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Friday, September 30, 2011

Banned Books Week: Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

Photo courtesy of Public-Domain-Photos.com

"To choose a good book, look in an inquisitor’s prohibited list." 
~John Aikin

Here are a few of my favorite books for older kids and teenagers that have been challenged and/or banned at one time or another:

Blubber, written by Judy Blume, 1974.  This story has been challenged for having "immoral characters who go unpunished" and swear words.

I remember my 5th grade teacher reading this book, which is basically about bullying, to our class.  Though I had already read the book on my own, I appreciated hearing the story again as Mrs. Allen read it aloud and, at the same time, made her anti-bullying stance clear. The story is told by the character Jill, a fifth grader.  She describes how a classmate, Linda, is ostracized by the entire class and bullied by a group of girls.  Jill herself goes along with the bullying for awhile.  When she later tries to stand up to the bullies, she becomes a target herself.  I think this is an important book, and I wish more teachers would read it to their classes.

Harriet the Spy, written by Louise Fitzhugh, 1964.  Anti-authoritative thoughts and actions have contributed to this book being challenged at times.

Harriet loves to write and wants to become a spy.  She secretly watches the people around her -- friends, neighbors, classmates -- and writes down her observations.  Then Harriet loses her notebook at school.  Classmates find it and read it... and then the trouble really begins!

I think that many people who have challenged this book worry that kids will emulate Harriet and spy on others, even though Harriet ends up having to deal with the negative consequences of her actions.  I have to admit that after reading this book when I was ten, I did come up with my own "spy route".  It lasted about 3 days -- then my mom caught me spying on a neighbor and I got in big trouble! ;)

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, written by C.S. Lewis, 1950.  This story has been challenged because of the aforementioned witch, as well as "graphic violence".

The first book in the Chroncicles of Narnia series, this is the story of how the four Pevensie children -- Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy -- find their way into the magical land of Narnia.  I discussed the series previously, here.

Bridge to Terabithia, written by Katherine Paterson , 1977.  Swear words, suggestions of witchcraft, and themes of death and grief are some of the reasons people have used to challenge this book.

Fifth-grader Jess becomes good friends with his new neighbor and classmate, Leslie, who helps him learn to be strong and courageous.  The two friends create their own imaginary kingdom, Terabithia, in the woods near their home.  They declare themselves king and queen of this world, and retreat to it every day after school.  While in this world of their imagination, they learn to face their real-world fears.  Then tragedy strikes, and all the characters must deal with their grief.

I still remember reading this book for the first time when I was eleven.  It's the first (but certainly not the last) book that ever made me cry.  It touched my heart and instantly became one of my very favorite books.

A Wrinkle in Time, written by Madeline L'Engle, 1962.  One reason this story has been challenged is for "allegedly undermining religious beliefs".  I reviewed this book a few months ago, here.

The Bad Beginning, written by Lemony Snicket, 1999.  The first of thirteen books in A Series of Unfortunate Events, this story has been challenged for scary and/or violent content.

Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Beaudelaire are orphaned by an arsonous fire, and sent to live with their distant cousin, Count Olaf.  He turns out to be a very odd and unpleasant guardian, interested only in the children's extensive inheritance.

I read this (and the rest of the series) several years ago when my daughter Emmalie first read them.  In my opinion, though the books can be a bit macabre, they are still appropriate for most older kids (ten and up, or so).  The books are also wickedly funny!

Olive's Ocean, written by Kevin Henkes, 2003.  This book has been challenged for offensive language (all of it words that are heard frequently on tv and PG movies), sexual content (uh... there is one teenage kiss and a scene with the parents kissing) and themes of grief.

This is the story of 12-year-old Martha, who wants to be a writer someday.  Shortly before her family makes their annual trip to Cape Cod to visit her grandmother, the mother of a recently deceased classmate (Olive), brings a page from Olive's diary to Martha.  From it, Martha learns that Olive also wanted to be a writer, that she always hoped to go to the ocean, and that she thought Martha was "the nicest person in my whole entire class".  Throughout her stay in Cape Cod, Martha thinks of Olive, wanting to do something for this girl who could have been her friend.  The story explores Martha's relationships with her family, as well as feelings she's having for a teenage boy.

