Sherman Alexie on fighting monsters: A Banned Book Week Post


When we talk about Banned Books, we very often talk about the people who attack books, and the people (or institutions) who actually ban them.  But we also need to consider the readers from whom these books are taken.  In reading more about banned books and their impact, it becomes apparent very quickly how desperately these books are needed.  For many people, the difficult situations, challenging stories, and troubling characters that are in these books offer readers a way to understand themselves and their lives.  They offer hope and voice to people who very often feel they have neither.

2663674There are few authors who understand their heart-rending impact on readers more that Sherman Alexie, author of the most challenged book in America: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.   The book tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist who leaves the troubled schools on his Spokane Indian Reservation in order to attend an all-white school in the nearby farming community.  The novel was inspired by Alexie’s own childhood, which was at least as difficult as Junior’s, if not more so.


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In 2011, Meghan Cox Gurdon wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal criticizing the violence and sex in teen books in general, and in Alexie’s work specifically.  The piece is a rather knee-jerk reaction to the idea that teenagers are now an independent demographic in the publishing industry, and many books written for them featured dark, difficult (and realistic) subject matter–an idea with which Gurdon was clearly not pleased: “Pathologies that went undescribed in print 40 years ago, that were still only sparingly outlined a generation ago, are now spelled out in stomach-clenching detail.”

Guron’s argument seems as much based in her distrust of teenagers as with the books themselves: “…teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.”  Interestingly, she holds up Judy Blume’s Dear God, Are You There, It’s Me, Margaret? as a worthy example of teen literature, despite the fact that it’s one of the most frequently challenged books in America.

She ends with expressing frustration at those who don’t approve of her taking away other people’s books: “In the book trade, this is known as “banning.” In the parenting trade, however, we call this “judgment” or “taste.” It is a dereliction of duty not to make distinctions in every other aspect of a young person’s life between more and less desirable options. Yet let a gatekeeper object to a book and the industry pulls up its petticoats and shrieks “censorship!” (by the way, this is actually the definition of censorship, just so we are all clear).

544a6c96afcb4.imageSherman Alexie’s response is simply stunning, and deserves to be read in its entirely, which you can do here.  In it, he talks about the readers he has met who found, in his book, people who had suffered like them–and people who survived that suffering–and also the courage to survive, as well.  According to Alexie, “kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.”  He goes on to question, “Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”

I’ll let Alexie have the final word here, because nothing can sum up why banned books are so important–for marginalized, lonely, confused readers as well as supported, self-assured, and/or privileged readers, and why we need to protect these readers and their books so carefully:

When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.  No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.

Two years ago, I met a young man attending one of the most elite private high schools in the country. He quietly spoke to me of his agony. What kind of pain could a millionaire’s child be suffering? He hadn’t been physically or sexually abused. He hadn’t ever been hungry. He’d never seen one person strike another in anger. He’d never even been to a funeral. So what was his problem?

“I want to be a writer,” he said. “But my father won’t let me. He wants me to be a soldier. Like he was.”

He was seventeen and destined to join the military. Yes, he was old enough to die and kill for his country. And old enough to experience the infinite horrors of war. But according to Ms. Gurdon, he might be too young to read a YA novel that vividly portrays those very same horrors.

“I don’t want to be like my father,” that young man said. “I want to be myself. Just like in your book.”

I felt powerless in that moment. I could offer that young man nothing but my empathy and the promise of more books about teenagers rescuing themselves from the adults who seek to control and diminish him.

Teenagers read millions of books every year. They read for entertainment and for education. They read because of school assignments and pop culture fads. And there are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged. They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them…

And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

Wednesdays @ West: In praise of re-reading


monsterattheendofthisbookSometimes it seems to me that the world is comprised of two types of readers: those who re-read their favorite books and those who don’t.  Typically, children are big fans of re-reading.  My mom assures me that both my brother and I insisted she read The Monster at the End of this Book by Jon Stone over and over and over again.  Luckily, she obliged because research now suggests that reading the same book to children multiple times is highly beneficial.

