Friday, September 30, 2011

Banned Books Week: Day Five

To celebrate the last day of Banned Books Week here on the blog, I'd like to feature probably the most challenged book in American history.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.

I have to confess that I only read Huck Finn for the first time last year.  Hard to believe, I know!  I never had to read it in school.  I don't think that was because the book was banned at my school, since I had to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and that contains just as many "offensives" as Huck Finn.  But I went thirty-something years without ever reading Huck Finn and decided last year that enough was enough.

It's a great book.  It's funny!  I love being reminded that people in the 19th century did indeed have a sense of humor...and Mark Twain certainly did.  If you haven't read it, you need to rectify that situation right away.

So, the main challenge to Huck Finn is its excessive use of the n-word.  Although Huck Finn was published in America in 1885, the story takes place around 1840 in a deep antebellum South.  Needless to say, America was a very different place back then.  And that is the fundamental problem with the challenge to Huck Finn; it is being judged by today's mores instead of the mores of the world in which it was written.

If you asked a hundred people whether they want an historically accurate depiction of life in the South in 1840, or a whitewashed version of it, most people would say an accurate depiction.  But then you plunk down Huck Finn in front of them, and watch those same people balk at the casual use of the n-word throughout the book.  The truth is, people don't want to face the dark corners of our history.

They don't want to think about the fact that one third of the signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves, including its main author, Thomas Jefferson.  Twelve of our presidents owned slaves at some point in their lives (including several when they were in the White House).  

They don't want to think about the fact that the United States of America was one of the last countries to abolish slavery, after most European, South American and some Eastern nations had already done so.  They want to forget that slavery was still legal in many Northern states until as late as 1827, and that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made it illegal to harbor escaped slaves in any state.

They don't want to think about the fact that a major theme in another beloved American novel, Gone With the Wind, is a justification of the formation of the Ku Klux Klan.  They'd rather focus on the love story between Scarlett & Rhett than admit that what Rhett was doing when he went to clean out the "riffraff" in the woods was Klan activity.

None of these facts are pretty.  All of them are from the dark recesses of our nation's history, and I can understand why it is sometimes easier to excise any mention of them from a book, rather than get into a difficult conversation about the mistakes of our past.  But the fact is, these things happened.  And the only way we can correct our mistakes is to learn from them, not deny them.

But a lot of people don't want to travel that difficult path. 

And so, they use their children as an excuse not to do so.  "Children can't read this!" they cry.  "What if they read it and think it's okay to talk like that?"

Well, parents and teachers, here's the simple solution to that.  You hold the book up and say, "Back then, it was okay to use the n-word.  Today it's not.  End of story."

But that, apparently, is asking too much.  It's too difficult of a conversation to have, I guess.  Because a new edition of Huck Finn appeared earlier this year with all the offensive words edited out.

That, my friends, is censorship.  Pure and simple.

And it is a short walk from censorship to building a bonfire in the town square and tossing any "objectionable" book into the flames, their stories lost to us forever.

Thank you for celebrating Banned Books Week with me.  Now go read a banned book! 

"Every burned book enlightens the world." -Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Banned Books Week: Day Four

Instead of featuring one book, today I'd like to talk about a sub-genre of books that has been challenged a lot lately.  Books that depict rape or sexual violence have taken an enormous beating in school libraries across the country.  Such books include Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, and The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

As the mother of a daughter, and a feminist, this trend is particularly disturbing to me.  Every two minutes in America, a woman is raped.  One in four women are victims of rape or attempted rape, and 38% of rape victims are between the ages of 14 and 17.  Nearly half - half - of rape victims never report the crime.

It is because of books like Speak that the other half do report the crime.

In the Platinum Edition of Speak, released in 2006, Laurie Halse Anderson had this to say: 
"But censoring books that deal with difficult, adolescent issues does not protect anybody. Quite the opposite. It leaves kids in the darkness and makes them vulnerable. Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance. Our children cannot afford to have the truth of the world withheld from them.

