Gasp! Reading Banned Books

November 2007

I belonged to a book club last year which kind of disbanded over the summer. In order to resume this fall, as soon as possible, I emailed the list of the 100 most banned books between 1990 and 2000 and suggested that we each select a book that we had not read, to read it and come prepared to discuss why it might have been banned and whether we thought a ban was legitimate. This list had books such as Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird. Judy Bloom’s name came up about six times and Shel Silverstein’s did once. It also had some books which were obviously objectionable. It seemed to me like a list that would make for an interesting book discussion. I figured that many of us had read at least some of these books and would be able to carry on a conversation with those who had recently read them. I sent the list and invite to mother’s group to which I belong, since most of the book club members belonged as well.

One of the mothers who did not participate last year sent me a long, and very politely worded response that we as Christians should not be reading banned books. We should be reading Christian lit. Following is my reply.

Wow, you brought up an interesting slant to the banned book thing. I emailed your letter to my mother who was a grade school and high school librarian. She made a point of reading all the fiction books in our high school, maybe a thousand, she had read 46 of those on the list. Now, she is probably more liberal than you are, but she shed some light on the list, especially the books I had not read. I wanted to get the book club going, and soon, so I found a list of books for people to choose from. I would be pretty surprised to see someone come prepared to debate about any of the books you mentioned.

My only personal comments are these books were not necessarily banned by Christians, Madeline L’Engle wrote fantasy, but it was highly regarded as Christian literature, much like the Lion Witch and Wardrobe series, which closely follows several books of the Bible. Maybe the ACLU had a hand in that one. The Bible is banned in many countries; it is not always the good guys banning books. You are just the first person I had heard of objecting to examining these books more thoroughly, and you encouraged me investigate (the easy way by asking my mom). You can’t look at the list and say you have never read any of these books can you?

This is what my mother wrote to me. It is long, she is a librarian after all, and full of opinions. Please don’t let the length of this scare you.

In the first place, this list of banned books is of books that have been banned by some school libraries, sometimes elementary schools, or junior high schools or high schools. There is no reason a thinking adult should not read them. Not that you’d necessarily want to. I’m not interested in reading Madonna’s Sex book for any reason. Sometimes the books are banned from school libraries because the community doesn’t think they are appropriate–Daddy’s Roommate, for example. The Goosebumps books were wildly popular with the mid-elementary group for a while, and were stupidly inane, but that isn’t why they were banned. Some adults felt they were too scary. Most kids thought they were wonderful. R. L. Stine made a fortune because kids love to be scared. Several of the other books on this list fall into this category. The Schwartz books, for example.

Other books were banned because of the perceived sexual inappropriateness, I think. In the Night Kitchen, What’s Happening to My Body (Night Kitchen–a child dreaming is shown falling through the air and his private parts show–it’s still a great book and in my experience, most kids know they have private parts), Forever, and maybe I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. (If you haven’t read that one, you should–it’s WONDERFUL)

I think if you check the ALA website, you’ll find a list of these books and a description of why certain schools banned them. A lot of them are available at my High School, and some, like Catcher in the Rye, are on suggested reading lists. That wouldn’t be appropriate for most 7th graders, but high school students should be able to handle reading a book about a teenage boy’s thoughts without going into trauma. Not reading about such things doesn’t keep teenagers from thinking about them.

Another thing I just remembered, a lot of those books were written in the 1970s, and there was a whole different thought of what was appropriate for high school literature. It was a period of high drug use (mostly marijuana) and lots of teen lit approached that topic.

As for How to Eat Fried Worms (recently made into a movie), the Crutcher books (teenage male angst), Summer of my German Soldier (teenage crush on an older man), I wonder why they are on the list and how people made it through the teenage years without some of those same thoughts and problems. Books often help people with solving those problems, or realizing they are not the only persons with those same thoughts.

Another great book is Fallen Angels by Myers. It’s the very best Viet Nam book I’ve ever read, and I always recommended it to boys who HAD to read a book, and they always thought it was great, until one month somebody stole it.

So, basically, the first reason people want to ban books is because they contain sexual ideas. Frankly, I wouldn’t want Howard Stern’s book, Private Parts in my home, either. Or in a school library. It’s just not appropriate. Another reason is because of violence–Fallen Angels, Slaughterhouse Five, Kaffir Boy, for example. But for young men, seniors in high school going to be in Iraq in a few months–those books are very appropriate. And I guess some people question the witchcraft topic–thinking reading a book that uses that device to tell a story could lead a child to think that is a desirable lifestyle, well, I wonder if they are thinking with a child’s mind or an adult’s. Children just don’t think that way.

