. . . Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm . . .—Robert Louis Stevenson

23 September 2016


I am giving everyone advance notice so we can each find and begin reading a banned (or challenged) book asap. Banned Book Week begins next Monday, so you have time. I'd ask that you consider what book brought you to laughter or tears without touching on a tender place? That pain is the reason books are challenged. 

We would not want anyone to die from reading. We also know how important it can be to wake up!

One of my favorite details about banned book week are the books that actually appear on the American Library Association's list of most challenged. The Bible is always on the list. For a time, I was teaching a biblical passage and three of the novels on that list—Huck Finn, The Bluest Eye, and The Catcher in the Rye, but the lists alter each year and Salinger seems to have lost his foothold. I find that interesting, that last. The Catcher in the Rye used to be challenged mostly for language—an issue that I used as an opportunity to teach the difference between words that are swearing, those that are vulgar, and those that are simply rude. The need for this was brought home one year when I advised a student not to use words he would not say in front of his grandmother, and he responded with a colorful list of words his grandmother shouted on a daily basis. "Okay, so avoid saying things you would not say in front of my mother." Mom was often in the school in those days—"a sweet, little, white-haired lady." This got a laugh and the discussion proceeded. 

Back to Catcher. The novel is usually challenged for language, but what troubled me as an adult teaching that much-loved novel is the suicidal ideation of poor Holden. I most love the book while reading it aloud—the voice is funny and authentic and terribly sad. A strong student once cried about a writing assignment which required students to write a short story either as Holden attending our high school or from the point of view of his grandchild having Grandpa Holden over for Thanksgiving dinner. "Holden wouldn't like me," the girl wailed. And she was right. 

Then about ten years ago, my students turned against poor Holden and I began teaching another novel in its place, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Initially, I photocopied only the first chapter to share because I thought it might be too much of a stretch—all that British slang, an upper middle class white boy narrator with a stammer . . . but they loved it! That novel has a lot of filthy language too, but it is mostly British filth and barely offensive to Americans. There is a scene where, up a tree, our embarrassed adolescent witnesses sex between a young man about to leave for war and his sweetheart. That bit lasts a little over a page, is not particularly graphic, and can be skipped. Later there is disgusting teasing of our narrator because he was seen attending a film with his mother. The boy is thirteen. I particularly warn students about those pages. Skip ahead a page and a half because the novel can spare your attention for that long. Most of us have been cruelly teased and we know what that is like. . . .  Taylor will survive and he will learn a great deal about duty and love and honor and kindness. There is so much beautiful poetry in the prose. Yes, I taught that coming of age novel because the language is stunning, because the boy is portrayed so accurately, and because it is about love and honor and hope. And because it is very funny. Their Eyes Were Watching God is about hope and love and honor and it is also on the Banned and Challenged Classics list. The Awakening is about despair and The Jungle is about cruelty and class, but each has changed the world and each is on that banned classics list along with As I Lay Dying, The Grapes of Wrath, and A Separate Peace

Catcher is no longer on the ALA young adult list (though it does appear on the banned classics list in the top ten), and Black Swan hasn't managed to arrive there, at least not yet, not on any list. Books show up on the ALA lists for young adults and children because they are frequently taught, which means few teachers are teaching Black Swan Green. That's a pity. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is not on any of the lists but Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street is—both are wonderful reads. I sometimes think it is as much a problem to not be on the list as to be on it.

The Michael Dorris novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is on the ALA list posted August 2016, and so is Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Twain, of course. I taught them. Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder is nonfiction and inspirational so it mostly gets a pass despite a bit of language; it is listed as a "notable" book, but not challenged. Books are more often challenged for sexual references and language and politics and religion. Reviewing the list of banned classics, I find that anything I ever taught that could remotely be called a classic is on that list. 

(It is worth mentioning that I offered trigger warnings about sex, language, etc. Sometimes students skipped over those parts, sometimes they chose to read another book, but mostly the triggers drew no comment at all. If I personally avoided books that contained triggers for me, there would be nothing much left to read—suicide, rape, molestation, murder, death, poverty, loss, language—this is not unfamiliar ground. Reading, I believe, is the only experience where "What does not kill us makes us stronger" might actually be true.)

A few years ago, I attended a yearlong class held at Concordia University and became a certified Bible-as-literature teacher. At the time there was another teacher in my building who actually taught the Bible as literature. I have wanted to pick up that particular staff and run with it ever since. Perhaps I will include Sermon on the Mount as a philosophy text this year. No one has objected to Sun Tzu, Thoreau, Thomas Paine, or even Machiavelli so far. Are my Christian students capable of stepping away from Matthew as scripture in order to appreciate it as poetry and philosophy? I will have to ask them.  

So yes, my banned book will be the Bible. And then maybe some Walt Whitman. ;-)