“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 BookRiot.com

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!

It’s not funny anymore…The end of the Roald Dahl Prize

Last weekend’s Primetime Emmy’s ushered in Awards Season for the television and film industries…or that period of time when many of us begin making lists of all the shows and movies we missed over the past year (and will now be checking out on DVD from the library,….right?).  But Award Season can be great for bibliophiles, as well, as a number of awards are currently in the process of selecting winners–which we will naturally be covering with great avidity.


But today, some sad news came out regarding a fairly unique, and meaningful award: the Roald Dahl Funny Prize is no more.  From 2008-2013, this prize was awarded by Booktrust, the largest reading charity in the UK, and Roald Daul’s literary estate. Two prizes were awarded yearly, one aimed at books for the six and under age group, the other for seven- to fourteen-year-olds, with a cash prize of £2500 for the winner of each category.

The 2012 Dahl Funny Prize Winners

The prize was founded by then-Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, who explained  “I wanted to put a special emphasis on reading for fun…funny books often get overlooked when it comes to prizes. It’s usually felt that they should reward serious books. My own view is that many funny books tackle serious issues in a funny way, and that being funny is one extremely good way to engage children’s interest in reading.”  It certainly seemed that Rosen was right; some 900 children served as readers for the award, which, in it’s five years of existence, celebrated nearly 90 authors and illustrators.  Needless to say, those authors and illustrators enjoyed a great deal of well-deserved praise and press for their hard (but funny) work.

Because the truth of the matter is that writing for children, in any capacity, is no easy feat.  Dahl was one of those authors who made the process look easy, but behind his larger-than-life characters and fantastical plots is a beautiful balancing act that is exceptionally difficult to maintain.  On the one hand, Dahl was able to treat children like the thinking, feeling, rational beings that they are; he doesn’t patronize, and he doesn’t pander.  At the same time, he also distilled all the awful, scary, overwhelming people and themes in this works into something that they could understand, absorb, and, ultimately, enjoy.  And in giving children (and adults) the space to laugh at the things that scare or overwhelm them is one of the best ways to help them through the tough times.  It’s also pretty brave–humor implies a shared understanding and a shared experience, meaning that writers have to tap into something inherent in the world of children that adults may not be able to access with their big, compartmentalized brains. It is that remarkable talent that the Roald Dahl Prize was created to celebrate.

"...Roald Dahl creates such brilliant characters: He taps into something in the collective memory of people. God forbid everybody can remember someone as awful as Miss Trunchbull..." (Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical)
“…Roald Dahl creates such brilliant characters: He taps into something in the collective memory of people. God forbid everybody can remember someone as awful as Miss Trunchbull…” (Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda the Musical)

But yesterday, after having suspending the award for a year, the Roald Dahl Estate announced that the award, as it has been known, has, has ended.  The Roald Dahl Estate has assured people that it will be back (in some form) for Dahl’s Centenary next year, but Rosen himself has used the announcement to start a pretty interesting discussion about the presence of humor in children’s books.  “We demand space for reading for pleasure,” he tweeted, “but we need to acclaim all books which enable children to do it, including #funnychildrensbooks”.  Later, he queried,  “On the national curriculum documents about Reading, so the words ‘laugh’, ‘smile’, ‘grin’, ‘jokes’ appear anywhere?”

So, in honor of laughing, especially when it hurts, here are some past winners of the Roald Dahl Funny Prize, in the hopes that they will bring a little mirth to a person–young or old–near you.


3495662Six and Under: The Peanut by Simon Rickerty (published in the UK as Monkey Nut): Is it a hat? Or a boat? Or a drum? Whatever it is, everyone wants it – and they DON’T want to share! One little monkey nut causes big trouble in this bright, funny and original book.

51n+8Vv30+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Seven to Fourteen: I Am Still Not A Loser by Jim Smith: Barry has a new problem: Gordon Smugly—who has the most perfect name for himself ever in the history of having a name, because he looks like a Gordon and is smug and ugly—has stolen Barry’s best friend. Join Barry as he attempts to get Bunky back, organizes a girly-screamvoice test, and tries to avoid seeing his teacher kissing his grandma.


