September 25th-October 1st is Banned Books Week, so in honor (or, shall we say, dishonor) of the continuing practice of banning books, we asked a few of our students, alums, and professors to talk about some of the most regularly banned & challenged books that have meant the most to them over the years.
Stephen Graham Jones: Had Stephen King’s Christine been banned hard enough I could never have found it, then I also never would have realized that CCR and the rest of the bands he uses as running epigraphs there could work as a sort of soundtrack or backdrop or cultural snapshot for a novel. And, had I never figured out that there aren’t these big uncrossable walls between the different forms and media and genres? Then I can’t say I ever climb over and fall all the way into books in the first place. Not if I can’t bring all the songs and movies I already love. Christine gave me license to do that, though. I’m forever thankful to King for that.
Emily Duren: I couldn’t help but chuckle at the majority of these. Mine is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I first read it in high school, and the struggles of Charlie and the other characters made me realize I was just a normal, angsty teenager, and life sucks for everyone at 16. It was published 17 years ago, but the issues addressed in it are still relevant and always will be, because teenagers in every generation experience them. Absolutely one of the best coming-of-age stories out there. Not only should it not be banned, but it should probably be required reading.
KR Kiefer-Newman: I’d say the most important book on that list for me was A Wrinkle In Time, which I read back in high school. It’s tough, though, because Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret was pretty important for me, also, and I read it within a year of AWIT. Those two together are an interesting combo because they show the two swings a family pendulum can make. My family was sometimes one extreme and sometimes the other, so seeing those extremes on paper, and watching the protag navigate the dynamics was powerful stuff for me. The Pigman by Paul Zindel was super important my first year out of high school when I took a Children’s Lit. class at college and I gorged on Paul Zindel’s writings. That was when I realized I wanted to be a writer and write stories that troubled the boundaries and tested relationships.
Aja Henriquez: The Grapes of Wrath has always been an important book to me for a lot of reasons. It is an example of popular fiction changing people’s lives for the better and in real time. Steinbeck depicted the perils of big agriculture and how capitalism gone wild was destroying lives. Because of this book, many people became outraged and forced major policy changes. Attention brought to the suffering and starvation of migrant workers helped union organizers gain traction. It was banned in various places for vulgarity because cuss words and God appeared on the same page. The real vulgarity was the absolute greed driving the system. Agricultural communities, believing the book to be a direct attack on their lifestyles, hosted public burnings of the book, and Steinbeck was once warned by a deputy never to show his face in Salinas County again or else he’d be shot on sight. In short, The Grapes of Wrath was a big slap in the face to “the man”.
Megan Eccles: What strikes me is how many of these books fall into the category of children’s lit. Which means these are likely parents not only censoring their own children but trying to censor the whole world. I find that incredibly sad. Harry Potter is one of the most important series ever written. Not only was it the beginning of the golden age of YA, but is an incredible story of friendship, good and evil, and adventure. It’s one of the few stories from my childhood that has not only held up, but exceeded my expectations for a post MFA reread.
Daniela Z Montes: I can’t choose just one because most of my favorites are here: Harry Potter, A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver, Of Mice and Men, The Handmaids Tale. They each revealed something about what it is to be human to me, and maybe it’s because they hold that mirror up to the world that people have banned them.
Xach Fromson: The Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz holds a special place in my heart. From the haunting artwork by Stephen Gammell that remains seared into my memories to the aural quality of the stories contained in the volumes, Scary Stories is guaranteed to be partly responsible for every horror fan who came of age after 1981 loving the genre. And horror, while much maligned by some, plays many valuable roles in human civilization. Of course, this is a sweeping generalization and exceptions doubtless abound. Perhaps your child is one of them. Perhaps you were. But then again…perhaps not. Perhaps you were a child who read these books and learned how to conquer your fear, or learned to empathize with a character who looks different from you while they were going through something terrifying. Perhaps you learned to respect boundaries from having people ask you not to talk about scary things around them, or perhaps you taught your child the same lesson. Scary stories teach us all kinds of lessons. Banning them teaches none.
