I Read Banned Books

September 21-27 is Banned Books Week in the United States. Wait a minute, I hear you say, how can book be banned in the country whose Bill of Rights is held up as a model for the rest of the world? Many Americans ask that same question.

The First Amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Only three little words in that very-long sentence apply here (and no, I won’t be commenting upon other pieces of this amendment in this post, although there is much that could be said): freedom of speech. And, to be fair, I don’t think Congress has ever banned a book or passed a law that would ban a book. In most cases, books seem to be banned by school administrators or removed from curricula or library shelves for a variety of reasons ranging from obscenity to sexual content to social issues that they’d rather not address with their students.

All of that might seem reasonable, if not for the books in question. I could almost, almost understand To Kill a Mockingbird being controversial when it was first published in 1960. It talks about racism and justice in ways that were considered groundbreaking on one side of the equality movement and heretical on the other. But when I started poking around yesterday, I learned from the American Library Association’s Frequently Challenged Books list that To Kill a Mockingbird was banned as recently as 2011 for containing “racism.”

There are so many other books I could mention here from Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner being banned for “homosexual content” and questionable religious content (apparently folks have missed the freedom of religion clause in addition to freedom of speech) to Judy Blume’s books being banned for honest portrayals of adolescent sexuality, to The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison being banned for some of the same misguided reasons as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. But there’s actually a great list of banned books on Banned Books Week’s site.

But I just keep going back to banning the too-few books that actually try to talk about race for containing “racism.” There’s a huge movement underway to increase the diversity in the publishing industry. That diversity extends beyond racial diversity to include diversity in sexual orientation and also characters who have disabilities. It began as a reaction to the announcement of an all-white, all-male panel as part of BEA’s BookCon this past spring, but #WeNeedDiverseBooks has spread beyond that, in part because of the increasing tension in the United States over marriage equality and police violence against black Americans and elsewhere over similar issues.

Diversity in YA put together a great post about how banning books squelches this diversity because the majority of banned books are ones that are written by minorities or written about them. And heaven forbid minorities speak out about this issue. When UK’s children’s laureate Malorie Blackman did so, bigots heaped abuse and threats on her for speaking up. ┬áIn a society when we’re already marginalizing so many people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or socio-economic group, can we really afford to continue banning books that speak for these very people?

The answer is no. We cannot. Ultimately, diversity in publishing is not a matter just for writers or publishers to address. The works of art that we as a society produce reflect our hopes, our beliefs, and our identities as individuals and as a nation. Likewise the works of art that we choose to censor reflect our fears and our tight-as-ever grip on status quo.

Books for your 8-12 year olds

Last week’s post on children’s books spurred some great discussion on Facebook about my recommendations for children’s books. As much as I love-hate all the memes going around, whether they’re asking me to list my top ten books (only 10?!) or challenging me to surpass the BBC’s assumptions about how many books I’ve read from the canon (trust me, it’s more than 6), anything asking me to provide a finite list proves a great challenge.

That’s because I’m obsessive when it comes to reading. Take a look at my Goodreads account and you’ll see that I’m genre-promiscuous. I’ve read the complete works of Shakespeare, but I also (re)read Twilight and *gasp* thought it was a great story. I read fiction for very young children like Neil Gaiman’s sweet Remember the Milk and at the same time, I really enjoy a meaty piece of literary or historical fiction like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Read more

On children’s books

a boy reading a book
My son, book in hand (as usual).

I remember sneaking into the hall closet in our front entryway when I was maybe ten years old. My mom had this old wool trench coat with both collar and sleeves trimmed in fur. For some reason, I fixated on that coat. It seemed like the type of coat that one would find in The Wardrobe. You know the one I mean. The one that would take me to Narnia. So I’d close my eyes and reach out my hands in the dark, feeling for that fur and hoping that the next thing I’d touch would be fir of the evergreen variety.

I never made it to Narnia (if I had, I would have thwarted Aslan himself to remain there and wouldn’t be blogging now!), but that sliver of hope, no, that certainty that getting there was possible sticks with me almost thirty years later. And I have C.S. Lewis and my mom to thank for that. C.S. Lewis for writing The Chronicles of Narnia and my mom for never saying no when I asked to go to the library or asked for a book on our frequent trips to the bookstore.

Now, I have a unique opportunity to relive reading my favorite children’s books for the first time. And no, it’s not senility. It’s parenthood. Nature or nurture, I’m not sure which, provided me with two little ones who always have their nose in a book just like their mama (and their papa). So even as they choose today’s mega-hits like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dear Dumb Diary, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and the American Girl series, I get to interject a few of my favorites.

Lily reminded me of the heartbreak in Black Beauty. Gabriel & I relived the devastation of losing Thorin Oakenshield together. And, most recently, I got to console my son when he awoke in the night convinced that he was Harry Potter, mumbling spells under his breath and rubbing the spot on his forehead where his painful scar ought to be. To regroup after the intensity of the Harry Potter series, I’ve turned him loose on My Side of the Mountain. So of course he’s planning to run off in the wilderness in search of a peregrine falcon and a hollow tree in which to live.

These stories are absolutely real for my children, just as they were for me when I was their age. So I didn’t have an answer ready when someone recently asked me why I was “just writing children’s books” instead of literary fiction. Sure, I love literary fiction as much as children’s books. I love words that have more business in adult fiction than in a novel for nine year olds. I would like nothing more than to some day write something that could be compared to the work of Barbara Kingsolver or Donna Tartt. But, as much as I loved their books, their words, and their stories, they never made me believe so utterly in a fantasy world that I went scrambling into a dark closet hoping to end up in Narnia.

I’m not saying I’ll ever write something as transporting as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Even my grandiose ego is not that overblown. I’m just saying that I consider it a lofty goal, a heady challenge, and something worthwhile. I hope C.S. Lewis got to see a child creep into a wardrobe at least once. I’m pretty sure life-affirming wouldn’t even begin to describe it.

A Morning with Tove Jansson

Photo of Tove Jansson
Visit the Tove Jansson exhibit from now through 7 September at the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki.

As much as I may dream of spending a morning with beloved Finnish author and painter Tove Jansson in the flesh, a morning at Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum visiting the Tove Jansson exhibit still thrilled this Moomin fan. The exhibit celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jansson’s birth and demands a visit if you are in the Helsinki area in the next six months.

Tove Jansson created the iconic children’s fantasy world of Moominvalley and populated it with strange and wondrous imaginary creatures in tales published both as books and comic strips. The principal characters of this world, rounded white-bodied trolls called the Moomins (or muumi in Finnish), go on adventures with an unusual assortment of friends through a world that seems a lot like Finland–full of forest, seas, and sweeping valleys. Released as World War II came to an end, I imagine the child-like innocence of the characters as well at Jansson’s fanciful drawings appealed to many people who had known nothing but deprivation during the war. Read more