3189293Six and Under: My No, No, No Day! by Rebecca Patterson (published in the UK as My Big Shouting Day!): After having a day in which nothing is right, tired Bella cuddles with her mother and talks about having a more cheerful day tomorrow.

3247833Seven to Fourteen:
Dark Lord: The Teenage Years by Jamie ThomsonThirteen-year-old schoolboy, Dirk Lloyd, has a dark secret – in fact he is a dark secret. Dirk – according to his own account – is the earthly incarnation of a Dark Lord, supreme ruler of the Darklands and leader of great armies of orcs and warriors, intent on destruction and bloody devastation.

9780330518802Six and Under:
 Cats Ahoy! by Peter Bently and Jim Fields: When Alfonso the cat hears there’s a boat coming into harbour carrying its largest ever catch, he hatches a plan. It’s brave! It’s bold! And it involves a ghost pirate ship, some rather gullible fishermen, and cats …LOTS of cats. With an infectious rhyming text and laugh-out-loud illustrations, this book is set to become a firm favourite for fans of life on the high seas.
3582072Seven to Fourteen: The Brilliant World of Tom Gates by Liz PinchonTom Gates is the master of excuses for late homework: dog attacks, spilt water, lightening. Tom’s exercise book is full of his doodles, cartoons and thoughts, as well as comments from his long-suffering teacher, Mr Fullerton. After gaining five merits for his ‘Camping Sucks’ holiday story, Tom’s work starts to go downhill, which is a pity, as he’s desperate to impress Amy Porter, who sits next to him.


2942410Six and Under:
Dog Loves Books by Louise YatesDog loves books! Dog loves books about dinosaurs and Dog loves books about aliens: in fact Dog loves all books! Dog has his very own bookshop, although he doesn’t have many customers. But that’s all right, because when Dog is surrounded by books, he is never short of friends or fun. And when someone does come into the shop, Dog knows just which books to recommend.
3111453Seven to Fourteen: Withering Tights by Louise Rennison:  Picture the scene: Dother Hall performing arts college somewhere Up North, surrounded by rolling dales, bearded cheesemaking villagers (male and female) and wildlife of the squirrely-type. On the whole, it’s not quite the showbiz experience Tallulah was expecting…but once her mates turn up and they start their ‘FAME! I’m gonna liiiiive foreeeeeever, I’m gonna fill my tiiiiights’ summer course things are bound to perk up. Especially when the boys arrive. (When DO the boys arrive?) Six weeks of parent-free freedom. BOY freedom. Freedom of expression…cos it’s the THEATRE dahling, theatre!! 

Wednesdays @ West: They Work Hard for the Money

Like many of the staff members at the PIL, I am a big Downton Abbey fan.  I love following the exploits of the upper class Lady Mary, Lady Edith and, most especially, the Dowager Countess.  But perhaps even more intriguing to me are the “downstairs,” working class characters.  John and Anna Bates are my favorite romantic pairing and my appreciation for the fabulous Mrs. Hughes grows with every season.  As much fun as it can be to see how the elite lived in the earlier part of the twentieth century, I know in my heart of hearts that had I lived then, I would have been much more likely to be in the kitchen with Daisy and Mrs. Patmore than in the drawing room with Lord and Lady Grantham.

When it comes to books, I feel just the same.  It can be intriguing to get a glimpse into the lives of the rich and powerful, but I will admit, I often prefer the more down to earth characters and stories of people who have to work hard to earn a living.

A couple of weeks ago, the Christian Science Monitor offered a list of  “10 Great Books Featuring Working Class Heroes.”  This list focuses on recent fiction and nonfiction, but of course, working class heroes are far from new to the literary world.  After all, some of the great classics of literature, like Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men or almost anything by  Dickens, are the stories of the working class.