2599847Initially, I was torn between making this Wednesdays @ West post another in our important series on Banned Books Week, but I realized that there is a lot of overlap between books other people find offensive and seek to limit access to and those that I love and want to enjoy many times over.   I can’t even count how many times my younger self read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume.  I am also one of those people whose life was changed by Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden.  I was officially not a teenager by the time I discovered that book, but Garden’s writing so touched me that I cried at my desk the morning I heard she had passed away.

parttimeindianOther books that I discovered and rediscover as adult that are technically aimed at teens include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.  These titles also frequently appear on lists of challenged books.

anneofgreengablesWith Harry Potter, I generally re-read books one through seven every summer.  Assigning seasons of the year to specific books is a bit of a reading quirk of mine.  While the summers belong to Harry, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott makes an appearance every Christmas and Anne of Green Gables and the six other books about Anne Shirley by L.M. Montgomery tend to pop up in the spring.  These last two titles attest not only to my enduring love of literature for young people, but to a certain sense of nostalgia for the books that I loved as a child.

beantreesThere are, of course, wonders of adult literature that I choose to escape into more than once as well.  The Red Tent by Anita Diamant and The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh belong to this set, as does our Big Read title In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez.  Many of Barbara Kingsolver’s books are re-read favorites of mine, including Flight Behavior.  I’m also just about to delve into The Bean Trees yet again.

grannydSometimes what I wish to reread depends on my mood.  When I did comforting, I will often turn to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer or Joshua by Joseph Girzone.  If I’m starting to feel a bit cynical or uninspired, I will pick up Granny D: You’re Never Too Old to Raise a Little Hell by Doris Haddock.

There are many readers out there who don’t re-read.   Some feel there are too many wonderful titles they’ve yet to explore to go back to something they’ve already experienced.  As a person with an ever growing reading list, I can certainly sympathize with this point of view.  Rarer, I think, is the reader who doesn’t re-read because they don’t find books they like enough to read twice (or more).  While I feel deeply sorry for those readers, I’m afraid I can’t relate.

I’ve often thought that psychologists could learn a lot about a person’s psyche from asking them what books they like to re-read.  Not being trained in that particular field, I will leave the speculation of what my re-reading selections say about my mental state to others.  I’d rather spend my time re-visiting Harry, Anne, Jo, Dinah, Victoria and Taylor.





“Some Girls Are”…A success story for Banned Books Week


In 2010, Courtney Summers published a book titled Some Girls Are.  The novel tells the story of Regina, a member of her high school’s most elite and vicious peer group–until she reports a sexual assault involving her best friend’s boyfriend.  Then Regina finds out what it’s like to be on the outside, on the receiving end of her clique’s cruelty, and ultimately finds her hope of redemption at the hands of one of her former victims.  By no means is Summer’s book an ‘easy read’, but its frank and honest discussion of some very serious topics won it considerable acclaim, as well as the American Library Association (ALA)’s Young Adult Library Services Association Best Fiction for Young Adults in 2011.

2759542However, after the book was listed as an option for freshmen taking Honors English at West Ashley High School in Charleston, SC this past summer, a parent wrote a letter condemning not only the material in the book, but the teachers who assigned it, and the school that would sanction such teachers: “As a parent, I trusted that the educators, who have been chosen to mold our children, would have better judgment.  My question is whether they even read this book before assigning it. If they did, shame on them. If they didn’t, shame on them.” *  

She then filed a formal request not only that her child be excused from reading the book, but also that access to Some Girls Are be restricted at West Valley High School to those students whose parents have given permission for their children to read, view, or listen to the work, and that the book be removed from the school’s library media center’s resource collection.  In July, before the school committee could meet, the book was removed from the summer reading list.

In response to the incident, author Courtney Summers wrote a beautiful post on her website explaining her work, and providing a critical warning regarding banning books:

While it’s commendable that Melanie MacDonald is actively involved in her daughter’s reading life, it is not one parent’s place to make a judgment call and presume the experiences and reading needs of all teenagers.

What’s more, books provide us with the opportunity to empower teens by letting them have a say and a choice in what is relevant to their lives. This gives us the chance to talk with them about it and it is so important for teen readers to be heard and listened to.

Some Girls Are is a confrontational no-holds-barred look at young adolescent life. It’s about bullying–something most teenagers witness, experience or perpetuate in their school careers. It’s about a highly toxic culture that fosters aggression between girls. The novel explores the consequences of hurting people and asks us to consider the impact our actions have on others. It’s about picking up the pieces of our mistakes and bettering ourselves. It’s about forgiveness…We don’t protect teen readers by denying the realities many of them are faced with. Often, in doing so, we deny them a lifeline.

imagesAnd it is right about here that the story takes a turn for the inspirational.  Kelly Jansen, an editor at the super-fantastic website Book Riot got wind of what was going on in South Carolina, and decided to take some action of her own.  Jansen worked together with Andria Amaral, a super-fantastic librarian in the Charleston County Library system, and put out a call to put a copy of Some Girls Are in the hands of every reader who wanted one.  “[Andria] said to me that she wants to stand at the door of the high school and pass this book out to kids,” Jensen wrote.  “If you are willing to buy a copy of Summers’s Some Girls Are, I will send it down to Andria, who will get it into those kids hands for free.”

