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Banned Books Week 2019 | Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

Banned Books Week 2019 has come to an end. I talked about this event and introduced my personal reading challenge in this post, and now it’s time to talk about the books I was able to read from September 22nd – 28th (listed in order of first finished to most recent).

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

Margaret was a bit confused about religion. When she moved from the city to her new home, she didn’t know whether to join the Y or the Jewish Community Center. What made matters worse was that, going on twelve, she had plenty to talk over with God. She had a bra but needed to grow a bit to put something in it. Nancy and Gretchen had already had their period. What was taking her so long? Sometimes she go so frustrated she ignored Him – until the next time she really needed someone to listen.

What makes this book such a classic, is of course the reason it has made the ALA’s Most Frequently Challenged lists. Menstruation and puberty, religious exploration and questioning; Judy Blume normalizes the confusion, doubt, curiosity, and changes that Margaret and her peers (and every girl their age) are going through. Unfortunately when this book was published, and in the decades that followed, many parents believed the story portrayed anti-Christian values and thought the content was not appropriate reading material for children. On her website, Judy Blume wrote the following:

Fear. I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen.”

That really says it all. I did enjoy reading it for the first time as an adult; looking back on past, adolescent me, I wish I had been as inquisitive or smart about myself and the world around me as Margaret seems to be.

Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George

Miyax rebels against a home situation she finds intolerable. She runs away towards San Francisco, toward her pen pal, who calls her Julie. But soon Miyax is lost in the Alaskan wilderness, without food, without even a compass. Slowly she is accepted by a pack of Arctic wolves, and she comes to love them as if they were her brothers. With their help, and drawing on her father’s training, she struggles day by day to survive. In the process, she is forced to rethink her past, and to define for herself the traditional riches of Eskimo life: intelligence, fearlessness, and love.

This book appears on frequently challenged book lists because of a scene in which Julie’s husband physically assaults her (some proponents of the book’s banning claim the scene contains rape, but Jean Craighead George has repeatedly denied this claim). Oddly enough, the fact that the marriage was arranged and Julie is only thirteen are apparently not part of the common criticism of pro-book banners.

Julie of the Wolves makes incredibly powerful statements – that are well woven into the narrative – about the natural world; its beauty, its order, and its harshness. There are also many revelations about the effects of human influence and tourism on wilderness and cultural traditions/ways of life.

I never fully read this book as a teen when it was on my shelves, but I’m sure I never thought so much about what qualifications Jean Craighead George had to write a book so embedded in Inupiaq culture and tradition than I did reading it now. There is a little bit of information on her author website about the inspiration behind the story, so it is clear that she cares about the subject she’s writing about. However, there has been some criticism about the language in the book, the portrayal of Inuqiaq people, as well as misleading information about seasonal changes in the Arctic and animal habits. In this book review, Martha Stackhouse writes about all of these things, and ends with these thoughts:

“With all due respect for Jean Craighead George, I humbly would not recommend the book to be put on school shelves. I know it is hard work to write books, but when misinformation about the Arctic are numerous, one must say something about the book. When something is written down, it is often believed to be true by their readers. It is a book that is widely read by school children all over our country and they believe many things that are written in there.”

Should this book (and others with similar issues) continue to be revered for its spot on the ALA’s Most Frequently Challenged Books list, or does it deserve to be challenged? I didn’t think I would be asking a question like that after finishing this reading challenge, and perhaps it doesn’t accurately describe the point I’m trying to make. Perhaps the Top 100 lists put together by the ALA need to be revised to include “what to read instead” recommendations for books that are frequently challenged but contain inaccuracies and/or misleading information. And/or perhaps I need to take more responsibility for confirming details I read in fiction.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor

With the land to hold them together, nothing can tear the Logans apart.

Why is the land so important to Cassie’s family? It takes the events of one turbulent year – the year of the night riders and the burnings, the year a white girl humiliates Cassie in public simply because she is black – to show Cassie that having a place of their own is the Logan family’s lifeblood. It is the land that gives the Logans their courage and pride – no matter how others may degrade them, the Logans possess something no one can take away.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry has been frequently challenged because of its use of the “N” word, and has been accused of portraying history inaccurately. I found a speech by Mildred D. Taylor, which she read as she accepted the ALAN Award, an honor for “those who have made outstanding contributions to the field of adolescent literature”, and wanted to include a quote here in my blog post. But really, you might as well read all of it – so click here to read her reaction to constant challenges of her books (not just Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry).

This is another book I never finished as a young adult – my habit of starting books to never finish them/finish them many years later is not new. Now that I have read it from cover to cover, I wish I had made this book a priority when I was younger – it would have made an excellent/necessary addition to my standard American history lessons (because let’s face it, a lot of what was/is in our school history books is a form of fictionalized “truth”). Anyway, in her Author’s Note at the beginning of the book, Mildred D. Taylor talks about her father’s “master” storytelling ability, which is exactly how I would describe her storytelling: masterful. This book is written to inform, every detail feels absolutely necessary, and it has me wanting to learn more about a side of US history that I’m overdue for knowing.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

This autobiography has been challenged frequently because of sexually explicit scenes, for being ‘anti-white’, and for “encouraging homosexuality”. Unfortunately [for my reading challenge], I only made it to page twelve, but I will be continuing on with it to learn more about Maya Angelou in her own words.

Do you have any thoughts about the books I read or other Banned/Frequently Challenged books? Did you read any of the titles on the ALA’s lists for Banned Books Week? Let’s chat in the comments.


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