Saturday, October 1, 2016

Staff Picks: In Honor of Banned Books Week, We Discuss Our Favorite Banned Books

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In celebration of Banned Books Week (which is from September 25 through October 1 this year), a few of the Just About Write staffers wanted to discuss our favorite banned books and the impact these books have had on our lives.

You can read an extensive list of banned books here, and then sound off in the comments with some of your favorite books!

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Jenn’s Banned Book Pick: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

I think the first time I read poems by Maya Angelou, I might have been in college. And I remember clearly listening to poems by her one afternoon in class (though I can’t remember what class). We were sitting in the upstairs room of a small building on campus, and were told to close our eyes as our professor played Maya Angelou reading her poems on tape. There is something so beautiful about hearing poetry read aloud, but something even more beautiful in the way that Maya Angelou read hers. Her gift was that she was able to shape words so carefully and delicately that she could turn tragedy into redemption.

It’s my belief that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most powerful and poetic memoirs ever written. Angelou’s story is one that is likely on the banned books list because of her tragic and horrific past, the book's unabashed depiction of racism, and its frank discussion of sexuality. But funnily enough, looking at the list of banned books... I read so many of them in high school. I was actually REQUIRED to read so many of them in high school, and I think I’m a better person for it. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is beautiful because of its sensitive subject matter and frank portrayal of real events. This is Angelou’s story and voice, and she did not — and should not have to — censor herself or edit out the harrowing and upsetting parts. Her story, told through this book, is a gorgeous narrative of a young woman struggling to find herself, to be known outside of her own mind, and to be successful in a time in which it was nearly impossible for a woman of color to do so.

But words were always Angelou’s weapon. This book is proof that she chose them deliberately and carefully. When Oprah interviewed Maya Angelou about her story and whether I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was meant to be cathartic, Angelou dismissed the notion and then replied: “I felt I had tried to write the truth and write it eloquently. ... My belief is that you can never leave home. You take it with you everywhere you go. So my past is my present.”

I honestly think that everyone should read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is poetic and beautiful, eloquent and uplifting, challenging and yes, even difficult to read in parts because of the subject matter. But I don’t think we should ever shy away from books that have dark, painful, or difficult elements in them. Instead, we should embrace the humanity within those pages and use it to become better individuals.


Rebecca’s Banned Book Pick: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

My best friends from high school and I tend to enjoy the same books. So when they recommended The Perks of Being a Wallflower to me, I knew going into the book that I’d love it. What I didn’t know was how big of an impact it would make on my life. I read Perks toward the end of my junior year of high school. I’ve re-read it numerous times since then, and each time I finish it in one sitting because I get so engrossed in the world Stephen Chbosky creates. The book follows protagonist Charlie through his freshman year of high school as he struggles to deal with the suicide of his best friend, which occurred a few years prior. He often finds himself feeling isolated and unable to relate to others, until he is taken in by Sam and Patrick, step-siblings a few grades above Charlie. His new friends help Charlie through his healing process as well as navigating his own mental illness. The book ends with Charlie coming to the realization that something that had occurred in his childhood affected him more than he thought, and he begins to work through it. I won’t spoil the book any more than that.

Perks has achieved “banned” status in many high schools due to its “adult” themes — drugs, underage drinking, sex (including queer characters), and suicide. Yes, these things are present, and yes, these are heavy and mature topics, but they shouldn’t prevent young adults from reading such a raw and influential book. These aforementioned things are common issues many students Charlie’s age are faced with, and the way in which Charlie deals with them are very realistic and relatable. Although my high school experience was different from Charlie’s, so much of his story could still resonate with me.

