Banned Books Week: Books challenged this year – Part I

The debate over whether Banned Books week is propaganda or not continues. Before it started full bore, though, USA Today outlined the battle lines. Distilled to the simplest terms, the core question seems to be whether restricting access to/removing a book a parent believes is age inappropriate is “banning” a book or censorship, something I’ll have more to say about in a few todays.

Today and tomorrow, though, I wanted to review something that appeared in the USA Today article. It printed a list compiled by the American Library Association of 20 books “banned” by schools already this year. The article itself does not define that term, which is part of the underlying debate. But the scope of the books is interesting. I’m going to recap it in two parts because I want to provide a bit of information about each book and, since the list doesn’t mention the grounds for the challenge, I’m throwing in a bit of speculation given the books’ descriptions.

Here is the first half of the list, which is arranged alphabetically:

Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher. This is a collection of six short stories which School Library Journal says if for Grade 8 and up and Publishers Weekly says is for age 12 and older. According to PW, Crutcher’s “athlete protagonists take on such weighty issues as racism, homophobia, sexism and the teenager’s essential task of coming to terms with his parents.” Ergo, I am guessing inappropriate for age and/or homosexuality are the grounds of the complaints.

Big Momma Makes the World, by Phyllis Root. PW, which says the book is for kids ages 4-7, calls it a “sassy creation myth that tweaks the first chapter of Genesis [in which] Big Momma ‘roll[s] up her sleeves’ and gets down to business.” Although PW also says this is “[a] gentle spin on the Genesis story sure to get youngsters talking,” I’m guessing almost any spin on Genesis raises religious hackles. Just take a look at the one star Amazon reviews.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter, by Amy Tan. This is a novel about an American-born woman finding the handwritten recollections of her mother, who was born in China and now has Alzheimer’s disease. Not having read the book, I must admit I am stumped by it being challenged and I find nothing online indicating why.

Burn, by Suzanne Phillips, School Library Journal , which says the book is for Grades 9 and up, describes it as having a “disturbing plot.” Perhaps that is because life as a high school freshman can be disturbing. Here, a young man is bullied, attacked and sexually assaulted and seeks revenge by killing one of his assailants. Hmmm, what are the odds a story of this type might rile someone?

Great Soul, by Joseph Lelyveld. Okay, you generally wouldn’t think a biography of Mahatma Gandhi could upset people. Evidently, though, PW says this book provides an “unexpected perspective … that focuses more on his failures and vexations than triumphs.” Perhaps that may offend people, even though Amazon picked the book as one of its best books of April 2011.

It’s a Book, by Lane Smith. Amazon’s description of this book, which School Library Journal says is for Grades 3-5, may suggest why it is on the list. Amazon calls it “[p]layful and lighthearted with a subversive twist” and “a delightful manifesto on behalf of print in the digital age.” We shan’t expose our children to any subversive manifestos. Evidently, though, the problem is Smith has the audacity to name a male donkey in the story “Jackass.”

Lovingly Alice, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. Apparently, this book is a “prequel” in a series following the title character from third grade through high school. School Library Journal says this book’s chronicle of Alice’s 5th grade year is for Grades 4 to 6 while Booklist puts the range at Grades 4 to 7. Regardless, since School Library Journal says “Alice is concerned about being … muddled about sex, and there’s a fair amount of talk about it,” you can guess why it is on this list.

The Marbury Lens, by Andrew Smith. I’ll let School Library Journal clue you in. It seems the main character, Jack, “gets drunk and finds himself at the mercy of a crazed stranger who drugs him and holds him hostage. … But once he’s out of harm’s way, readers — like Jack — will begin to think being chained to the bed of a stranger was so much simpler than being on the run from a murder rap and hearing voices in his head. It all gets worse when he finds himself in London looking through some purple-tinted glasses into a parallel world of cannibalism and gore. … The four-letter words come fast and furiously, but they’re no stronger than the violent and gruesome situations that befall Jack… Smith spares no graphic details to depict the horrific world of Marbury.” Okay, even though the Journal says it is for senior high school students, it seems this is kind of a take your pick complaint menu for some.

Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris. I admit to not being a David Sedaris fan and, thus, that his sense of humor isn’t for everyone. My guess as to what leads to this book, his fourth, being on the list comes solely from Amazon’s review: “In the essay ‘Jesus Shaves,’ he and his classmates from many nations try to convey the concept of Easter to a Moroccan Muslim. “It is a party for the little boy of God,” says one. “Then he be die one day on two… morsels of… lumber,” says another. Sedaris muses on the disputes between his Protestant mother and his father, a Greek Orthodox guy whose Easter fell on a different day.” I’m thinking the first provided grounds for some one and the second may have just been icing on the cake.

Mobile Suit Gundam: Seed Astray Vol. 3, by Tomohiro Chiba. Another admission: I don’t understand the fascination with manga. Of course, I also don’t grasp the current fixation on zombies and vampires. But my complete unfamiliarity with this genre leaves me wondering what it is about this particular volume of this particular manga series that got it on someone’s age inappropriate, violence or other radar this year.

Tomorrow I’ll complete the list, which includes two books where one or both have been on the most challenged list each of the last seven years.

Censors don’t want children exposed to ideas different from their own. If every individual with an agenda had his/her way, the shelves in the school library would be close to empty.

Judy Blume, Censorship

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