Spring has sprung. Summer has lingered. Fall is falling. And winter is coming.
It’s back-to-school time for all of the little children (and many of the grown-ups like me, who have traded in reading the things we like to read for the things that we have to read). Fall also heralds in the back-to-school bigots who are interested in banning all the good books, and using all manner of explanations to avoid telling the real and actual truth.
I love to read. More than anything (except maybe sleeping). I read a lot. As much as I can. As a child I read some awful books, some books that probably shouldn’t have been published, some books I was far too young to read (Hey, Mom! Ten is too young to read The Collector), and some books that scared me real good. But, as my number-one childhood phobia was dying before I read all of the books in the world – I know, I, know, get a grip, Jessie- I quickly developed a taste for serious books about adult topics, and I was rarely, if ever, worse off for having read them. Excepting The Collector, of course.
Every year I am filled with a sense of hopelessness about the books that end up getting banned for reasons that have nothing to do with the official excuses. Because, books. They are the best. And they are especially the best when they speak to the experiences of those reading them, or that allow folks to walk away with a better understanding of the world and the experiences of all the people living in it.
I started to look at what was getting banned most frequently in recent years, and thinking about what the underlying reasons were, despite whatever inadequate excuses were given. I have read many of these books, and know why they are so important for young people to read.
So here is a list I have compiled of the top five frequently-banned books that I read and loved in high school (and as an adult student, in the case of Sherman Alexie), and real talk about why they were banned, and what we miss out on when they aren’t included in the curriculum.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Why they say this book was banned: masturbation, racism, vulgarity, anti-Christian content, strong language, blah, blah, blah.
Why this books was really banned: To attempt to silence one of the most gifted and honest and wonderful authors ever, speaking the hard truths about the ongoing impacts of colonization for Indigenous youth both on and off the reservation. Protecting precious, privileged angel babies from ever having to examine their own responsibility in perpetuating racism, and unfairly reaping the benefits of privilege. Realistic depictions of a young person talking about life, thinking about sex, and being a teenager.
What you’ll miss out on if you don’t read this book: The reality that there are no easy answers or happy endings. There is just life. Sherman Alexie’s extraordinary ability to take words and make magic. Speaking truth to power through illustration, semi-autobiographical writing, and so much honesty I remain endlessly inspired by. Depictions of life on and off of the reservation in Washington State. A testament to familial love and the power of resiliency.
I love Sherman Alexie. Reservation Blues is possibly my favourite book. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the best book I ever gave away, hoping that it never came back. I hope that one hundred trillion people have read my copy since I released it into the wild.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Why they say this book was banned: sex scenes, profanity, age-inappropriate behavior
Why this books was really banned: In a country where Black folks experience all kinds of terrible oppression built upon legacies of slavery and violence, it’s no surprise that some people don’t want to give a voice to Ms. Morrison’s truths, especially when that voice comes from one Black person to all of her people. I think there are lots of people who would rather read the most anthropological accounts of our lives told by outsiders, or really anything written about us by anyone other than us. Particularly if it ties into all kinds of stereotypes about us (I see you, To Kill a Mockingbird). Let’s just call a spade a spade. Banning this book is racist. K, thnx, bye.
What you’ll miss out on if you don’t read this book: Lots. This book is the best. I read it so many times when I was a teenager, it’s basically a part of my DNA. A look at a Black family, and how they live, and love, and survive. The ways that they cope, including internalizing racism as a way to make sense of the world we live in, and as a way to try to find a path to succeed against all of the systems and structures and individuals that hold us down. This book opened up the adult world of Black American literature to me. It is a book written by my hero.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Why they say this book was banned: rape, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit scenes, unsuited to age group.
Why this books was really banned: Much of what I said about The Bluest Eye. Also, it’s a true story, so people probably don’t want their kids to have to think about that. Popping the privilege bubble up in here with all the hard truths. Also, some people are really into silencing women of colour. It’s a thing. Take a look at this introduction to intersectionality and what that’s all about and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.
What you’ll miss out on if you don’t read this book: Honest, painful, profound beauty. It’s been years since I picked this one up, but there are passages that still stick with me. Maya Angelou is a gift. Her writing is a gift. Her capacity to share her life is a gift. A clearer understanding of the horrors and violence of anti-Black racism in these United States. And the ways in which you come to see the world having shared a few hundred pages with the Queen may just shift your entire perspective on social justice. The woman is truth.
The Wars by Timothy Findley
Why they say this book was banned: rape, sexuality, violence.
Why this books was really banned: In a country where folks tried to ban One Dad, Two Dad, Brown Dad, Blue Dads, Imma take a guess here and say that homophobia was a big motivator. Also, war. This book tells it like it was on the front lines of World War One.
What you’ll miss out on if you don’t read this book: This book is so gorgeous. We read it in my grade 12 English Class, and we all came together to read the last chapter out loud and wept openly. This book is about youth, and sexuality, and love, and longing, and hope, and the crushing terrible horror that is war. Timothy Findley is one of the best writers ever. As a young person living in a country that was gearing up for and engaging in international involvement in conflicts arising out of September 11th, I had a chance to see what war looks like through the eyes of a person barely older than me. This book profoundly changed me, as did my extraordinary English teacher that year, Ms. Kakish.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Why they say this book was banned: soft-core pornography, glorification of drinking, premarital sex, and…wait for it…cursing.
Why this books was really banned: Kurt Vonnegut takes the things you take for granted, or that you know to be true, explicitly states another way of looking at them, encourages you to think critically, and draws a mean asshole.
What you’ll miss out on if you don’t read this book: Kurt Vonnegut made me want to see the truth in everything. He taught me to say exactly what I think about things, and why I think what I do. And he taught me about directness and truth. Also, he emphasized the great horrors of war, and the complexity of experiencing war as a youth. He doesn’t tell you what to think, he offers a new perspective that lets you have a conversation with yourself. I miss him so often.
Bonus Track: Textbooks referring to slavery at all. Texas went through a period of time where it wanted textbooks to only refer to slavery as the Atlantic Triangular Trade. Yep. Because. You know. Racism. And denial. And racist denial. Or because, as Texas would have it, boats travelled from place to place to trade goods (and trafficked human bodies) in a pattern that looks like a triangle on a map. Or whatever. I haven’t read any Texas school-board-approved textbooks, but let it be known, slavery was not an exercise in geometry.
I can’t wait to see what y’all have to say about other books I overlooked in the comments. Because we are a bookish people here at The Toast, amirite?
Tune in next time for Books I Had to Read in High School that Were A Fucking Waste of My Time (I still see you, To Kill A Mockingbird.)