The results were, quite literally, overwhelming.  Early in September, Jansen reported that some 830 copies of Some Girls Are were posted to her house, and some $600 in funds were sent to help cover the cost of mailing those books to South Carolina (the money that didn’t go to shipping went to purchasing another 100 copies of the book).  This is what the display looked like in Amaral’s library:

Courtesy of

The library also hosted book discussion groups and programs so that teen readers had a safe space to talk about the book, as well.

Let’s be clear: This story would never have happened had not a handful of people felt justified in denying other people the right to think and read for themselves (as well as prove themselves unwilling to talk with their children about the book).  In the end, students didn’t have the opportunity to discuss this book in school, which is where education should happen.  However, the ending of this story is a marvelous one; the rights of readers and free thought were defended by a group of people who far outnumbered those who wished to take those rights away–people across the country, many of whom had never seen the teenaged readers of Charleston County, South Carolina.  Perhaps most importantly, those teenagers had the opportunity to see, firsthand, that people cared about them, about their thoughts, their voices and their right to make decisions for themselves.  And what a powerful lesson that is.


I feel the need to assure everyone reading this that yes, teachers and librarians  read every book we assign.  We often read them many, many times.

“I am very real”: Being an author of a banned book

Today’s post comes to you via Letters of Note, a stunningly wonderful blog that celebrates all forms of written communications, from letters to postcards to faxes to notecards.  A post from 2012 showcases a letter from Kurt Vonnegut, author of, among other seminal works, Slaughterhouse-Five.  

1366920Perhaps Vonnegut’s most well-known work, Slaughterhouse-Five (published in 1969) tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant during World War II, who is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, and is later abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.  Much of the book (though probably not the space-traveling bits) were taken from Vonnegut’s own experiences in during the Second World War, where he was taken prisoner, and locked with other POWs in a camp known as “Slaughterhouse Five” (Schlachthof Fünf) during the fire-bombing of Dresden.    It’s a tricky story, told by an Unreliable Narrator, and uses the genre of science fiction to hide a number of painful and inconvenient truths and observations about the world that Vonnegut saw around him.  It is also #29 on the American Library Association’s list of “Banned and Challenged Classics“.

Slaughterhouse-Five-BurningOne particularly infamous act against Slaughterhouse-Five took place in 1973, in Drake, North Dakota when 26-year-old English teacher Bruce Severy used the book in his class.  The next month, Charles McCarthy, the head of the school board, demanded that all 32 copies of the book be burned in the school’s furnace, along with a number of other works, including those by Hemingway and Steinbeck.  In an interview with the Minot Daily News, McCarthy stated “We didn’t approve of its obscene language…It might pass in a college, but not in this school.” Another board member named Melvin Alme said that after reading the book, he “didn’t think it should be read by anyone.” (You can read more about this here).

While many in the community were wary of the school board’s decision, it was the students who were the most active in protecting the book.  They refused to give up their copies of Vonnegut’s book, or declared them lost to the library and offered to pay for them outright.  Even after the school board authorized the search of the students’ lockers and sent a letter home to teachers demanding the books be returned, the students signed a letter to the board demanding the right to read, and saying that “We think it’s respectable and interesting, and better than what we’ve been reading”.

Not too surprisingly, news of this incident soon made its way to Vonnegut himself, who penned a letter full of dignified fury to McCarthy that deserves to be read by all, especially during Banned Book Week.  The full text is below.  You can also read it on Letters of Note here.

(And just as a side note…though this is a bit of history, according to the Vonnegut Library, in 2011, the Republic High School in southwestern Missouri banned Slaughterhouse Five, and now keeps its copies under lock and key, to this day, and only parents are allowed to check it out).


Kurt-VonnegutNovember 16, 1973

Dear Mr. McCarthy:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the eduction of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

Kurt Vonnegut

Banned Books Save Lives

An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.(Oscar Wilde)


There are any number of topics one can address when one sits down to write about Banned Books Week.  We can talk about who bans books, why they want those specific books banned, or how librarians, booksellers, and educators respond to those reasons.  But for now, I want to take a slightly different tack, and focus on the books themselves.  If banned books are so dangerous, so threatening, so incendiary…what is the good of them?

