Every year, the American Library Association‘s Banned Books Week (Sept. 27-Oct. 3) celebrates our freedom to read. As big lovers of books ourselves, we know all about the power they have to educate, to inspire, and let us know we’re not alone in the world. So, in celebration of Banned Books Week this year, we thought we’d ask some of our authors to tell us in their own words about books from the ALA’s lists of banned or challenged books that have affected their lives in a positive way. We think you’ll find their answers as interesting as we did:
When I was starting my career as a marine educator, I read a lot of John Steinbeck because he is historically inseparable from the study of marine biology. He was there in Monterey Bay during the height of the sardine fishing industry and spent years collecting and selling biological specimens for a living. After I finished Cannery Row and The Log from the Sea of Cortez, I turned to The Grapes of Wrath out of curiosity to see what this writer would do with a story he hadn’t actually lived. That book blew my doors off.
The visceral imagery, the regional dialects, the dust I could almost see puffing off the pages—it was a tour de force and a master class in writing. It also features one of the most gripping scenes I’ve ever read, where a new mother who has almost nothing left still offers her breast to a starving man—because at least she has food, while he does not. Her compassion and generosity acts as a sharp counterpoint to the casual cruelty of the rich and powerful.
Those rich and powerful interests did not appreciate their portrayal in the book, accurate though it was. Steinbeck wrote it because he was furious about the Great Depression and the way a very few became very wealthy at the devastating expense of the working poor. He wanted to give a voice to the workers and shame those who used and abused them. For that voice, his book was both banned and burned. If you subtract the Dust Bowl and replace it with the mortgage crisis and the destruction of family wage jobs, the story sounds very familiar today.
When I was young, maybe eight or nine, I read Tom Sawyer. I loved it so much that I immediately read Huckleberry Finn. At that age, I didn’t get the deeper themes running through Huck Finn and, to be perfectly honest, I preferred Tom Sawyer.
It was filled with more fun and mischief. I had to reread Huckleberry Finn in high school. That was the mid-1970s, the end of the Vietnam war and race protests, but those memories infiltrated my later reading of that book. I think Huckleberry Finn is one of those books that grows with you, and only as an adult can you really see Twain’s genius in his portrayal of Huck and Jim’s relationship. But I still clearly remember that Huck and Tom taught me how to fish!
As a science major, English courses were always a breath of fresh air, enjoyable and engaging. I read Our Bodies, Ourselves, created by the Boston Women’s Health Book collective in 1971, around the same time I was enrolled in a life-changing class at SUNY Stony Brook called Women in Literature. The two feminist instructors of that course also introduced me to Virginia Wolff, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, and Betty Friedan. These bright and brave women permanently changed my perspective on gender roles.
My parents’ generation personified misogynistic ideals. I wanted more out of life than to follow in my mother’s footsteps, but I feared I wasn’t good enough to support myself without a man to take care of me. Was it any wonder I wished I was born a boy? As a self-conscious pre-teen and teenaged girl, from the fourth grade onward and well into adulthood, I suffered a distorted body image, low self-esteem and second-guessed my every thought and action. Putting myself down and believing myself unworthy helped me handle my anxiety.
It wasn’t until I discovered Our Bodies, Ourselves that I begin to change the distorted way I viewed my body. It was liberating to learn I was not the only girl on the planet to have these thoughts and feelings. Had the book been banned and I had not been able to read it, I wonder if I would have had the courage to take charge of my body, my health and well-being. It empowered me to question my doctors, to trust my feelings, and to deal with my issues.
Our Bodies, Ourselves frankly explored female anatomy and sexuality at a time when women needed support in making choices for themselves. I rejoiced at discovering how ‘normal’ I was and how I wasn’t the only woman in the world to think or feel or act the way I did. It reassured me in a way my mother never could.
I’ve always been very open and honest about sex. I enjoy having it, reading it and writing it. I celebrate human sexuality in all its forms. Our bodies are a true gift. Being a woman is wonderful. I’ve been fortunate to have celebrated the miracle of life three times. While I continue to struggle with body image and self-doubt, I can honestly say I’m so much better off now for having read Our Bodies, Ourselves when I needed it most.
Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, has been banned for many different reasons over the years, for essentially opposite reasons. At first, it was banned for being too sympathetic to the struggles of segregation, and in more recent memory it was banned for ‘supporting white supremacy.’ It is a study in contradictions, much like the protagonist, Atticus. He is both hard and fair, ruled by his environment and his own convictions. In a lot of ways, he extols the virtues I’ve come to think exemplify the hero of the great American novel. I saw this story for the first time on stage, and then I read it when I was fifteen. It is a beautiful novel that I cannot recommend enough to anyone.
The problem, I think, with banning books is that they kill the conversation. They stop it in its tracks. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great example of this. The story has been banned for so many different reasons that it seems as though the conversation must always be had. To ban a book is to take away that voice.
Another book that always sparks a conversation for me with others is one that has been similarly banned. Annie on My Mind, while very dated now, was one of my first exposures to lesbians in literature. Before I read that story, I had never thought of lesbians and bisexual women outside of the context of Japanese animation and comics. It was a revelation for me, because I read it when I was so young. I think I was twelve or thirteen at the time. Here were people like me, having the same fears and anxieties that I had. In retrospect, the story presented in Nancy Garden’s book plays into a lot of lesfic tropes that we’ve all grown up experiencing and now want to avoid in our own writing, for its time it was revolutionary. The story was banned for its sympathetic portrayal of lesbian characters and I think maybe now it should be a discussion starter for its target audience.
We live in a society that’s just now starting to talk about things like social justice and the experiences of people who are unlike ourselves. I think that the two banned books I’ve recommended as personal favorites really exemplify this fact.
I made my first attempt to read James Joyce’s Ulysses in my teens. I got partway through before setting it aside. Since then, I’ve made a couple more attempts, and I admit I am still yet to finish. However, I devoured the more accessible collection of Joyce’s short stories, Dubliners, along with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and others.
Dubliners (along with Ulysses) was banned in Australia for a handful of years following a ban in Britain due to the holy trinity of the day: blasphemy, obscenity, and libel. Back then, where Britain went, Australia usually followed. The ban was lifted when so many copies were in circulation, it was a waste of time.
The reason that I love the stories in Dubliners is their subtlety and the tiny details Joyce uses to set a mood or a place. Nothing is rammed down the reader’s throat. You’re left to navigate your own way through the language and draw your own conclusions. He dissects human emotions and failings, layer by layer, delving into the heads of his characters. He also brings the setting to life—Dublin—and shows how tradition and culture do shape us, whether we want it to or not. His characters rebel in small and simple ways, and often their failure to escape their situation comes down to themselves, so shaped are they by the church, expectations, and by the collective that is Dublin.
I lived in Ireland for six years, and I housesat for a Joyce scholar for a few months. His house was full of Joyce: pictures, quotations, memorabilia, and of course books. His terrier was called Athos, which is a reference to Ulysses: “Poor old Athos! Be good to Athos, Leopold, is my last wish”. I re-read Dubliners then, immersed in rural Ireland, with Athos at my feet. The next time I read it, will be in the sunshine of Queensland, Australia, but I’m sure it will be just as powerful an experience.
Lois Cloarec Hart
To this day, six decades on, I am grateful that my parents never once banned me from reading any book in their library or in the public library. When I was a child reading far beyond my years, my mother actually went to the public library and obtained permission for me to borrow books from the adult section, and from then on I read omnivorously. At the time, I may not have understood everything I was reading, but nothing in adult books ever inflicted any psychological harm. More often, it spurred my child’s imagination in far-flung directions as no movie or television show could.
Several years ago on our summer vacation, my wife and I decided to again read To Kill A Mockingbird, this time aloud to each other. It was delightful, though my wife was a far better oral reader, Southern accents and all. We followed it up by watching the classic movie with Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and agreed that the book was far better. But isn’t that almost always the case? A movie directs you on a specific pathway. A book opens a myriad of imaginative pathways, often ones the author didn’t intend. Of the two, reading books, banned or not, is by far the richer experience.