Jeff Meyers: When we say that our country– the United States or America or ‘Murica or whatever your preferred label– is great, what exactly do we mean? What makes us special? There are 123 democracies on Earth, which represent nearly 3 billion people. Many have the same freedoms we have. Some have more. Many less. Some suck. But others have a higher quality of life. And better education. And universal healthcare. And longer life spans. And better food. And faster Internet. So, really, what the hell makes us so special? It’s only one thing. The First Amendment. We are the only country on Earth with the absolute right to freedom of expression. And it is fitting that it is the first, primo, paramount amendment to our constitution. It is the freedom that literally sets us apart from every other nation on Earth. Our founding fathers in some singular moment of mad inspiration recognized that to think is to be human, and to deny any citizen the absolute right to think and openly express that thinking is to deny of them of their humanity. Crazy, huh? But really, it’s all we sad little hairless apes have got over the rest of the animal kingdom. Well, that, and opposable thumbs. So it is despairingly ironic that those who scream loudest about loving our nation are often the first to betray the only thing that makes it truly unique – worthy of being singled out. Which is why it does not surprise me that these traitors to democracy feel so threatened by The Chocolate War, a book I loved as a teen. Cormier lays bare the corruption and contempt that festers at the core of those in power, and how too many believe that their only option is to conform to their wishes. Every writer, every book should embrace the literary heart of Cormier’s novel (courtesy TS Elliot): “Do I dare disturb the universe? Yes, I do. I do. I think.” Sadly, even today, in the land of the free, there are those who wish to punish you for doing so.
Guy Nicolucci: Please keep banning Huckleberry Finn. It will prove over and over again that its strength never diminishes.
Tod Goldberg: I’ve not read Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson in decades, but what I remember is my third grade teacher at Castle Rock Elementary School reading it aloud to us, an entire room of children rapt each day, an entire room of children, sobbing.
Annette Fuller: I remember the first time I finished reading The Amber Spyglass, the conclusion to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I was in seventh grade, reading about characters younger than I was. There’s a chapter in there that makes me cry every single time, because the protagonists realize that they can’t have their happy ending without hurting a lot of other people. What would you do–save the world, or choose your own happiness? No one had ever presented me with that dilemma before, but I lived it through the characters that night. I learned more about myself and the kind of person I always want to strive to be than in the rest of my life combined. We are responsible for each other, and for the world. That’s one valuable lesson.
John Schimmel: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. I love the language, love the names (a character called Milkman Dead; a street called Not Doctors Street because the black community would not accept the new name foisted on it by the Postal Service); the theme, so pervasive in Morrison’s books, that one can love so much that the loss of that love can drive them insane; the symmetry that has the Insurance Salesman “flying” from the clock tower in the opening for reasons we discover not too long before Milkman flies, in the final moments of the novel, toward his former best friend Guitar in a battle which, really, is a boiled down version of a battle for the soul of Black America.
Lisa Quigley: One of the most valuable aspects of my childhood was that my parents never censored what I read. The library was my utopia. We went every three weeks and I always maxed out the number of books allowed to borrow, and often finished those books well within the 3-week borrowing period. Not once in all that time did my parents ever check my stack to see what I was borrowing. What I read was for me, and me alone. This freedom to roam, to explore, to read books I loved, and to sometimes read books I didn’t understand, was essential to my development, both as a human and as a writer. It is one of the sweetest gifts my parents ever gave me. I don’t have a specific experience with any one banned book, though I’ve read a lot on this list: Harry Potter, The Handmaid’s Tale, His Dark Materials, The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders, Huckleberry Finn, Goosebumps, Fahrenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird. What I do have is my own non-censored experience, which is more dear to me than anything money could buy. The capacity to explore the realm of thought freely and without restraint, regardless of age, sex/gender, color, etc, is an essential component of our humanity. To threaten that right, even in small ways, is to endanger the very core of us. “With the first link, the chain is forged. The first speech censored, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” —Captain Picard
Melissa Madson: The Face on the Milk Carton was the first book I read when I stopped reading The Baby Sitter’s Club books (6th grade). I loved it so much I wrote to the author and received a handwritten response, which I still have. That book opened me up to many more, thus cementing my passion for reading. Fahrenheit 451 is the book that made me want to write – I fell in love with the idea of creating a broken world, one that may or may not be saved, and Bradbury was the perfect teacher.