Butler University’s website has a pretty good breakdown of the most common reasons books are challenged or banned, including some interesting graphs about which parties are doing the challenging.  Among the reasons provided are “racial issues”, “sexual situations or dialog”, and “violence”, all topics that are difficult sometimes even painful, to discuss.  It is a natural human reaction to want to shield ourselves, and especially our children, from painful and difficult things, and protect them from the pull of the tide for as long as possible.

But the truth of the matter is that the tide can’t be stopped.  And the truth of the matter is that banned books save lives.

3473469164_bb0534ec75For many people, reading books that were challenged or banned offered them their first opportunity to identify with someone like themselves.  In a heart-breakingly honest article for the PEN American, Lidia Yuknavitch (author of The Small Backs of Children) talks about growing up in a troubled family, and silenced by a loneliness so profound that it nearly drove her to suicide.  She also talks about how a novel called Blood and Guts in High School offered her hope:

The novel is about how being born a girl is always already a death sentence, because the body of a girl is colonized by culture the moment she arrives.

That likely sounds bleak.

What was the opposite of bleak, was this. The girl in this story had more agency and voice than any girl I’d ever read or would read in my entire life, and more than any girl I knew in real life. And this: I identified with her story.

This particular tale is a triumph, because Yuknavitch was able to break through her silence, and see the world around her differently with the help of this book (which, to date, has been banned in at least two countries).  But how many people have been deprived of that chance?

2599847A similar story can be found on the website of the Human Rights Campaign regarding the 1982 publication of Annie On My Mind by Nancy Garden.  The book itself deals with two high school girls who fall in love, come out to their friends and families, and, ultimately, learn to accept who they are.  The book was headline news when it came out, particularly because there were no YA books about homosexual relationships.  in fact, Nancy Garden “repeatedly told reporters that her desire to write young adult books with LGBT characters stemmed from the lack of such books when she came out as a young lesbian in the 1950’s.  She wanted to make it better for new generations of LGBT youth.”   Garden also contributed to Awake an anthology published by the Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to ending teen suicide among the LBGTQ community.

Annie On My Mind was sent as part of a package to 42 Kansas and Missouri schools by a homosexual activist group that wanted to ensure that accurate information about homosexuality was available to young people.  In response, a fundamentalist minister led a ground of protestors to the Kansas Board of Education and publicly burned copies of the book on the front steps.

Thankfully, the publicity generated by this action actually produced a backlash of support for Garden’s book, and libraries across the country began stocking extra copies–in case students who weren’t comfortable checking out the book for fear of stigmatization just slipped it into their backpacks to take home.  Since then, the book has been listed as one of the School Library Journal’s 100 Books That Shaped the Century, for offering younger readers honest answers and a real sense of hope.


bannedbooks11-226x300But banned books aren’t just saving readers; sometimes they even save their authors.  There is no doubt that Judy Blume, author of the seminal Are You There, God?  It’s Me, Margaret, Deenieand Superfudge has offered generations of readers guidance, companionship and hope–despite being one of the most challenged authors of the 21st century.  Author and songwriter Amanda Palmer actually wrote a song for Blume that includes the lines: “You told me things that nobody around me would tell … I don’t remember my friends from gymnastics class, / But I remember when Deenie was at the school … Margaret, bored, counting hats in the synagogue … All of them lived in my head, quietly whispering: / “You are not so strange.”

Blume herself is very open about the fact that writing these beloved–and contentious–books also saved her, as well.  In an interview with the Guardian, she recalled, “”I talked to my own private God the way Margaret does. I would plead, ‘Just let me be normal'”.  During the writing of Iggie’s Housea story of a black family moving into an all-white neighborhood, Blume noted, “It was the most traumatic time of my life…and then I started to write.  Writing saved my life.  It saved me, it gave me everything…”

So when you think about banned books, don’t just think about those doing the banning.  Think too, about the readers; about the people these books could save, people who feel alone and silenced.  Think about the people who aren’t marginalized or lonely who can learn to empathize through these works, and become allies and supporters.   Then think about coming to the library and checking out one of these, or any number of other banned books.  Because, as Banned Book Week makes us realize, you never know which book will be the next to change–or save–a life.

Continue reading Banned Books Save Lives

Don’t Read This!! A Saturdays @ the South primer on Banned Books Week.