I just read this book for the first time earlier this week, and found it to be a poignant, well-written story.

The Harry Potter series, written by J. K. Rowling, 1997.  These books have been banned widely for "themes of witchcraft".  I discussed this series here a few months ago.

The His Dark Materials series, written by Philip Pullman, 1995.  Among the Top 10 Most Challenged Books in recent years, these books have been challenged for being anti-religion.  I reviewed these stories a few weeks ago here.

Speak, written by Laurie Halse Anderson, 1999.  This book has been banned from many middle and high school libraries for sexuality, suicidal thoughts, and "gritty teenage situations".

Melinda, a freshman, is a social pariah at school.  She called 911 at a party over the summer -- when police arrived, they discovered underage drinking and made some arrests, and now everyone thinks of Melinda as a snitch.  No one knows the real reason she called the police, that she was raped by a popular senior boy.  Melinda withdraws from the world around her, often refusing to speak to her parents, teachers, and classmates.  The remainder of the story centers around Melinda's struggle to find her voice once again.

I found this to be a moving story -- full of pain and despair, yes, but also full of finding strength and courage inside one's self.

For more banned/challenged middle grade books, please see my 2012 post about this.  For more young adult books, check out this one.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Something worse...

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

“There are worse crimes
than burning books.
One of them is not reading them.”

~ Joseph Brodsky

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


From Big Backyard magazine, October 2011,
photo by Richard Costin

The other day my son Ben and I were reading through his latest issue of Big Backyard magazine, and we came across the word "puffling".  Even though I've learned all kinds of information about wildlife from my son Nick over the years, I had never heard of a puffling before.  Have you?  A puffling is another name for a young puffin.  (A puffin is a kind of sea bird, with a short neck and large bill.)  I like the word -- to me, it sounds like something little, fuzzy, and cute -- the same words I would use to describe an actual puffling. :)

The mother puffin returned to her puffling
 with a bill full of fish.

What other words can you think of that seem to fit the objects they name perfectly?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Who Needs School?

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

Who Needs School?

Read it?  Forget it -- I'll get the video.
My calculator takes care of my math.
Don't need art, my computer has graphics.
This spell-checking program
makes spelling a laugh.
No need to write, since I got a printer.
And my preprogrammed keyboard
plays music divine.
I don't need friends,
'cause I have Nintendo.
Just don't unplug me and I'll be fine.

~Carol Diggory Shields,
from Lunch Money and Other Poems About School

Monday, September 26, 2011

Banned Books Week: Picture Books

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

“Even though not every book
will be right for every reader,
the ability to read, speak, think,
and express ourselves freely
are core American values. 
Protecting one of our
most fundamental rights –
the freedom to read –
means respecting
each other’s differences
and the right of all people
to choose for themselves
what they and their families read.”
~ Barbara Jones,
director of the American Library Association’s
Office for Intellectual Freedom

This week (Sept. 24 - Oct. 1) is Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.  When it comes to children and books, I believe that:
  • It is important for parents to know what their children are reading. 
  • If a parent is concerned about a book his/her child wants to read, the parent should read it first and then decide if it is appropriate for the child.  
  • Parents have the right to tell their children not to read a book that they, the parents, are concerned about.  (Older children will find a way to read a book their parents have banned, if they really want to read it, however.  Ignoring a subject or forbidding it is likely to increase kids' curiosity.  In my opinion, it is better for the parent to discuss the book -- and his/her objections to it -- with the child openly and honestly, rather than banning it or pretending it doesn't exist.) 

I also firmly believe that other people should not be able to tell me what my children can't read, or to try and restrict the books that libraries and schools offer. 

Below are a few of the picture books for children that have been challenged and/or banned over the years.  (All of them are books I have happily read to my own kids and recommend to others, by the way.)  Later this week I will share some of my favorite banned books for older children.... 

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, written and illustrated by William Steig, 1970...  This book has been banned at times because of its depiction of characters as animals, particularly police officers depicted as pigs. 

