How my favorite Banned Book shaped my adolescence and adulthood

Updated Oct 12 2015
Photo by ellen.w, used under Creative Commons license.
I've always been a big-time book nerd, and any excuse to celebrate literature I find moving or important is exciting for me. I was so bad in middle school that I made accruing Accelerated Reader points into a semi-sport — I think the lowest (or highest, because it worked out in my favor) point was when I "read" (skimmed and then guessed at the answers) Anna Karenina in seventh grade because it had the highest point value. Speaking of… I should probably finally get around to reading that one.

Anyway! My point is that I love to read (even when points aren't involved!), and there's something slightly extra delicious about knowing you're reading a book that has been, or is currently being, challenged in some way. Since I know we're nearly all bookworms in some form or fashion around the Empire, I thought it'd be fun if a few staffers and contributors picked our favorite Banned Book and talked about why it's important to us. Without further ado… dig in!

Brooke (regular Offbeat Mama contributor): Slaughterhouse-Five

slaughterhouse-five
Photo by Chris Drumm, used with Creative Commons license.
If you and I could shazam through time and talk as teenagers, teen-me would likely say that teen-you should read Slaughterhouse Five. In that time of my life, I would use words like "trippy" or "surreal" to portray the book, in which the pinnacles of pleasure and cruelty are treated with disjointed engagement and detachment… all in a setting of time travel, far-reaching knowledge and pervading confusion. What I would have meant, of course, is that the book both affected me and eluded me in a way I did not yet have the words to describe.

I have the words now, and realize why Slaughterhouse-Five has been lodged in my psyche all these post-teen years. While the "angry teen" stereotype is unfairly blanketed upon adolescents, it did fit me throughout my teens: I was pissed. The more I learned about humankind, the more I felt perplexed by feelings of hate, love, and most frighteningly, that occasional nothingness where those things were supposed to exist. The more I knew about the world, the less I could make sense of it. The more I fought to stand on my own, the more I felt life jerking me by the neck.

Slaughterhouse-Five didn't just touch these nerves; it stroked them into a convoluted braid. When I couldn't explain the whys of the world — why I loved the book or why I felt so combustible — Slaughterhouse-Five insisted that explanations can be less important than acknowledgements. Vonnegut's story allowed me to be both frustrated and connected with things I could feel but not entirely know. Emily Dickinson famously said that "You'll know it's poetry if it blows the top of your head off." Slaughterhouse-Five is much like a long poem, where understanding each line is less significant than experiencing the sum of all its elements: the way the words look on the page, where it begins and ends, how it echoes itself. As a teen, Slaughterhouse-Five welcomed me to love the sum of everything even when I couldn't understand the line in front of me.

Catherine (Offbeat Bride): His Dark Materials

I read Philip Pullman's three-part series His Dark Materials when it first came out in 1995, during my formative teen years. If you haven't read it, you might know it from the film The Golden Compass which came out in 2007. That was also the American title of the first book, preceding The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. It was never on my school reading list, but then again, Science Fiction/Fantasy was never the most popular topic teachers focused on, and certainly not the newer titles. I, on the other hand, was a nerd from the start. The concept of armored polar bears, flying witches, and personal soul dæmons was stock material in my D&D/Last Unicorn/Labyrinth-seduced mind.

Pullman is one of those writers who doesn't shy away from controversy, so seeing it on a banned books list was not suprising. He explores philosophy, young adult sexuality, and most divisive, theology. It was that which contributed most to not seeing any movie sequels to The Golden Compass, and of course, to the book ban. Although I once read that Pullman was surprised there wasn't even more controversy over the perceived criticism of institutional religion. He explores a pretty different afterlife than Judeo-Christian dogma and many of the world leaders are seen as zealots.

But regardless of whatever subtle or not-so-subtle undertones exist in the series, it is still one of my favorite pieces of fantastical fiction. Pullman didn't speak down to his young adult target audience. In fact, I'd hesitate to categorize it that way myself. And I'm sure we all have seen even the most benign of fantasy lumped into someone's version of "evil." I'm talking to you, Ms. Rowling. Digging deeply into many books will reveal all sorts of social commentary. And I for one don't mind young readers getting a taste of social dissent and free thinking once in awhile.

Megan (Offbeat Bride): Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

adventures of huckleberry finn
Photo by Chris Drumm, used with Creative Commons license.
My father read me The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I was a kid, causing me to fall in love with Mark Twain. But it was when I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the very first book on the banned book list!) that I fell in love with literature itself.

Sure it's horribly uncomfortable to read "the N word" over and over again, sure it was hard to re-live (or in my case, as a young kid, learn about) the disturbing history of racism in the US. But Huck Finn is also full of smaller stories that make you fall in love with the sweet side of the human condition even in the face of the worst part of humanity. The clever way in which Twain words things (that both delight and frustrate me as a writer) and the deep and complicated characters… oh man… THAT is what good literature is really about!