Tomorrow starts an annual event that all libraries should celebrate: Banned Books Week. In 1982, a group of people noticed an alarming number of books that were being banned or challenged and began a nationwide movement that is delightfully contrary: the celebration of banned and challenged books. Thus began Banned Books Week, a non-profit organization that works year-round, but is in overdrive every year during the last week of September. This year it runs from September 27th through October 3rd. On this week, all those who value the intellectual freedom of readers and writers make an effort (in addition to the effort we should be making year-round) to ensure that books, regardless of their content, are available to anyone who may want to read them.

Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling - BANNED
Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling – BANNED

But why does Banned Books Week talk about challenged books? What’s the difference between a ban and a challenge? According to the American Library Assocation: ” A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. As such, they are a threat to freedom of speech and choice.” In other words, if there’s an organized movement that tries to get a book taken away, the book is being challenged. If the organization that is being pressured takes that book away, the book has been banned.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne - BANNED
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne – BANNED

Authors worldwide (many of whom have their own written works banned) often speak out against banning books because it threatens not only their livelihood of spreading ideas that are important to them in some way, but because they believe in free speech and allowing people to make their own decisions about what they choose to read. Sherman Alexie has spoken on behalf of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) against people who are trying to ban “insight” and “a complicated understanding of human behavior.” Judy Blume is a vociferous challenger of banning books and has spoken out against, not only the banning of her own books (that’s right books – plural. The creator of childhood favorites like Fudge and Freddy Dissel has had several of her books banned) but of banning other’s books as well. Neil Gaiman, honored last year as one of NCAC’s Free Speech Defenders, speaks so eloquently about what it means to value the freedom to read, I think it’s worth sharing here:

Libraries speak out against banned books as well. American Libraries magazine just featured an article perpetuating our freedom to read. The Library’s Pinterest page has a board dedicated exclusively to banned books. We here at the South, after already proclaiming the reader’s right to judgment-free reading, have been celebrating Banned Books Week all September with a display of banned books, particularly featuring our Big Read In the Time of the Butterflies, which was banned as close to us as the Port Washington New York school district for having objectionable material. The Port Washington students spoke out to defend their right to read and make their own decisions.


Challenging and banning can happen on a city-wide, county-wide, state-wide or even nation-wide level and can happen anywhere in the world. While people have every right not to read material they find objectionable (for any reason) and also have the right to talk to others about not reading a book for those reasons, the logic behind Banned Books Week is that nobody has the right to take away reading material from those who may want to read it. Disagreeing with thoughts and ideas is part of having free speech. Preventing others from deciding for themselves is not. Thus, we celebrate banned books to make sure that reading material, of any subject, in any form is available to anyone who wants it, regardless of who might want it otherwise. We celebrate banned books to remember that the act of banning books is dangerous, not just to the Salman Rushdie’s of the world, but to all of us because when books are banned, that means that fewer ideas and perspectives are out there for people to share, discuss and yes, even disagree with.


Banning books is not a thing of the past. Books are still being challenged and banned. Here is a sampling of some of the most-challenged books in 2014 according to the ALA:

2663674The Absolutely True Diary of  A Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

This is the story of a budding cartoonist who leaves his home on an Indian Reservation to attend another school where the only other Indian is the mascot. This book has been banned for being culturally insensitive, anti-family and many other reasons. It was the #1 challenged book of 2014.

2644601Persepolis by Marijane Satrapi

This graphic novel is a memoir of the author and her family’s experiences growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. This book has been banned for depicting gambling, offensive language and for having a political viewpoint.

3145221The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

This book about a young African-American girl who strives to fit into society’s strict, conventional view of beauty has been banned for being sexually explicit and for containing “controversial issues”.

2263056The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

This powerful tale of fathers and sons in Afghanistan spans the last days of the monarchy to the present. It has been banned for offensive language and violence.

2314853The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

This coming-of-age novel about a shy, introspective, intellectual high school freshman dealing with, among other issues, his best friend’s suicide has been banned for depictions of substance abuse and use of  profanity, among other reasons.

And yes, the South Branch owns all of these books, so you can make your own decisions about reading them.

So this week, dear readers, you have the opportunity to celebrate your freedom to read however you choose, in whatever way is most meaningful to you. You can take to Facebook or Twitter where there are Banned Books Week discussions going on, you could talk to someone (including your friendly neighborhood librarian) about your favorite banned book, or you can simply read. Reading whatever you choose, even if it’s not a banned book, is always the best way to exercise your right to read. Happy Banned Books Week!


Five Book Friday!