We like to think that our children attend high schools like Sweet Valley High or East High School, where nice boys just want to hold hands and kids break out into song.  But the reality is is that our children are being forced to grow up earlier and earlier.  They will know kids who are bullied, abused, raped, who cut themselves, who drink or do drugs...or they will experience it themselves.

We all know that reading books together with our children opens lines of communication.  As difficult as the subject matter may be, reading a book like Speak or Just Listen can keep those lines open, so that if - heaven forbid - down the line, our child has to deal with an issue like rape, they will talk to us about it.

And that is what books are for - to bring people together.  There's a reason why the art of storytelling is older than time.  Stories drew our ancestors together and fostered discussion around an ancient fire.  Stories reach across time and space and makes us realize that, despite our differences, we're all the same.  And if a story like Speak can make one child reach out to another and say, "I know.  I understand.  You can talk to me..." - that story is worth telling. 

Learn more about Banned Books Week

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Banned Books Week - Day Three

Today I'd like to feature a series of books that has been seriously challenged over the last decade.  It's also been one of the bestselling series of all time.  It's none other than Harry Potter.

Most everyone who knows me knows of my great love for Harry, and I'm not shy about my adulation for J.K Rowling.  So it's no surprise that I'm defending Harry against those who would challenge him.

You may be asking what on earth anyone would have against the boy wizard who leads the ultimate battle of good against evil.  The answer to that is: religion.

Many religious leaders believe the Harry Potter books promote witchcraft.  And sure, the magical world of Hogwarts is the main setting for the books.  But if you look beyond the setting, you will see that the story of Harry is really about friendship, loyalty, and that honor, above all else, is worth more than any magical power.  I don't know any religion that doesn't strive for those ideals.

Beneath every stated challenge ("Witchcraft is evil"), I believe there is another, unstated challenge.  And the unstated challenge to Harry Potter is that parents, teachers, and religious leaders fear that if a child reads about witchcraft, they will start to question their faith.  What's so ironic about this fear is that the major theme of the Harry Potter books is having faith in what you know is right, and staying true to your convictions.  It's about fighting for what you believe in, even to the death.  Religious leaders have started wars over those very same ideas.

And so once again I find myself saying: Read the book before you condemn it.  Read the book with your children.  Talk to them about it.  I dare anyone who picks up a Harry Potter book not to be swept into the story.  Reading these books is a truly magical experience, and it would be a shame to deny that special brand of magic to any child.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week: Day Two

Today I am going to feature a more recent challenged book - or books, to be exact: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. 

In case you haven't read The Hunger Games (and why haven't you?!), here's the premise.  In a dystopian future, America has been reduced to twelve districts and a Capital after a devastating revolution.  Unfortunately for the revolutionaries, they lost.  To keep the districts in line, the Capital demands two tributes from each district; a boy and a girl, between the ages of twelve and sixteen, to compete in a televised the death.

Look, I get it.  The Hunger Games is violent - and it's kids killing other kids, which is even worse.  But what are people afraid of here?  That after reading these books, kids will start hunting each other in the woods with a crossbow?  Or that the next reality television show will be a live death-match?  (Actually, I wouldn't put that past some of the executives at Fox.)  But seriously, how many times a week do we hear about a gang-related shooting resulting in the death of a teenager?  Or a child killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan?  Is the premise of this book really that different than what's going on in Rwanda?

The truth is, we can't shield our children from the horrors in the world.  And the challenge to The Hunger Games is an attempt to do just that.  Instead, we should talk to our children about the human cost of these horrors - something that is a major theme in The Hunger Games.

One of the other complaints about these books is that they are "sexually explicit."  I'd like to challenge that challenge.  There is no sex in any of the three books, until the very end when there is a veiled and poetic reference to it (between two married characters).  This again leads me to believe that the people challenging these books aren't actually reading them.

But above all, these books are awesome.  They are action-packed and fast-paced, and the heroine is fierce.  The story grabs you by the throat in the first few pages, and doesn't let you go until the last page of the last book.  Isn't that what we want out of our stories?  We want to escape into a book where the world is dangerous and unsafe...because in our real lives that's the last thing we want.  

And that's why we read in the first place, to experience something on the page that we never will in real life.  