I remember my elementary school librarian reading this story to my class when I was in 2nd grade or so.  I've also read it many times to my own kids, never realizing that the book had ever been controversial.  I've always liked this magical story about the donkey who finds a special pebble.  Sylvester soon discovers that it will make his wishes come true -- but in the end, he learns that sometimes what we already have is all we really need.

The Lorax, written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss, 1971...  This book has been banned in some areas of the U.S. for being "an allegorical political commentary."  Yes.  Yes, it is.  So what?

I've loved this story ever since I was a little girl, although I probably saw "The Lorax" movie (released in 1972) on tv before I ever read the book.  The Once-ler arrives in a wonderful land, filled with Truffula Trees, Swomee-Swans, Brown Bar-ba-loots, and Humming-Fishes.  He begins using the trees to make thneeds -- something "everyone needs".  Only the Lorax speaks for the trees, but the Once-ler doesn't listen.   Soon the trees and the animals, everything that made the land wonderful, are gone, and finally the Once-ler understands the damage he's done. 

Where the Sidewalk Ends, written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein, 1974.  Among other things, such as "death, violence, disrespect for truth, disrespect for legitimate authority, and rebellion against parents", some people also have perceived the poem "Dreadful" (with its line "someone ate the baby") as supporting cannibalism.  (Really?)

A Light in the Attic, also written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein, 1981.  This book has been challenged because it contains the poem "How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes" which suggests (tongue-in-cheek, I might add) that children break dishes instead of washing them.  

I reviewed both of these books here a few months ago.

Where the Wild Things Are, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, 1963...  This book has occasionally been challenged for having "supernatural elements" and a child who yells at his mother.  (Because that never happens in real life!) 

I previously reviewed this book here.

The Story of Babar, written and illustrated by Jean de Brunhoff, 1933... This book has been challenged at times for promoting colonialism and being "politically and morally offensive".

Babar is an elephant.  When he is young, his mother is shot by a hunter, and Babar flees.  At last, he arrives at a city.  He makes new friends there, buys himself a snazzy new wardrobe, and then eventually returns to the jungle where he is crowned King of the Elephants.  I remember being delighted by all the Babar books when I was young!

Heather Has Two Mommies, written by Leslea Newman and illustrated by Diana Souza, 1989...  This was one of the most challenged books of the 1990's, due to its homosexual themes.

I taught my kids about homosexuality at a young age because they have an openly gay loved one in their lives.  However, I'd like to think that, even if that weren't the case, I would still have read them books like Heather Has Two Mommies, teaching them that there are all different kinds of wonderful people in the world and all different kinds of families. 

Parts of this book may not hold a child's interest, such as how Mama Kate and Mama Jane met or the brief explanation of artificial insemination, but the rest of it makes for a good children's story.  Above all, it celebrates 3-year-old Heather's strong relationship with both of her mommies, and the fact that "Each family is special.  The most important thing about a family is that all the people in it love each other."

And Tango Makes Three, written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, and illustrated by Henry Cole, 2005...  The most challenged book of 2006 to 2010, this book has been banned from some school districts, again for "homosexual themes".

I hadn't heard of this book until recently, while doing research for this post.  I went searching for it at the library and was disappointed to find that it is not shelved with the regular children's books, but only in a special section for parents and teachers.  (Though that's better than not being in the library at all.) 

This book is based on the true story of two male chinstrap penguins at Central Park Zoo who became a couple in 1998, then hatched (and raised) a chick from an egg laid by another penguin pair. 

This is such a sweet, tender story, with adorable illustrations!  (I should probably mention that I am obsessed with penguins, LOL.)  I think it is perfect for introducing young children to the concept of homosexuality in a simple and -- for those parents who may not be entirely comfortable with the subject -- non-threatening way.  And, once again, the theme of how love makes a family is clear.

For more banned/challenged picture books, please see my 2012 post on the subject.

What are some of your favorite banned or challenged books?  I hope you will join me in celebrating Banned Books Week by re-reading old favorites and checking out new ones! :)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The best part of being a writer...

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

"I'll tell you the truth. 
Here's the best part of being a writer:
Your words can change the world."

~ Anne Mazer,
from Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Falling into autumn...