Just thinking about Huck Finn evokes a sense-memory of the smell of that leather-bound book given to me by my father. That book came with me from grade school, through required reading in high school (and then once again in another high school). I even brought it with me to college at USC, where, because of my Huck Finn-inspired love of literature I got a BA in English Lit. Yes, I truly feel like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn got me, not only into, but through college. And I can't even imagine a world where I wouldn't have been allowed access to the book that made me fall in love with very idea of reading and writing as a pursuit.

Stephanie (Offbeat Mama): The Giver

The first time I read The Giver was in sixth grade. It was required reading that year, which is something I am CRAZY thankful for. I'm pretty sure every kid who was in a public school in Alabama read it that year, because everyone I've met since moving from my school says the same thing.

If you're not familiar, the basic premise is this: Jonas is an eleven-year-old who lives in a society that appears to be utopian. No one experiences pain or anything negative — everyone has converted to the communal idea of "Sameness" which removes emotional experiences and memories from their lives. One person, know as The Receiver of Memory, holds all of the memories of the time before Sameness. On his twelfth birthday Jonas is selected as the new Receiver of Memory, and he begins apprenticing with The Giver.

The attainment of knowledge opens Jonas's mind up to a world that he had no idea existed, and the book follows his struggles with reconciling what he's always known and the unknown that has always existed parallel to his life. Jonas soon finds himself questioning whether or not he should continue to live in his society or if he should pursue a life in the outside world.

I don't want to give away too much about the book, because what I've already said is enough — if you're into what you've read, you'll love this. I may have read it for the first time when I was twelve, but to this day this book ranks in my top 10 of all time. It's powerful and perfect for anyone who spends just a little bit too much time inside his or her head, contemplating what else might be out there.

We had a pretty awesome discussion on Facebook but I want more — what are your favorite Banned Books? How did they impact and teach you?

  1. My book was Go Ask Alice. I was at a Borders (I ended up working at that store for 2 years when I was 19!) when I was 13 with my sister, Mum, and Uncle. I just went to a shelf and grabbed a book. It ended up being this one. My uncle saw what I was looking at and told my Mum he didn't think this book was appropriate for me (he was a giant book worm and had read it himself). My Mum then had my older sister read it to see if she thought it was OK for me to read. A couple days later she handed it over to me and said it was fine.
    That book really opened my eyes to the fact that I had it so good. I was just starting my teenage years and thought everyone was out to get me and make my life miserable. Boy, did I realize how wrong I was after reading that book.
    That book actually helped me talk to my parents about my other Uncle's drug addiction problems and why he was the way he was.
    Books are a powerful, and this one showed it to me.

  2. I went to a school where the Harry Potter books were banned for a short time due to me and another student. Right before they became wildly popular he loaned me the first book my rather conservative catholic teacher caught me reading it and sat me down for a long and awkward disscussion on what was not right with that book. While this may not be my specific favorite banned book, the experience of having someone tell me I could not read the book I was falling in love with shaped me in profound ways as a reader. As a 4th grader I was taught the value of perspective and I havent ever stopped reading.

  3. oh, i love so many banned books. it may be obvious that the sun also rises is a favorite (and hemingway in general).

    and my favorite banned book *story* is the one of the librarian who painted a diaper on the boy in in the night kitchen to keep it from being removed from her library. plus, it is such a wonderful book.

    but as an adolescent, nothing (nothing! not even to kill a mockingbird) had such an impact as the catcher in the rye. my god. that is one of the very few books that i would truly, honestly consider life-changing. that book got me through what was probably the worst year of my life. it is, in retrospect, rather embarrassing how thoroughly i identified with it.

    naturally, i read it at that most perfect moment because it was assigned by one of the worst teachers i've ever had. class discussion of it was doubly miserable.

  4. Without question, To Kill a Mockingbird. I liked it when I read it in high school, and I recently re-read it for its 50th anniversary. It fills me with both sadness and hope, and any story that can move me in that way is MORE than worth it.

    • To Kill a Mockingbird was mine too, but for a different reason. A younger girl at my school was not allowed to read it because it had swearing. I remember thinking, "Boy, if you read that book and all you remember are a few bad words, you are clueless!"

    • My favorite, too! It was required reading for me in 8th grade (I think), but because I liked it so much, I re-read it in high school (sitting in the open trunk of my car, in the parking lot, waiting for my sister to get out of sports practice. That was fun!).

  5. Well, not my FAVORITE banned book, but the most memorable would be Brave New World. We had illustrate a section, and one of my teachers flipped out about the content of the illustration when she saw it in my book bag. She tried very hard to get my suspended for it, but luckily we had an amazing Vice Principal who just laughed and sent me on to my next class. I had that English teacher twice in high school; her entire reading list was banned books.

  6. The Giver was a favourite of mine too – I think I probably read it at about the same age. I still recommend it to my friends (it's not so commonly read in the UK, so few people have heard of it).

    His Dark Materials was also a huge influence on my slightly-older self. I remember sobbing and throwing the book at the wall when I finished the final book, because it was so perfect and heart-breaking.