Monday, September 26, 2011

Banned Books Week - Day One

It's Banned Books Week!  Every year, during the last week in September, the American Library Association celebrates the freedom of all Americans to read whatever they choose.  Learn more about it here.

It's hard to believe that in 2011 people are still challenging the basic, fundamental right to freedom of expression.   But even here, in liberal Southern California, there has been a challenge to one of the greatest classics of the 20th century.

So to kick off Banned Books Week, I'm featuring that book - In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote.  

School officials in the Glendale Unified School District here in Los Angeles consider the book too "chilling" for high schoolers to read.  Here's the story.

I read In Cold Blood as a junior in high school, as part of a thesis report I did on Truman Capote.  Doing that report began my long love affair with Capote, one of the truly great American authors.  And I will admit, the book gave me nightmares, including one particularly vivid one in which I discovered the slain teenage girl in my own bed. 

But that is what great literature does.  It sucks us in and doesn't let us go, even after we put the book down.  It haunts us even when we're asleep.  I wouldn't trade those nightmares for anything; they were the hallmark of a great read.

So here's a novel (no pun intended) thought: why not let students decide for themselves what's chilling and what isn't?  I would wager that most of those parents challenging the book haven't read it themselves.  Why not read along and discuss it with their children?

Every day this week I'm going to feature a frequently-challenged book that I've read and loved.  I encourage you to share your banned books stories with me as well.  And support Banned Books Week by reading one that you haven't yet!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

In Memoriam

On September 10th, 2001, a young woman named Brooke Jackman called her mom to tell her she was going to leave her job as an assistant bond trader at Cantor Fitzgerald to apply to grad school for social work.  "There's more to life than making money," she said.

I didn't know Brooke.  But I knew her brother Ross, who was a colleague of mine at JPMorgan.  He was with me on the morning of September 11th, when we ran down 33 flights of stairs at 60 Wall Street after the second plane hit the World Trade Center, four blocks away.

In the days following 9/11,  New York was a city in shock, and in mourning.  We came together in a way that was astonishing for a city known for its abruptness and brashness.  Everyone softened.  People reached out.  People asked, "How are you?" and really wanted to know - even the guy behind the counter at the coffeeshop.  "Are you okay?" I asked strangers.  "Are all your people okay?"

People changed after 9/11.  The guy in my office that I privately nicknamed Mr. PITA (Pain-in-the-Ass) witnessed the second plane crashing into the towers from the floor-to-ceiling wraparound windows in our office.  He saw people jump out of the towers to escape the fire.  He became markedly nicer after that.

There was genuine concern and caring amongst New Yorkers.  We were all in this together, and we would come out of it together, too.

I want to talk about how the world has changed since 9/11.  Not how we started two devastating wars, or how we now have to remove our shoes at airport security.  I want to talk about how we changed for the better.  How we realized that life is short and precious.  How living in fear became equated with letting the terrorists win.  How moments of joy became that much sweeter because of the pain we had all experienced.  How connected we were to each other, in New York and around the world.

In the ten years since that day, I think we have lost that sense of community that brought us all together.  See, the thing about community is that it's all the time, not just when tragedies strike.  In the ten years since 9/11/01, the world has become more divided and more dangerous, because we've lost that connectedness.  We've closed ourselves off.  We've gone back to our homes and shut the door, put on our blinders, and fallen back into our every-man-for-himself mentality. 

We need to open ourselves up again.  If we re-weave those threads of connectedness that we all had after 9/11, we will have a world made of fabric so strong that no terrorist will be able to rip through it again.

And we need to remind ourselves of the great phoenixes that can rise out of the ashes.  Every night on her way home from work, Brooke would stop into her local bookstore to browse and read.  So in the weeks following 9/11, Brooke's family established The Brooke Jackman Foundation, dedicated to promoting literacy amongst children.

So today, on this tenth anniversary of one of the worst days in our country's history, let's not dwell on what the world was.  Let's think about what the world can be.

And then open your door, step outside, and make it happen.

"You must be the change you want to see in the world." -  Mahatma Gandhi

Photo by Cait Hurley