I originally posted this blog with the YA Muses in September of 2010. Of course, much of it remains true today, except that my dad passed away two years ago, and I can no longer call on him to recommend challenging books to me. Now it's my job to do the same for my teenager.
On my first day of Sophomore AP English, I brought home the extracurricular reading list. I had chosen the “new” teacher – young, foreign, different. She had big ideas. Eccentric tastes. Expansive theories.
My dad grew up in the deep South in the 1940s and 50s amongst people who had fixed opinions and a strong sense of tradition. People who didn't question their faith or the government.
My dad took a long look at that list. Graham Greene. Ernest Hemingway. Kurt Vonnegut. John Steinbeck. Ken Kesey. William Golding. J.D. Salinger. Anthony Burgess.
“I loved these books,” he said. And showed me his favorites.
In honor of Banned Books week and in honor of my dad (on whose opinion I still pick up certain titles), I’d like to share a few of those books with you. I read them in high school. The “classics” were my books of choice. They, and my parents, made me who I am. The reader. The writer. The person. All of these have been banned or challenged at one time or another.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. Burned by the Nazis. Banned by the Italians for its accurate portrayal of the retreat from Caporetto. Challenged for being a “sex novel”. This was my favorite Hemingway. A brilliant love story. Tragic. I may have thrown it across the room when I finished it, though. I was a little volatile as a teenager.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. Banned and challenged for language, promoting criminal activity and “secular humanism”. Quite possibly one of the most heart-wrenching books I’ve ever read (another one that hit the wall when I read the final page). I read it on my dad’s solid recommendation. Then we watched the movie together. Jack Nicholson rocks.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I seriously fell in love with Steinbeck and Hemingway in high school. This book was banned and is still challenged for profanity (damn!), violence and being defamatory to women and differently-abled people. It was also pulled from shelves in one community because Steinbeck was known to have an “anti-business” attitude and “questionable patriotism”. You can’t question his technique, though. George and Lenny live in my mind 20 years later.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This book is consistently challenged for language (damn again!) and racial epithets. Also for its portrayal of the treatment of blacks by racist whites in rural Alabama. Huh. I may have read it when I was sixteen, but wasn’t that kind of the point? Lee wrote the book so eloquently she showed us what that community was like. Her use of language fit the setting. Those characters were unlikely to wander around calling blacks “African-Americans”. My dad thought her portrayal of the South was acutely accurate.
This is a short list of my favorite books when I was a teenager. I still count them as such today. (Yes, I was a nerd. And a drama geek. Double whammy). I can’t countenance removing them from the shelves of libraries and classrooms. Or any other book that encourages a child or teenager to think, to question, to discuss. To read.
The Long List (favorite banned books I read as a teenager):
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Sophie's Choice by William Styron
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
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