One way Perks impacted me was by helping me confront my own mental demons. Shortly after reading it for the first time, I found the courage to speak with my parents and then my doctor about the gnawing feelings of dread and hopelessness I had been experiencing for over seven years. I was diagnosed with clinical depression and have been on medication ever since. Charlie helped me come to terms with the fact that I deserve to feel okay and that mental illness is nothing of which to be ashamed. I even have a tattoo of an infinity symbol on my finger to remind myself to “feel infinite,” one of my favorite quotes from the book. It’s difficult to write about such an incredible and impactful book in only a couple paragraphs, but The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a raw, real book that deals with the pain and confusion and joy and everything else that comes with being a teenager. Regardless of their age, I recommend this book (and the movie, which was great as well) to everyone I meet.

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Jaime’s Banned Book Pick: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was in seventh grade, and — at the time — I connected so deeply with the idea of a teenager getting his first taste of freedom and exploring the world, even though it was ugly and harsh and unforgiving. I read it a few more times by the time I made it to tenth grade, where some of my friends had to read it for English class. And to my absolute dismay, most of them hated it. They found Holden whiny and selfish, and — worst of all — they found the book boring. That’s a pretty popular criticism of the book, and an even more popular criticism of Holden; many audiences just can’t relate to him and his long, lonely trip to New York City.

But that’s exactly why I love the book so much, and why it’s still my favorite book, more than ten years after reading it for the first time. Yes, Holden is difficult to like, and even harder to sympathize with. But at the same time, he’s sixteen. He’s brash and cynical and still learning how the world works. I cringe when I come across tweets I wrote two years ago; imagine my reaction to my sixteen-year-old self. Holden is difficult because he’s young, and let’s not forget that he’s teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown throughout the entirety of the novel. Of course readers aren’t supposed to like him. Of course they’re not supposed to agree with him, or even support most of his actions. But that creates such an interesting relationship to the book — how many narrators are this sharply defined, this complicated, this visceral? It’s such a testament to Salinger’s writing that everyone who reads The Catcher in the Rye has such a strong reaction to Holden. I don’t think it’s possible to be ambivalent about this book: you either love it or you hate it.

Truly, this has been my favorite book since I was thirteen. I’ve read it so many times since then, and it’s the only book where I get something different every single time. I first read it as an adolescent, then again throughout my teenage years, then as an adult. My relationship with the book has changed, and more hugely, my relationship with Holden has changed. I don’t relate to him the same way I did as a thirteen-year-old who thought she had the world all figured out. At this point, I don’t think I really see anything of myself in Holden. But I definitely see parts of who I was reflected in how Holden takes on the world around him, and in all the memories the book holds for me. To anyone who hasn’t read it, I implore you to pick it up. Embrace Holden’s anger and hypocrisy, and take him as he is.  That’s the key to understanding this book, and this book — when properly understood — has so much to say.

Deb’s Banned Book Pick: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse-Five was the first book I had ever read by Kurt Vonnegut, because of course it was. I think I read it at the beginning of college because I had a list of books I thought I should probably read and, at the time, I hadn’t realized exactly how little reading-for-fun I would get in during my time in the hallowed halls of (slightly) higher education. Oh, past me. Making lists of books to read during college. You were adorable.

In summary, Slaughterhouse-Five is a science fiction novel about the bombing of Dresden during World War II, and a soldier who survived it named Billy Pilgrim. Billy Pilgrim becomes “unstuck in time” (which allows Vonnegut to tell a non-linear story based around mood or meaning rather than narrative) and meets a group of aliens called Tralfamadorians, who put him in one of their zoo exhibits. From the outside, Slaughterhouse-Five seems like a really bizarre science fiction novel and probably very little else. Vonnegut’s prose style and his tendency to play fast and loose with the fourth wall make it more interesting than your average pulp sci-fi, perhaps, but the barebones blurb of Slaughterhouse-Five probably leaves something to be desired.

The full title of the novel is Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, and that extended title does a lot to emphasize the book’s meaning, in my opinion. Death is the star of this novel — not aliens or time travel. War and death and the after-effects of war and death on average people. It’s a war novel wrapped inside a sci-fi satire, a condemnation of violence and a declaration of weary sadness hidden beneath sex, swearing, and rude doodles by the author. The tone is a mix between despairing acceptance of the world as it is, forever sending children to dance with Death and never learning from it, and something akin to a passive-aggressive nudge toward hope.


