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
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
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?