“Ban a book? How can someone control what I read?” I demanded. It was the mid-1990s and our local librarians had asked my mother, a trusted patron with an educator’s objective eye, to evaluate a young adult novel another parent was lobbying to ban. For me, books were like oxygen: ubiquitous, essential, and in almost unlimited supply. I don’t think my parents ever denied me a book. Even when my mother caught me reading the movie-illustrated novelization of Alien furtively in a corner of the library, she simply raised her eyebrows and said “that might give you nightmares.” The idea that someone could restrict my literary wonderland filled me with horror.
My mother explained—with the expression of stoic disapproval that brought out the German half of her genes—that some people were easily offended and felt compelled to impose their preferences on everyone else. In this case, a character in the book “flipped the bird” and an overprotective parent felt it would instruct her child in obscenity (funnily enough, I didn’t even know what “the bird” was until book banning brouhaha forced my parents to explain it, so the would-be banner undermined her own intention). To support the library, my mother read Louis Sachar’s The Boy Who Lost His Face and ruled its content unremarkable. It stayed on the shelves.
That was my first encounter with the notion of banned books, and I’ve read dozens of them since. Classics I adore like like The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have library rap sheets that would make Whitey Bulger cringe. While browsing band book lists for this week’s challenge, I was appalled at how many of my favorite young adult books appear on the roster. Julie of the Wolves? A Wrinkle in Time? These books don’t contain graphic sex, profanity, or anything parents normally find objectionable. It pains me to think some kids may not have the opportunity to enjoy these stories as I did. So I’m devoting this Top 5 Wednesday to my favorite YA books that—in someone’s mind, at least—have a naughty side.
- Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling. A devout Catholic colleague of mine once commented she hadn’t read these books because her pastor claimed they contained “witchcraft”. Another colleague—also Catholic—responded that, on the contrary, the stories displayed many positive Christian themes such as loyalty and sacrificial love. I’m with the latter friend. This marvelous epic defined a large part of my childhood, and I can’t imagine anyone condemning the timeless theme of good triumphing over evil.
- Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. The Alice books were my generation’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Apparently the standard coming-of-age themes—the awkwardness of sexual development, peer pressure, family dysfunction, etc—get a girl banned these days. But I was glad to have Alice along to make my own adolescence feel a little more normal.
- Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. I don’t disagree these books contain some violent scenes; however, unlike many graphic movies and TV shows today, this trilogy also portray the consequences of violence, not just to the immediate victims, but to families and those forced into combat. The final book reads like a chronicle of post-traumatic stress syndrome, giving a fictional voice to a very relevant real-world issue.
- His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. My dad read The Golden Compass aloud to me as a child, and just this summer I finally read the subsequent novels. I didn’t find them anti-religious, as some people claim, so much as anti-closedmindedness. But then, closed-minded people are the ones who tend to ban books….
- The Giver, by Lois Lowry. Probably the first dystopian story I ever read. I couldn’t recall any content worth banning, so I looked it up. The most frequently cited objection is “not suitable for age group”. I beg to differ. Making tough choices and coming to terms with uncomfortable realities about one’s society are hallmarks of young adulthood. It doesn’t get much more age-appropriate than that. More likely the dystopian elements make someone uncomfortable. It might get young people thinking critically about the world. How dreadful!