Chelsea’s Banned Book Pick: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I don’t really have a story about how I “discovered” To Kill a Mockingbird because it’s one of those stories I’ve always had in my life. Some of my earliest memories in life are of me as a three year-old watching the film and being charmed by Scout’s life “back in the olden days,” thinking she was the coolest, funniest kid. I didn’t care about Sesame Street or the Ninja Turtles. I wanted to watch this little girl and her adventures with her brother and the neighbor kid, utterly oblivious to the “adult” parts of the movie. As I grew older, I slowly started to realize the larger themes of the film and that it wasn’t just about a girl having adventures or even really a good guy being accused of being bad. By the time I got to middle school and found the book in the library, I was already shaped so much by this powerful story about race, equality, rape, and privilege.

When I checked the book out of the library, I kept it for a solid two months until I was forced to return it. I read and re-read it half a dozen times, getting lost in this expanded story that I never saw in the decade it had been with me. I gained so much more insight into Scout and her loss of innocence in that small town in Maycomb, Alabama in the 1930s. What makes the story work is that the readers are seeing the injustices through the eyes of a child and there’s something about that that makes right and wrong so clear. Children are not born with hate. It’s a completely learned behavior. While Scout is growing up and learning to navigate her emotions, she has a strong moral center in her father Atticus that lets her see the world the way people should. Atticus is aware of his privilege and position in society as a white man, and he uses that to give a voice to those that society ignores and demeans. Yes, many will call him the “white savior” but the man is mindful of his advantage and isn’t trying to be a hero. He’s being a decent human being and doing all he can to make sure the obviously innocent man gets a fair trial.

Harper Lee published this novel in 1960, right in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. The novel tackles issues like race and rape in a pretty explicit manner. Classrooms and libraries have spent decades trying to ban the book that is now a requirement in most literature classes. The story continues to be relevant and important in the 56 years since it’s been published. Americans try banning the book because they don’t want to hear the story. They don’t want to see that they are still as racist as they were 60 years ago. That every time a police officer kills an innocent black person or an angry Cheeto asks our President for his birth certificate that they are just proving Lee’s points about tolerance and humanity.

This story is my favorite book and film of all-time. It has shaped who I am fundamentally. I implore everyone to go read or reread this novel and come out of it a decent human, because that’s all Harper Lee is really asking — for us to treat all people like people, to not judge a book by its cover, and for a tad bit of kindness. 

Alisa’s Banned Book Pick: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a book that first caught my eye because of the title. Any books that mention dogs in the title are worth a shot. And this book has not only a dog, but a mystery. I couldn’t pass it up, and I wasn’t disappointed. The book hooked me from the opening sentences. Christopher John Francis Boone is the narrator and protagonist of the story. He also happens to be autistic. He loves animals but hates the color yellow. He’s a mathematical genius but socially inept. He’s exactly the type of hero a story needs, and you can’t help but simultaneously cheer him on and fear for him as he attempts to unravel the mystery of his neighbor’s murdered dog.

There are very few well-written books out there with an autistic protagonist. There were even fewer when this book was published in 2004. This book does something fundamentally important: it introduces us to a fully formed, fully human character who is not like “us” but who we can still relate to fully. Many of the representations we have in literature or film of individuals with autism or Asperger’s are not only flat and under-developed, but are downright harmful to our understanding of this spectrum of complex disorders. Mark Haddon, through his character Christopher, has helped to change that.

I recommend this book to everyone I know because, really, who doesn’t love a twisty murder mystery and an unlikely hero? Every time I read it, it makes me laugh, it makes me cry, and it gives me hope. This story — Christopher’s story — stuck with me in a way no other story has before. It got in my head and seeped into my bones, and I’m not even sure I can articulate why exactly it has had such an effect on me. But it did. It does. It’s one of those stories I carry around in my heart (right next to Harry Potter), and I’m better because of it.

What are some of your favorite banned books? Let us know in the comments below!


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