Drawing from the Nazi book burnings and Stalin’s campaign of political repression, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 depicts a dystopian future of compulsory book burning in the name of censorship. This future, to an extent, is a present-day reality. Look at the enduring push to ban books with “inappropriate content,” the standard no-no’s of everyday life: sexualities, four-letter words, violence, political and religious viewpoints, etc. As bleak as American society is in Bradbury’s novel, there is a ray of hope in the character of Clarisse McClellen, the inquisitive and nonconforming teenage girl who inspires fireman Guy Montag to question his blind faith in book burning. Our present-day Clarisse is the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which reports the most common banned or challenged books. For this year’s Banned Books Week, we compiled a list of banned books enjoyed by Beacon authors and staff.
Amanda Beiner, Assistant to the Director: One of my favorite banned books is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I read it as part of a “suggested summer reading” list between the seventh and eighth grades, and I picked it up hardly knowing what to expect, or what a commotion Hosseini’s story had caused in the preceding years. It was the first book to break my heart. I remember how confused I was by the connection I felt to young Amir, even as he made all the wrong choices and caused so much pain. It was my first experience reading painful stories, and I remember the immediacy with which I felt the characters’ suffering. At times I was overwhelmed by the sheer gravity of the scenes that I read, the indisputable “adult-ness” of what I was allowed to witness through the pages. I remember feeling exhausted when I finished it, but with that exhaustion came a new sense of pride in the difficult stories that I had been trusted with, and the depth of what I could handle knowing. I’m so glad my school didn’t ban this book, because, as a pre-teen, it completely changed my relationship to reading.
Rakia Clark, Senior Editor: I grew up reading a bunch, but it wasn’t until I was seventeen years old that I recognized books as an art form. That was the year I read Song of Solomon with my high school English class. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this book was life-changing for me.
Part of the shift I attribute to the book’s lyrical quality that required up-close examination and more mental focus than I was used to. After my teacher handed out books to everyone, she asked us to read the first eleven pages right then. Our homework for that night was to reread the first eleven pages. And then when we came into class the next day, we read the first eleven pages a third time and then discussed it in small groups.
I’d never read a book so closely. I’d never needed to. But Morrison requires all your attention. I delighted in this. I liked all the unpacking you had to do. Very quickly I found myself blissfully enmeshed in the world of Milkman Dead and Pilate and First Corinthians and eventually the idea that a person who could will himself to fly away. Magical realism? I didn’t know that was a thing. It was like I cracked the book’s spine and ink from the pages soaked into my skin. Twenty years later, it still hasn’t rubbed off.
Song of Solomon remains my all-time favorite book. It was the first time I viscerally felt the power of words on a page. I didn’t know a book could do that. It changed the way I saw the world. It’s the reason I’m a book editor.
Christian Coleman, Digital Marketing Associate: It wasn’t often that I got to read a novel with any speculative leanings, whether subtle or blatant, for high school English classes. When those novels came along, I gulped them whole. My ninth-grade English teacher assigned us Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima. It was one of only two novels I enjoyed during the time I served in high school, mostly because I read it as a piece of speculative storytelling, not as an assignment in the way of the straitjacket classroom dogma my teacher imparted upon us to interpret it. The rest of my class thought the novel’s magical realism was, in a feckless word, stupid, verbalized as UGH! In 2013, the glorious banning committee took issue with the magical realism, too, their UGH! much more official-sounding and coded as a scarlet letter. B for Banned on account of Satanism, the Occult, and religious viewpoint. Heaven forbid we read about cultural practices that don’t fit the Puritanical (read: white and Christian) paradigm. Forbid, indeed. Ninth grade English was not one of my best classes, but I’m grateful my school saw fit to put Anaya’s novel in the curriculum more than a decade before it blipped on the banning committee’s touchy radar. And justifiably so. I rarely came across books about my home state and its people in my literature classes, either.
Martha Ertman, author of Love’s Promises: A highlight of last summer's vacation was Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Arnold’s spirit drive, vulnerability, huge heart, and astute observations moved me so deeply that I got up before everyone else one morning so I finish it in total quiet alone with Arnold's/Alexie's story. Could it top the list of banned books because someone finds it problematic to allow nuanced stories of Native Americans’ lives on library shelves?? His love for his family makes the claim of being "anti-family" specially ludicrous.
Kevin Jennings, author of One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: The truth is dangerous. Apparently, so are penguins. At least that’s what some folks think based on the hysterical reactions to the children’s book And Tango Makes Three. Based on the true story of Rory and Silo, two male penguins in New York's Central Park Zoo who formed a couple and raised a baby together, this slender volume has made the “most banned books” list all but two years since its publication in 2005.
What’s so scary about two penguins in love, raising a child? Nothing apparently—if the pairing is a male-female one (look at the lovefest that greeted the documentary March of the Penguins). But if the penguins in question are practicing the love that dare not quack its name, it’s not okay for kids to learn about it.
What’s at the heart of the controversy around Tango is that its true story reveals the fact that homosexuality is not abnormal and uniquely human but actually commonplace and found in many species. If your worldview is based on the notion that homosexuality is “intrinsically evil” (hello, official doctrine of the Catholic Church!), then it’s not okay for kids to read a book that suggests otherwise—even if the story is true.
The funny thing about those who want to ban books is that they don’t base their choices on what Stephen Colbert would call the “truthiness” of the books in question. They base their choices on whether or not the books in question reveal their truth. And that’s the first step down the road to thought control.
Morgan Tuff, Sales Assistant: On many occasions I’ve read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi—for art, for familiarity, for multiple professors. Every time I do, I find new complex ideas, jokes, and arguments within its pages and marvel at the brilliant relationship between the text and the image. The first time I read it I was quite young, somewhere around the age of 14. Suddenly immersed in the story of a girl not that far away in age from myself, I sat still for an entire evening quickly gobbling up the story. That hasn’t really changed. I still sometimes pick it up, forget about chores and errands, and read it in an afternoon. I urge you to do the same.