    I'd also like to put a word in for Madeleine L'Engle, who I think is on the list… that lady got me through a lot of hard early teen times. And I kept coming back to it. In fact, I ended up reading her adult novels (The Small Rain/A Severed Wasp) a little on the young side because I didn't realise they were for adults, but I just ate them up. Some very grown-up, emotionally difficult things in there, but they really spoke to me. "Camilla" and "And Both Were Young" were other favourites. I get the impression that L'Engle felt quite different from her peers when she was young – all her heroines feel like adults trapped in children's bodies, which was how I felt for so long, that it was so validating to find those feelings of frustrations written so beautifully. I really feel grateful for it.

    There's something about books that don't speak down to their young audiences that really hooked me, I think.

  7. I can't really think of a book that shaped my adolescence, especially one that has been banned (whenever I find out that a particular book was banned, I'm usually surprised), but I do have to say YES! to The Giver being just one of the finest children's books ever written. Honestly, it shouldn't even be considered a children's book because I think all ages should read it. My fifth grade teacher read it to us in class and I was blown away. I probably wouldn't have ever known about it if he hadn't picked that one. The ending definitely opened my eyes and, now that I think about it, was my first real exposure to the concept of ethics.

    I also really enjoyed Are You There God, It's Me Margaret when I was a pre-teen because, although I didn't go exploring different religions myself, I could relate to her feelings of confusion about spirituality.

  8. I've been a huge bookworm my whole life, so there are a lot of books that had an impact on me as a teen. "To Kill A Mockingbird" is definitely on there, as well as "Catcher in the Rye". But I'd have to say that Slaughterhouse-Five is definitely my fave. In fact, I actually have the phrase "So it goes" tattooed on my shoulder. I loved the book in high school and then when I re-read it a few years ago it had an even bigger impact, it sorta helped my sort out some pretty dark and confused feelings. "So it goes" has kind of become my mantra in life.

  9. My favorite is also The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, because of the whole n-word issue. Before we read it in my senior year English class, our teacher told us it was on the banned book list and wanted to talk to us about why some people think it should be there. I remember telling her that as a young queer woman, if there was a book out there that used the world "dyke" or "faggot" in a way that illustrated that it was commonplace but also wrong, and that if people put in on a banned book list because they thought those words were inappropriate, and if there were people having discussions in classrooms about homophobia and the power of hurtful words, I'd be ecstatic. That whole situation is definitely something I can relate to, and I hope someday that there will be a similar situation with queer literature (although hopefully the whole "banned book" thing won't be an issue).

  10. I don't have a banned book to share, but I just wanted to add that I had so many accelerated reader points in middle school that I got second place in the school and got to ride in a limo to Pizza Hut with the principal ! Haha okay sorry, this post just brought up that memory.

  11. Annie on my Mind was a very important book to me when I was struggling with my sexuality as a young person, as was Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (not sure if that's on any banned books list, but I doubt it's in many school libraries anyway).

    It is so, so important for there to be books out there for LGBTQ kids! Autostraddle had a great post about that.

  12. I was introduced to Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" by a mildly deviant history teacher in high school. He also helped me make the acquaintance of "Harold and Maude" and "The Harder they Come," and basically helped me keep my adolescent rage in check.
    "Stranger" made me confront the fallibility of authors (I can't get behind the misogyny or the homophobia), and it helped me look at religions (formerly an object of scorn/fear) and humanity in a more forgiving light.
    I still re-read it yearly and find much food for thought.

  13. I'm really surprised Huck Finn and the Giver are on the banned book list. Those were two of my favorite books while growing up.

    Which, if anyone is curious, here is the list of books banned in 2010/2011: http://www.ala.org/ala/issuesadvocacy/banned/bannedbooksweek/ideasandresources/free_downloads/2011banned.pdf

    Another one of my favorite banned books is Anne Frank's diary. While incredibly sad, it introduced me into a new life of a girl that (while writing it) was around the same age as myself at the time. Also, it brought life to how wars affect families and children.

  14. The Giver was (and still is!) my all time favorite book. It was the first book I ever read that gave me any kind of emotional response to the characters. I remember I had a teacher who told my mother that it was not an appropiate book for someone my age to be reading. My mother's response? "Any book that she wants to read, is an appropiate book for her to be reading."

  15. His Dark Materials Is somthing that I re read every couple of years, and re fall in love.
    I just lent them to my mother and hope she has the same soul warming and soul tearing expierence that I had.
    Seriously the ending. Just. So amazing.

  16. I can't remember all the books I read growing up. I read Dracula in the 7th grade and found it perplexing. The Shining kept me in stitches. 1984 and Starship Troopers opened my mind to alternate versions of stark futures. H.P. Lovecraft and Neil Gaiman accounted for many hours of sleepless nights and got the books banned in my house for a time.

    As a writer I'd love for one of my books to raise such controversy to get banned in some areas of the country. That is one of my goals in life.

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