Photo courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.net

It's fall!  Celebrate the season by reading some autumn-related picture books -- here are a few fun ones that I found at the library:

The Scarecrow's Dance, written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, 2009... This story, written in the form of a poem, is about a scarecrow who leaves his post to dance in the wind, but ultimately returns when he discovers his purpose.  I particularly appreciated the beautiful illustrations!

How Many Seeds in a Pumpkin?, written by Margaret McNamara and illustrated by G. Brian Karas, 2007... Mr. Tiffin teaches his class some math and science concepts in an engaging way, as they learn about pumpkins.  I love the charming artwork by Karas and the story's lesson that "small things can have a lot going on inside them".

A is for Autumn, written and photographed by Robert Maass, 2011... An ABC book with gorgeous photographs, A is for Autumn depicts many familiar scenes of the season.  This book is a feast for the eyes!

Apples and Pumpkins, written by Anne Rockwell and illustrated by Lizzy Rockwell, 1989... A little girl and her family spend a day on the farm, picking apples and pumpkins, and enjoying other fall traditions.  With concise prose, this book is appropriate for a beginning reader, or for parents to read to their young children.

Autumn: An Alphabet Acrostic, written by Steven Schnur and illustrated by Leslie Evans, 1997... This book uses acrostic poems to describe different aspects of autumn, one for each letter of the alphabet.  Rich illustrations complement the poetry nicely.

Fletcher and the Falling Leaves, written by Julia Rawlinson and illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke,  2008...  Fletcher the fox doesn't understand why his favorite tree is changing color and dropping leaves, thinking it must be sick.  He tries to keep the leaves from falling, but of course, it doesn't work.  At last, he returns to the now bare tree and discovers a wonderous sight.  I love the tenderness of this story and the delightful artwork!

In the Woods: Who's Been Here?, written and illustrated by Lindsay Barrett George, 1998...  Cammy and William explore the woods one autumn afternoon, finding clues about who has been there before them.  The detailed, life-like illustrations are perfect for little ones (and adults!) who love to go on nature hikes.

Leaves, written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein, 2007...  It is Bear's first fall, and he is concerned when leaves start falling from all the trees -- he even tries to catch the leaves and put them back on.  Eventually he grows too sleepy and hibernates, then wakes up to a surprise in the spring!  I really enjoyed the whimsical pictures and the poetic text of this story.

Leaves in Fall, written by Martha E. H. Rustad, 2007... This nonfiction book uses simple wording and photographs to teach children about autumn leaves.  It is perfect for a beginning reader.

Let It Fall, written and illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler, 2010... This book follows a family through the season as they enjoy many of the delights fall has to offer.  Its lyrical text and colorful pictures combine to create a lively story for young children.

The Little Yellow Leaf, written and illustrated by Carin Berger, 2008... The little yellow leaf is reluctant to let go of its tree branch and join the other leaves swirling to the ground.  At last, it spies one other leaf still holding to the tree, a scarlet leaf.  Together the two decide to let go at the same time, joining each other in the breeze.  I especially like the playful collage-style illustrations of this book.

When Autumn Falls, written by Kelli Nidey and illustrated by Susan Swan, 2004... With its eye-catching illustrations cut from paper and its simple prose, this book features various things that fall in autumn -- from leaves to seeds to football players.

Why Do Leaves Change Color?, written by Betsy Maestro and illustrated by Loretta Krupinski, 1994...  This nonfiction book teaches children why (and how) leaves change color in the fall, using easy-to-understand explanations and interesting facts.  The end of the book provides instructions for some fun activities kids can do with leaves.

Pumpkin Soup, written and illustrated by Helen Cooper, 2005... Cat, Squirrel, and Duck live together in a pumpkin-shaped home.  They make pumpkin soup every night, and each has a special job to do.  When Duck decides he wants to try a different job for a change, chaos ensues, the friends argue, and Duck storms out.  In the end, the three friends make up, learning about cooperation and acceptance along the way.  A recipe for pumpkin soup is provided at the back of the book -- yum!

I am always looking for new book titles,  to read myself and to share with my kids.  What are your favorite autumn-themed picture books?