Laura Jo Provost Brunson: I was 10 when To Kill A Mockingbird fell off the bookrack in Rexall Drugs and changed my life. Determined to read more than a few pages, I checked the cover price and left the store to scour the neighborhood for Coke bottles to turn in for a nickel apiece. The cashier refused to sell me the book, but my mother willingly managed the transaction. Scout, Jem, Dill, Atticus and Tom Robinson expanded my reading from the era of Nancy Drew Mysteries into a world where black/white, male/female, normal/not normal people lived separate and unequal lives, and yet one person can make a difference. That book inspired me to write. It was decades before I ever knew the book was banned, and I will go to my grave neither understanding nor accepting why.
Jenny Hayes: When my friends and I were reading Judy Blume’s books around the fifth or sixth grade, they never felt daring or outrageous or scandalous. Well, maybe Forever had a bit of that mystique, since the characters famously DID IT. But when I read it, like all of her books, it mainly just felt real. The situations in those books were similar to situations we were dealing with, or suspected we might in the future, or that were impacting those around us. Seeing how Blume’s characters navigated their lives helped us envision ways of doing so with our own lives. There’s nothing in them that needs to be censored or banned. (Though man, if you were a kid in the ’70s named Ralph I’d understand if you wanted to burn every copy of Forever.)
Ashley Khat: I kept reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark because they were so much fun as a kid. I remember them being read to us in class for Halloween. And I’m glad my school teachers taught so many of the classics on the banned books list to us anyway, like Catcher in the Rye. Among the many banned books I enjoy, was one I discovered as an adult: the Harry Potter series. (I even wrote an article on the groups who are anti-Harry.) Some of my favorite characters are from banned books. It’s a testament to these writers that their work continues to captivate generations.
Mark Haskell Smith: I can’t remember the book I’d been reading, but I was telling my professor — an older Russian man — that I’d grown so frustrated by the book that I almost threw it in the fireplace. He nodded and said, “I was in Berlin when the Nazis emptied the library and burned all the books.” Then he gave me the look he always gave me when I said something stupid before saying, “I don’t think books should be treated that way.” I wish he was still around to give that look when people talk about banning books.
Aaron Hauser: The Things They Carried is one of those books that is more than a collection of short stories. Like Faulkner, whose novels ultimately were about what is a novel or rather, how we define the novel, O’Brien’s book is more than a collection of stories about Vietnam. It is about what is a short story or how we define it. That alone is the best argument against those who oppose it. As with other opposed books of similar ilk, to focus on the superficialities is to lose sight of what really matters or what is truly great about the book, though some of the superficialities are pretty great, too.
Jason Metz: Howard Stern’s Private Parts: It’s your typical From Rags to Riches ascension to stardom story, most of which I can’t remember (I read it when it came out) or differentiate from the movie. What I do remember is that it’s essentially a love letter to his wife (and to a large extent, Robin Quivers). If you’ve followed Stern’s career, he obviously went through a divorce, married a model, and found his way into prime time television. Things worked out. But like any halfway-decent memoir, Private Parts stands as a time capsule, at worst, critics can write it off, saying its full of frat boy locker room humor–and they’d be right–but at its best, its endearing, a glimpse into a period where a controversial voice who changed radio was only as good as the women who encouraged and supported him.
Pam Munter: The first banned book I ever read was Evan Hunter’s Blackboard Jungle. I was 12 and had to sneak into the public library after school every day for a week to read it in increments.
Theresa Corigliano: Snow Falling on Cedars reminded me that fiction can be poetry too. I went into a trance when I read that book. Galleys of it sit on my book shelf, and I try to remember to turn every sentence I write into something that resonates. Every word matters. (A book about a shameful part of our past banned? Seems to me it’s never been more relevant)
Emile Barrios: My favorite book ABOUT banned books is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. In this dystopia firemen burn books instead of put fires out and people memorize and recite books in order to keep literature alive. Bradbury was looking for a title and wondered about the temperature at which book paper catches fire. None of the reference books he consulted had the answer and he was about to drop the idea until he thought about calling up his local fire station – where the fireman knew immediately.
Deanne Stillman: Charlotte’s Web by EB White. In 2006, a parents’ group in Kansas decided that a friendship between a pig named Wilbur and a spider named Charlotte was the Devil’s handiwork and that “the only creatures that can communicate vocally are humans.” They also said that “showing lower life forms with human abilities is sacrilegious and disrespectful to God.” As Charlotte spelled out in her web regarding the beleaguered Wilbur, “Some pig.” Thank you, EB White, for this masterpiece, and long may the whales, birds, and squirrels chatter…if that doesn’t respect God, then what does?