In any case, had the author of the Christian Science article consulted me about my picks for her article, here’s a few fictional I would have recommended she add:

mebeforeyouoneplusoneMe Before You  by Jojo Moyes was my first Moyes title and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The main character, Lou, is pretty much the entire reason why.  When we meet Lou she is working at a tea shop, but after she is laid off, she takes a job helping to care for Will, a former daredevil, rich boy who was severely injured in a motorcycle accident.  Billing this book as simply a romance is, I think, remarkably unfair, but whatever genre you’d put it in, it’s a compelling read.  A movie version is in the works, but I’m far more excited by the book sequel, After You that is due out this month.

A couple of other forays into other works by Jojo Moyes were enough to show me that I really only like her when she is writing about likable, funny and flawed working class women.  Luckily for me, she wrote One Plus One.  Jess, a single mother, works two jobs: one at a bar and one as a house cleaner.  Despite her best efforts, her family is struggling.  Her teenage stepson is viciously bullied and her brilliant young daughter needs more than her mediocre school can provide.  When her daughter has the chance to enter a competition that could pay for her fees to much better school, Jess is determined to make it happen, even if it means accepting help from a rich client for whom she has a certain amount of disdain.

beantreesflightbehaviorUnlike Jojo Moyes, Barbara Kingsolver is not a new-to-me author.  I’ve been enjoying everything she’s written for fifteen or sixteen years now.  She has quite the knack for creating characters that intrigue me, whether they are missionaries in Africa or recluses in the mountains of Appalachia.  My first Kingsolver novel was The Bean Trees.  When Taylor Greer graduates high school, the first and only item on her to do list is to get out of  her rural Kentucky hometown.  She takes a less than reliable car and starts driving west.  She eventually lands in Arizona, but  along the way, she picks up an abandoned child and finds herself creating a whole new family.

Despite the first scene in which Dellarobia Turnbow appears in Kingsolver’s Flight BehaviorI found myself really liking this young woman from a struggling farming family in Appalachia.  She’s sarcastic and condescending towards her husband and in-laws, but I found her rather endearing.  Flight Behavior is the story of how Dellarobia is thrust into a world of scientific observation when her family’s property becomes the site of a climate change phenomenon.  Frankly, the whole book is worth reading just for the scene where Della demonstrates to a yuppie environmentalist  just how little he knows about the lives and habits of working class people.

languageflowersAt the start of The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Victoria doesn’t even make the ranks of the working class.  As an eighteen year old, aging out of the foster care system, she has no place to live, no job and no support.  She’s also bitter and angry and perhaps an unlikely candidate to know much about the usually romantic Victorian language of flowers.  This is her specialty, however, and she parlays her affinity for flowers into a job with a florist.  Things certainly don’t proceed smoothly for Victoria, however, as she must face the events and people of her past.  In real life, Victoria would be extremely difficult to like, but between the pages of the book, the reader grows to feel a certain sympathy for her.

weneveraskedforwingsDiffenbaugh’s recently released second book offers another main character who can be difficult to connect with at first.  Letty is a single mother, but without much emphasis on the mother part.  Her own mother has, until the start of We Never Asked for Wings almost exclusively raised Letty’s children while Letty worked as a bartender.  When her parents decide to go back to Mexico and leave Letty to fend for herself and her two children for the first time, Letty certainly doesn’t seem to be a contender for mother of the year.  However, she does try to improve her children’s lives by dreaming up a scheme in which they can attend better quality schools.  In the end, it’s her teenage son, Alex, who really steals the show and runs away with the readers’ hearts, but I found myself liking Letty more at the end than I thought I would.

bookofunknownamericansLike We Never Asked for Wings, The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez features characters from working class families that have recently immigrated to the United States.  In this case, the spotlight is on the Hernandez family that comes from Mexico after their daughter suffers brain damage in a sad accident.  Believing an American school can help Maribel recover from her injury, the Hernandez family relocates.  They are unprepared, however, for the reality that faces them in the United States.  This includes Maribel’s new relationship with a neighbor boy from Panama.  Henriquez weaves the stories of all the immigrant neighbors of the Hernandez family into an intriguing and heartbreaking novel.



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