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The Power of Banned Books
Two recent radio stories - NPR's "Banned Books are Back in the Spotlight but They've Always Been for this Book Club" and On The Media's "Read the Room" and a new New York Times op-ed about book banning efforts in Tennessee - have us thinking a lot about banned books.
These two broadcasts piqued our interest to the point that we decided to dig deeper into the long lists of banned books. Reviewing them, our stances become even more strident; because, as we scanned them, we realized just how much we had loved and learned from SO SO MANY books on these lists. SO MANY.
It probably comes as no surprise that these two Book Jammers don't shy away from banned books. Most often a book that has been censored holds a powerful idea between its pages. And powerful ideas make for powerful reading (and discussions). So today, we choose to review just a handful of the many banned books that have made a difference in our lives. The list of books we couldn't include in today's reviews is much longer - but we hope that the ones we are sharing help you learn, grow, be entertained in unexpected ways, and to find power between their pages.
[Full disclosure: One of the Lisas of the Book Jam is serving our our local school board (which in our town this means serving on three boards -- long story but it has a lot to do with the fact our schools are in a bi-state district created while JFK was President). This means she is doing a lot of thinking about banned books in the specific context of education and schools. Mostly she's remembering that had these lists been enforced in her childhood schools, she would have missed the transformative experiences of Mrs. McPherson's 8th grade English class.]
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958). In this lucky reader’s life there have been a few books that find their way into my hands that upon turning the last page cause me to reverently and gently place them down, to blink and slowly exhale, and then to turn my gaze back out upon the world feeling that my view has changed. This is one such book. Things Fall Apart is a novel set in precolonial Africa towards the end of the 1800’s and chronicles the effect of the the arrival of British missionaries and government on village life. It is the story of Okonkwo, a brave and powerful but flawed warrior of the Igbo clan in Nigeria. The tale is told from the deep “inside” of his clan. The “Obi” (main house), the religion, the lore, the language, family structure and the traditions are shown through his eyes and those of his family and friends. The reader is transported to another world and way of life where pythons are considered sacred and yams represent riches. It is also one where social order and connection is maintained by full moon ceremonies, wrestling, foo-foo feasts, the power of ancestral gods, and the reality of banishment. All of which is threatened by the arrival of white people. This novel explores the reality of an ever changing world while forcing us to consider what we lose along with that change. It also pushes us to consider the complexity of leadership, community, justice, and what it means to respect our fellow humans. It is not hard to understand why it is considered by many as one of the most important 100 books of all time. ~ Lisa Cadow (Previously reviewed in books-honoring-black-history-month-and-our-annual-diversity-audit)
Dear Martin by Nic Stone (2017). A superb YA novel about being profiled by the police, and how current events, BLM, and politics affect Black youth today. In this excellent debut novel, a Black student – Justyce McAllister, top of his class, captain of the debate team, and set for the Ivy League next year – is handcuffed by a police officer and released without physical harm. The psychological toll of being profiled is explored as this novel delves into his life at his mostly white prep school and in his mostly Black neighborhood. To help cope, Justyce researches the writings of MLK and writes him letters asking for guidance about how to live today. While Martin obviously never answers, the letters provide a great premise for thinking about how MLK would have handled life as a black man today. The letters also provide grounding once the novel’s action turns extremely ugly. Read it and discuss. I also highly recommend the sequel Dear Justyce - which we do not think has been banned yet. (Both novels could be considered the boy’s perspective on the situations in The Hate U Give reviewed below.) ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in some-ya-titles-that-lead-to-great-discussions)
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017). Sometimes it takes a work of fiction to give life to current events. And sometimes it takes a book for children to give all of us a starting point for conversations about difficult issues. Ms. Thomas has done all of us a service by producing this fresh, enlightening, and spectacular book about the black lives lost at the hands of the police every year in the USA. Starr Carter, the teen she created to put faces on the statistics, straddles two worlds — that of her poor black neighborhood and that of her exclusive prep school on the other side of town. She believes she is doing a pretty good job managing the differing realities of her life until she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood friend by a police officer. As a description of this book stated, The Hate U Give “addresses issues of racism and police violence with intelligence, heart, and unflinching honesty”. Just as importantly, it is a great story, with fully formed characters who will haunt you, told by a gifted author. Please read this one! We also recommend Ms. Thomas's On the Come Up, which makes many banned books lists and was recently reviewed by us here. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in some-ya-titles-that-lead-to-great-discussions)
There There by Tommy Orange (2018). The writing in Tommy Orange's debut novel is forceful and builds a percussive momentum as the story progresses, perhaps not unlike the beat of a drum at a Native American Powwow. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the author himself majored in sound engineering as an undergraduate before working in a bookstore and falling in love with reading and writing. There There explores identity and sense of place, telling the story of twelve characters, mostly urban Native Americans, all living in Oakland, California. Their lives are braided together though it is not until the end, at the Oakland Powwow, that the reader understands just how. From the outset, it is clear that things won't end well. However, the beauty of the prose, the poignant stories of the individuals it tells, and the insights and honesty it offers into the Native American experience compel one to read to the painful, shocking finish. Orange's work has received a great deal of publicity since it was published in 2018. Margaret Atwood and Pam Houston have both sung its praises. The New York Times named it one if the "10 Best books of the Year" in 2018. It was even a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. These kinds of reviews can be off-putting to the casual reader, the hype overwhelming, the literariness of it all stopping one before the first page can even be turned. Don't let this get in the way of reading such an important and accessible book. For me it was one of those "shape shifters," a work that helped me to understand our culture and history in a different, richer (though not easier or more comfortable) way. ~ Lisa Cadow (Previously reviewed in the-book-jam-returns-with-two-great-titles-just-for-you)
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013) – When the book ends you will think hard about children from the “other side of the tracks” and from family situations that are less than ideal. Set during one school year in 1986, this is the story of two star-crossed misfits — both from the wrong side of the tracks. They are also both smart enough to know that one’s first love rarely, if ever, lasts, but willing to try anyway. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own high school years, riding the school bus, any time you tried to fit in while figuring out who you were. And yes, you will remember your own first love. ~ Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in some-ya-titles-that-lead-to-great-discussions)
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970). I first read this as part of a college course on multiculturalism, and wow — what insight into so many things is held in this slim volume. In this concise novel, an 11-year-old girl yearns to have blue eyes, with tragic consequences. ~ Lisa Christie (Also reviewed in my list of books that shaped me here.)
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel (2007). This graphic memoir by Vermont’s own Ms. Bechdel bravely tackles how sexual identity is formed, the costs of suppression, and well, “coming of age” for lack of a better phrase. We also highly recommend the Tony Award winning Broadway play. ~ Lisa Cadow and Lisa Christie (Previously reviewed in substantive-reads-for-great-discussions)
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