By the way, anybody who’s spent any time in a high school corridor or gym has heard all the profanity used in those books, knows of the sexual activity that goes on, and drug and alcohol abuse. Reading a book that mentions those things does not cause them, rather the authors try to explain how to appropriately deal with those issues. I’m talking good authors. Madonna, Howard Stern, etc are not included. I’d ban them too.

As I said, usually, sexuality, violence, profanity. In no case, does it include poor writing, insipid ideas or stories, or inaccuracies. Hmmm. Am I missing something? Well, I could go on. I don’t know if this is what you want, but it’s my answer.

Love, Mom

I cut out the part where Mom said that most Christian lit is inane, but only to keep the peace.

She emailed me back and politely said she didn’t agree with certain things that my mother had said, and went into some explanation of why she felt kids should be protected. I understand where she is coming from and respect her decision, while disagreeing to an enormous extent. This is part of the reply I sent, “in my defense, it is difficult to have a book group and read non-controversial books, because there would be little to discuss except whether you liked the book or not. Obviously an ecumenical organization should not be discussing controversial Christian books, because that could easily alienate people of different beliefs.”

This is, by the way, an adult reading group. The ensuing opinions aired through the group has brought about six new members. Following is the list, I have read at least 29 of them.

Scary Stories (Series) by Alvin Schwartz

Daddy’s Roommate by Michael Willhoite

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Harry Potter (Series) by J.K. Rowling

Forever by Judy Blume

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Alice (Series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman

My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Giver by Lois Lowry

It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris

Goosebumps (Series) by R.L. Stine

A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Sex by Madonna

Earth’s Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel

The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

The Stupids (Series) by Harry Allard

The Witches by Roald Dahl

The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein

Anastasia Krupnik (Series) by Lois Lowry

The Goats by Brock Cole

Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane

Blubber by Judy Blume

Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan

Halloween ABC by Eve Merriam

We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier

Final Exit by Derek Humphry

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Girls: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Daughters by Lynda Madaras

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

The Pigman by Paul Zindel

Bumps in the Night by Harry Allard

Deenie by Judy Blume

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden

The Boy Who Lost His Face by Louis Sachar

Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat by Alvin Schwartz

A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Sleeping Beauty Trilogy by A.N. Roquelaure (Anne Rice)

Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole

Cujo by Stephen King

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

The Anarchist Cookbook by William Powell

Boys and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy

Ordinary People by Judith Guest

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

What’s Happening to my Body? Book for Boys: A Growing-Up Guide for Parents & Sons by Lynda Madaras

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Crazy Lady by Jane Conly

Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher

Fade by Robert Cormier

Guess What? by Mem Fox

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende

The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Native Son by Richard Wright

Women on Top: How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Fantasies by Nancy Friday

Curses, Hexes and Spells by Daniel Cohen

Jack by A.M. Homes

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya

Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle

Carrie by Stephen King

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume

On My Honor by Marion Dane Bauer

Arizona Kid by Ron Koertge

Family Secrets by Norma Klein

Mommy Laid An Egg by Babette Cole

The Dead Zone by Stephen King

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Always Running by Luis Rodriguez

Private Parts by Howard Stern

Where’s Waldo? by Martin Hanford

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Running Loose by Chris Crutcher

Sex Education by Jenny Davis

The Drowning of Stephen Jones by Bette Greene

Girls and Sex by Wardell Pomeroy

How to Eat Fried Worms by Thomas Rockwell

View from the Cherry Tree by Willo Davis Roberts

The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

The Terrorist by Caroline Cooney

Jump Ship to Freedom by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

I found some great information, and opinions, on Amazon about certain banned books.

Frank, AnneAnne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Modern Library. Challenged in Wise County, Va. (1982) due to “sexually offensive” passages. Four members of the Alabama State Textbook Committee (1983) called for the rejection of this book because it is a “real downer.”

Handford, Martin. Where’s Waldo? Little. Challenged at the Public Libraries of Saginaw, Mich. (1989), Removed from the Springs Public School library in East Hampton, N.Y. (1993) because there is a tiny drawing of a woman lying on the beach wearing a bikini bottom but no top. Yes, but did they find Waldo?