Happy autumn, Beloved Patrons!  Though the days are clearly growing shorter, the weather is certainly cooperating still, so we hope you get the chance to get out and enjoy the sunshine while it still smiles upon us.  And indulge in all things pumpkin-flavored.

And don’t forget to keep an eye out for the supermoon eclipse this Sunday evening–if you don’t, you’ll have to wait until about 2033.

As if that wasn’t enough excitement for you, here are five of the books that appeared on our shelves this week, each of which is eager to go on an adventure with you this weekend:




3658794Mycroft Holmes:  Growing up with a basketball-fan father, I have always had a wealth of respect for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.  But it was only this week I learned that he graduated from UCLA with a double major in History and English, AND is a devoted fan of Sherlock Holmes.  As a result, I am excited beyond what is rational for a grown-up person to be over this book.     Abdul-Jabbar has teamed up with acclaimed screenwriter Anna Waterhouse to bring us a story of the young Mycroft Holmes that explains how he came to be the incredibly obese hermit that we meet in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories–a tale that involves otherwordly murders on the island of Trinidad, Mycroft’s headstrong fiance, Georgianna, and his best friend, Cyrus.  Though full of some fun Holmesian references, this book also gives the authors a chance to explore the complicated world of the British Empire, and the many native stories and traditional that it never quite managed to silence.  As an agent of that empire, Mycroft is torn, both personally and professionally, leading to a book that, according to Booklist “…hit[s] all the right notes…combining fascinating historical detail with rousing adventure, including some cleverly choreographed fight scenes and a pair of protagonists whose rich biracial friendship… is the highlight of the book.”

3658387The Crime of Silence:  In 2000, a historian named Jan Tomasz Gross published a book entitled Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Polanddescribing the massacre of Jews that took place in that small town on July 10, 1941.  Gross claimed that, though the violence and murders were sanctioned by the Nazis, the crimes were committed by the Polish townspeople, against their own neighbors.  Since that time, the history of Jedwabne has become one of the most fiercely contested in the field of Holocaust studies.  Anna Bikont, a Polish journalist and a friend of Gross, was convinced that he had been the victim of a hoax.  This book is the history of her search to uncover the truth about Jedwabne, about the facts she recorded, and the diverse, fascinating, and unforgettable group of people she met in her quest for the truth.  You can also read a fascinating article about her interviews and personal relationships with the people of Jedwabne here.

3660917Vintage: David Baker’s debut sounds like the results of that Food Network show, Chopped–part culinary tale, part crime heist, and part utterly unique love story, this is a book that rather defies description, but begs to be read.  Food critic and once-best-selling-author Bruno Tannenbaum is in a slum; his marriage is collapsing, his bank account is dwindling, and his wine cellar is depleted.  But when he stumbles across the story of a  “lost” wine vintage reportedly stolen by Nazis, Bruno knows that finding this bottle will save his career and turn his life around–but as word of the wine spreads, crooks, cons, and thieves aplenty begin besieging him at every turn, forcing Bruno to consider just what he is willing to do for a second chance.  Library Journal loves Bruno, calling him “a bon vivant who rambles from Chicago to France, Germany, eastern Europe, and Moscow, enjoying fantastic meals and drinks along the way, as he searches for the lost wine—and, just maybe, for himself”, and the book itself as “A feast for all readers, with a warning only to those on a diet!”

3645087The Dead Student: Fans of dark and twisty psychological mysteries need look no further than John Katzenbach’s latest release.  When a troubled PhD student named Timothy (but known as ‘Moth’) wakes up desperate for a drink, he calls his Uncle, and sponsor, Ed for a meeting.  But Ed never shows up.  When Ed’s body is discovered, the police rule it a suicide, but Timothy knows better–but in order to prove that his uncle was murdered, Timothy and his ex-girlfriend Andrea, who is battling plenty of demons herself, will have to travel into some very dark waters together.  Though the premise sounds a bit complicated, Kirkus has given this book, high praise: “Boasting one of the freshest and most unlikely duos to appear in crime fiction in some time, the latest thriller by Katzenbach is one of his most enjoyable.”

3678754Magpie: Sweets and Savories from Philadelphia’s Favorite Pie Boutique: Three years ago, Holly Riccardi opened a tiny bakery called Magpie that swiftly became a beloved institution in an increasingly food-savvy town.  Now, you can bring some of the luciousness of Magpie to your own table with Riccardi’s season, traditional, and heirloom recipes, including her great-grandmother’s butterscotch pie and savory pies and quiches as well.  Please feel free to bring any dishes made from these recipes to a circulation desk near your for taste-testing!

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass