautiful. Better yet, the plot and characters are fresh and gripping, and the settings, while fantastic, never lose the nitty-gritty realism that Pullman employs to keep us grounded. In spite of the protagonist’s age, this book is more than sophisticated enough to entertain a serious adult readership (and in fact, adults may even get more out of it than younger readers). Although there is some violence, none of it is particularly graphic, and language and sexual matters don’t really feature prominently. Generally, I would recommend this book for ages 10 and up. The trilogy as a whole is called, His Dark Materials (a quote from John Milton), and the other two books are The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Pullman has also written two companion books to the series: Once Upon a Time in the North, and Lyra’s Oxford. The former fills in some backstory from the trilogy, and the latter is a bridge between the trilogy and the book he is currently working on, The Book of Dust.

Oh, and one final note: the audiobook versions of these books are WITHOUT DOUBT the best audiobooks I have ever heard. No joke. A full cast recording brings the characters to life, and Philip Pullman is a fabulous narrator—I can’t recommend it enough.

Last day of Banned Books week! I’ll have to get at least one more review in before it’s over…happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

 

“Did you ever hear anyone say, ‘That work had better be banned because I might read it and it might be very damaging to me?'”

-Joseph Henry Jackson

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Banned Books Week review of:

THE GIVER

by Lois Lowry

Author’s Website: http://www.loislowry.com/books.html

 

Winning the Newbery Award is like the YA Fiction equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize, so books that do win have to be deserving of the attention they receive. One overwhelmingly worthy book of this description is The Giver, by Lois Lowry. When I recommend this book to people in passing, I sometimes jokingly refer to it as “dystopian literature for kids”, but if I’m being honest with myself, such an epithet truly does not do it justice. Yes, it does bear some resemblance to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—but it really is a fabulous book in its own right. I’ll use the following anecdote to illustrate my point: my freshman-year roommate was a girl with whom I had almost nothing in common—she watched TV shows religiously and hated reading in general; I lived on books and was admittedly pop-culture illiterate. We were certainly an odd couple, but we ended up the best of friends by the end of the year. Our only real crossover as far as books went was The Giver, and one day when we were talking about it, she admitted that she had actually read it not once, but twice (remember, this is the girl who would probably be glad if she never had to pick up another book in her life). I’ve used this story many times to encourage people to read The Giver, and the feedback I get from these recommendations is overwhelmingly positive. I think sometimes people believe that a children’s book cannot possibly be described as “beautiful” (a word that seems reserved for classic literature and mainstream fiction in the public psyche), but I would venture to say that it is just the word to describe this novel.

Summary:

Jonas lives in a perfect world—a utopia in which pain and fear and illness have been banished and where difficult decisions are a thing of the past. Children are assigned at the age of 12 to a role in the community, and Jonas is given the position of “Receiver of Memory.” It is his job to receive the memories of the elderly “Giver”, who is the only member of the community who knows what the world was like before it was perfected; it is this knowledge that will change Jonas’s life—and the way he feels about it—forever.

My twelve-year old sister was recently required to read a Newbery Award-winning book for a school assignment, and asked me for a suggestion. The Giver was at the top of my list, but since another kid in her class was already reading it, she decided she would read something else. However, a couple days later, she came home with The Giver in hand and told me that the boy who had been reading it had picked another book and lent her his copy. She began to read and was absolutely riveted, declining to go out to dinner with the rest of the family in order to stay home and finish it, and afterwards declared it to be “really sad, but really, really good”. I concur. Of course, I don’t want to build up anyone’s expectations into thinking that this is the Holy Grail of YA literature—the book certainly has had its detractors and has been banned countless times for reasons that I would explain, but they would give away some critical plot points (but if you’re really curious, read this USA Today article). Nevertheless, it is well-worth reading.

More banned book reviews to come—for now, happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

 

“Oh Harry, don’t you see? If she could have done one thing to make absolutely sure that every single person in this school will read your interview, it was banning it!”

-Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by J.K. Rowling

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Banned Books Week review of:

LOOKING FOR ALASKA

by John Green

Author’s Website: www.sparksflyup.com

If you Google the name of author John Green, you will undoubtedly find myriad references to his first novel, Looking for Alaska, which won the Michael L. Printz Award, among numerous other accolades that I’m too lazy to mention (and the Printz is the one that matters because it’s the one that shows up with the big, shiny medal on the book’s cover). However, the book has also gained notoriety due to the controversy that arose when teachers at Depew High School in New York decided to teach the book as part of an 11th grade English class. If you’re curious about the details, I’ll let John explain them to you himself; suffice it to say that I am beginning my reviews with this book because it is a powerful story, and one told with amazing emotional honesty. I have a great deal of respect for John Green’s writing—his characters are funny, acerbic, silly, stupid, and so utterly believable that I have to love them because I honestly knew kids like that in high school. Unlike some YA authors (whose books you will never see reviewed here because they are not good books), Green does not condescend to teenagers, and manages to color them with all the foibles of adolescence while simultaneously giving them due credit for their perceptiveness and depth of feeling. Looking For Alaska, while not my favorite of his three books, is nevertheless well-worth reading (and I’ll get around to reviewing my favorite one soon, I promise!).

Summary:

Miles Halter’s life is utterly boring: he has no friends at school, and his only real interest in life is reading biographies and memorizing famous last words. Thus it is that, inspired by the final words of French writer François Rabelais (“I go to seek a Great Perhaps”), Miles finds himself heading off to the hallowed halls of Culver Creek Boarding School in search of something more. It is at Culver Creek that Miles meets the gorgeous, cheeky, brilliant, sexy, screwed-up, and fascinating Alaska Young who lives just down the hall. But Miles’ life at Culver Creek is a countdown to a terrible event that will turn this year of new experiences upside down, and afterwards, nothing will ever, ever be the same again.

I would recommend this book for readers 15 and up, mostly due to language and sexual content (the latter being the main reason it was objected to at Depew High School). However, I certainly would not discourage mature 13/14-year olds from reading it if they felt comfortable with the content—the characters are high-schoolers, and many of their antics and experiences are typical enough that most teens will be able to relate on some level.

If you have any questions about this book, feel free to post a comment and I’ll get back to you ASAP. In the meantime, happy reading!

Best wishes,

-Madeline

“Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”
-George Bernard Shaw

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Banned Books Week has always been something of an important event for me, on an unofficial level. Walking into my local library at this time of year, my eyes are always drawn to the posters announcing the beginning of BBW, often featuring the covers of banned books or quotes that condemn censorship. I will freely admit that I have some strong feelings about banning/challenging books. Generally, I am a levelheaded and calm person, but there are a few things that make me pretty angry, and censorship is one of them. It is something that gets under my skin and irritates me until I feel the urge to go for a long walk or punch a pillow for an hour or so. I suppose someone could argue that I need to straighten out my priorities—what with people starving in third world countries and the rainforests being decimated, how can I possibly think about books? Books are not a matter of life and death…well, at least, not to a young American woman who grew up in a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle, now are they?

Fine, you can argue that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be angry about censorship. I have an intimate relationship with books—I’ve been reading them since the age of five. They have taught me and bored me and helped me and angered me and consoled me and amused me and, above all, fascinated me for nearly two decades, and that is something to which I can relate. There are plenty of crusades and causes to choose from in this world; I have simply chosen the one I feel most strongly about. Passionate people make a difference, and I am choosing the place where I can be most passionate so that I can make a difference.

Fortunately for me, I live in a place where the ideals of the community mean that it is very unlikely that a book will ever be seriously challenged here. Nevertheless, it upsets me when I read a story about a novel that was banned from a school library by administrators, or a public library that is forced to shelve “inappropriate” books in a back room, away from the “sensitive” eyes of patrons. I don’t live in these places, so how can I do my part to maintain the intellectual freedom of the American public? I am not a fighter by nature. I’m not the type to drive to a faraway town to protest with signs and chants, and I’m not the type to write letters to school administrators and board members. So what will I do?

I will ask people to read banned and challenged books.

This week’s blog entries and book reviews will be focused around YA Books that have been banned in towns across the US for a myriad of reasons—strong language, sexually explicit content, violence, anti-religious views, so-called “occult/satanist content”…the list goes on and on. For those of you who who find these topics to be uncomfortable ones and who feel that perhaps these books have been banned for a good reason, just hear me out:

I think that all parents would like to believe that their teenagers know less than they actually do. I have a younger sister who is quickly approaching teenage-dom and all that comes with it, and I often find myself wanting to cover her ears or her eyes sometimes because (in my mind) it was only a couple of years ago that she was crawling around on the floor wearing diapers. This is what makes the issue of banned books an interesting one for me, since I truly do empathize with the parents who are uncomfortable with their children being exposed to “unsuitable” content. And yet, having recently been a teenager myself, I believe that parents need to push themselves to accept that their babies are growing up and will soon be exposed to a world in which there are people who DO swear on a regular basis and DO use drugs and DO have sex. What parents also have to realize is that teenagers are often exposed to these very topics on a daily basis, whether or not they choose to “participate” in them or to talk about them with Mom and Dad (remember, teens are not renowned for communicating well with their “parental units”). For teens who have to deal with issues that may seem shocking to those around them (drug abuse, homosexuality, rape, etc.), YA books on these topics can provide support by showing them characters who have to confront the same problems. For other teens, such books can be a window into the matters that their friends and parents may be unwilling to discuss with them. Believe it or not, reading about behavior that parents may find disturbing does not encourage teens to engage in said behavior (acclaimed YA author John Green explains this well in his videoblog entry, appropriately entitled, “I Am Not a Pornographer”). Because the reasons for book challenges are so varied, I want to make as few generalizations as possible, but I will say this: banned and challenged books are an excellent way to begin a discussion. Parents, if you are disturbed by something your teen is reading, sit down with your kid and talk about it and why it makes you uncomfortable. Better yet, read the book yourself, and do your best to read it the way you would read any other book (rather than searching for reasons to dislike it). Creating a dialogue about the book is infinitely preferable to simply declaring the book to be “unsuitable”.

Recently, I came across a website called SafeLibraries.org. The Safe Libraries organization states that, among other things, “So-called “young adult” [YA] literature has, in recent years, taken a turn toward material inappropriate for children.” Their main point, especially in the boldly-titled article “Porn Pushers”, seems to be the fact that the American Library Association (ALA) defines YA literature as covering an age range from 12-18 years of age. “In Orwellian fashion,” the article states, “pre-teens have skipped over their teenage years and become adults.  At least that’s what the ALA would have us believe.” In addition to the confusing choice of adjective (how exactly did George Orwell promote the redefinition of “pre-teen”?), I find the alarmist tone of this statement to be irrational, irritating, and nonsensical. The phrase “young adult” does not mean the same thing as “adult”, hence the fact that it used to describe a genre of books that are (wow, you guessed it) not written with an adult audience in mind. One could argue the semantics of this endlessly, but the point is that it’s a completely irrelevant argument. This quote also mentions “pre-teens” (which, I might specify, only applies to the 12-year olds mentioned in the genre age-range), and says that they have “skipped over their teenage years and become adults”. This is, of course, for the aforementioned reasons, simply not true. What is more, twelve is the age by which most girls have entered puberty, and the issues of teenagers can often be quite relevant to a girl who looks old enough to be one. Please do not get me wrong—I am not suggesting that twelve-year olds should necessarily be encouraged to read books with “Rated R” content. I can think of a number of YA books that I would not encourage my twelve-year old sister to read, and I don’t think that she would want to read them (parents, trust your kids—they know their boundaries, and if they can’t handle something, they won’t push themselves). However, my point is that twelve-year olds should not be forbidden to read those books if they truly want to. And that, my friends, is why banning books upsets me.

That’s enough of a rant on my part. I’ll be posting the first of my book reviews soon. Until then, go forth and read! Oh, and be sure to check out this blog entry (regarding the book Uncle Bobby’s Wedding), where a librarian responds—with wonderful respect, understanding, and courtesy—to a patron’s challenge of a children’s book. Plus, keep your eyes peeled for a list of my favorite banned/challenged books (I may not get around to reviewing them all this week, but you should still check them out)!

Best wishes, as always,

-Madeline

 

“Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.” 

– Voltaire

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