Lee, HarperTo Kill a Mockingbird. Lippincott/Harper; Popular Library. This novel has been challenged quite a lot due to its racial themes. Challenged–and temporarily banned–in Eden Valley, Minn.(1977); Challenged at the Warren, Ind. Township schools (1981), because the book “represents institutionalized racism under the guise of ‘good literature’.” After unsuccessfully banning the novel, three black parents resigned from the township human relations advisory council. Banned from the Lindale, Tex. advanced placement English reading list (1996) because the book “conflicted with the values of the community.”

L’Engle, Madeleine C. A Wrinkle In Time. Dell. Challenged at the Polk City, Fla. Elementary School (1985) by a parent who believed that the story promotes witchcraft, crystal balls, and demons. Challenged in the Anniston Ala. schools (1990). The complainant objected to the book’s listing the name of Jesus Christ together with the names of great artists, philosophers, scientists, and religious leaders when referring to those who defend earth against evil. Got it. Let’s cross Jesus off that list, shall we?

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Macmillan. Challenged in the Howard County, Md. school system (1990) because it depicts “graphic violence, mysticism, and gore.” I’m sure the school system would rather have its children reading something which adheres to “good Christian values.” I cannot recommend the works of C.S. Lewis highly enough. The Narnia books, in particular, are great for readers of all ages

Silverstein, ShelWhere the Sidewalk Ends. Harper. Challenged at the West Allis-West Milwaukee, Wis. school libraries (1986) because the book “suggests drug use, the occult, suicide, death, violence, disrespect for truth, disrespect for legitimate authority, rebellion against parents.” Challenged at the Central Columbia School District in Bloomsburg, Pa. (1993) because a poem titled “Dreadful” talks about how “someone ate the baby.” On the other hand, this book does present the negative consequences of not taking the garbage out.

Snyder, Zilpha KeatleyThe Egypt Game. Dell; Macmillan. This award-winning novel was challenged in the Richardson, Tex. schools (1995) because it shows children in dangerous situations, condones trespassing and lying to parents and ostensibly teaches about the occult. The school board declined to ban this book, but did decide that parents should be notified when it is used in class

Vonnegut, Kurt, JrSlaughterhouse-Five. Dell; Dial. Burned in Drake, N. Dak. (1973). Banned in Rochester Mich. because the novel “contains and makes references to religious matters” and thus fell within the ban of the establishment clause. Challenged at the Owensboro, Ky. high School library (1985) because of “foul language, a reference to ‘Magic Fingers’ attached to the protagonist’s bed to help him sleep, and the sentence: ‘The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of the fly of God Almighty.’ ” Challenged, but retained on the Round Rock, Tex. Independent High School reading list (1996) after a challenge that the book was too violent. This particular novel is the recipient of a very cool plug in the movie, Footloose, starring Kevin Bacon

Wilder, Laura IngallsLittle House in the Big Woods. Buccaneer; Harper; Transaction. Removed from the classrooms, but later reinstated, for third-graders at the Lincoln Unified School District in Stockton, Calif. (1996). Complainants also want the book removed from the library because it “promotes racial epithets and is fueling the fire of racism.”

Wilder, Laura IngallsLittle House on the Prairie. Buccaneer; Harper; Transaction. Challenged at the Lafourche Parish elementary school libraries in Thibodaux, La. (1993) because the book is “offensive to Indians.” Banned in the Sturgis, S. Dak. elementary school classrooms (1993) due to statements considered derogatory to Native Americans. It always amazes me how people would rather ignore or revile literature from a past era, rather than use it to teach acceptance and tolerance. Obviously the characters depicted in the novel do not have “politically correct” 21st century viewpoints. Why not use the opportunity to discuss how things have (hopefully) changed?

“Each book has its own gifts to offer, but the freedom to choose which to read teaches some of life’s most important lessons — trusting yourself, knowing what you believe in, tolerance — all of which are more difficult to learn once you get beyond childhood.”

In conclusion, I recently read Red Sky at Morning by Richard Bradford, a book I first read at about age 12, and several times since. Each time I read it I fall off the bed laughing. I did some serious thinking about it, and it should be banned for the following reasons, and the reasons are so numerous it probably should be banned nationwide. (please detect the sarcasm here) It has confusing racial references, vulgar language, references to body fluids, violence, disrespect for authority, death of animals and people, alcohol abuse and underage drinking, sex discussions, nudity, and a dirty reference to a bishop and a bunch of nuns. It also has some Spanish in it and is anti-family. It really is a perfect book!

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