Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Books To Read Before They're Banned

Most of you who've been hanging around this blog for a while -- or just long enough to catch Monday's post -- might be aware that I think censorship is about as a good an idea as sleeping under, over, and between some smallpox blankets. To put it mildly, I'm not a fan.

But, since the present issues with Speak (and if you've missed those, look below) have reminded me that censorship has yet to stop rearing its ugly head in our public schools, local libraries, and other places where books should be allowed, I've decided to give out the names of books I think people should read before people succeed in banning them.

  • Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson: The novel, begins on Melinda's first day as a high school freshman. At school, students call her names and harass her; her best friends from junior high scatter to different cliques and abandon her. Why? Over the summer Melinda called the police at a summer party, resulting in several arrests. Why? A popular senior raped her that night. Because of her trauma, she barely speaks at all. Only through her work in art class, and with the support of a compassionate teacher there, does she begin to reach out to others and eventually find her voice.
    Why should you read this? Yesterday's post, enough said.
  • Define Normal by Julie Anne Peters: Nerdy Antonia is assigned to peer-counsel Jazz, whom Antonia assumes is a druggie and a gang hanger. After a few agonizing sessions, Antonia begins to realize how much she needs someone to talk to. Her dad's split, and her mom's she can't get out of bed. The two become friends and help each other get their lives back on track. They both learn that judging people by their outside appearance can be misleading.
    I probably drove some Junior High friends crazy recommending this book to them, but sometimes books are so good you can't stop trying to pass them on.
  • Luna by Julie Anne Peters:Regan has always been there for her transgender brother, Liam, sacrificing her needs for his, but when he announces that he is ready to "transition" into Luna permanently, Regan is not sure she can handle the consequences. She has been Luna's confidant all her life' however, when the hot new guy in chem class shows an interest in Regan, she wishes her sibling would just go away and give her a chance to live her own life. Liam realizes that in order for his sister to be free, he, too, must free himself to become the woman who lives inside him.
    This is one of the few books I've read that accurately depicts the struggle of transgender individuals and their friends and family. This story touched me with its honesty, it's love, and its acceptance. I couldn't recommend this book highly enough.
  • Far from Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters: Mike Szabo must deal with more than her share of problems in this engaging, angsty novel. Her alcoholic father committed suicide, her obese mother has given up on life, and her no-good brother has driven the family plumbing business into the ground. To make matters worse, Mike falls deeply in love with a new girl in their small Kansas town. Bad-girl Xanadu has been sent to live with her aunt and uncle after getting into serious trouble dealing drugs. She befriends Mike instantly, though she's undeniably straight, and Mike suffers when Xanadu starts dating. Mike copes by working out at the gym, fixing her neighbors' plumbing, leading her softball team to a winning season, and occasionally binge drinking with her friends. Throughout the novel, she struggles to come to terms with her sexuality– while everyone in town know, including Mike, knows that she likes girls, Mike's not quite achieved what her friend Jamie calls "coming out to yourself."
    This book manages to take some of the cliches about homosexuality in America and depict them in a new light and with new heart. This is a touching coming of age story that handles the difficult topics with grace and honesty.
  • Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles: This book portrays a romance between two unlikely lab partners. Brittany is her Chicago high school's "golden girl" but few of her friends know that her parents are totally dysfunctional and that she is highly invested in caring for her physically and mentally disabled older sister. Alex is a member of the Latino Blood, but he wishes he could leave gang life and pursue a college career. The plot thickens as Alex accepts a bet from a friend that he cannot bed Brittany by Thanksgiving. But as mutual enmity fades into mutual understanding and respect, which leads to mutual affection, the two must face their difficult personal lives and try to make their lives fit together.
    This book manages to depict with honesty and heart two radically different characters, perspectives, backgrounds, and cultures. For me, it was the realistic treatment of the difficulties of having a disabled family member that showed the merits of the book, but it's knowledgeable and reasonably nuanced understanding of gang-life make the book memorable.
  • Leaving Paradise by Simone Elkeles: Maggie has just returned home from a long stay in the hospital to repair the leg that was badly injured in an automobile accident; Caleb has just returned from prison, where he served nine months for driving the car that hit Maggie. In spite of a court order to stay away from her, Caleb continues to encounter Maggie and even ends up working for Mrs. Reynolds, the same elderly lady who Maggie helps. Telling the story in alternate chapters, Elkeles reveals the traumatic accident and its consequences from both victims' points of view. Maggie can no longer play tennis and is now convinced that she is ugly; Caleb must endure the harassment of his former friends, especially the beautiful, seductive Kendra.
    This book's raw emotions and blunt depictions of the American criminal justice system for minors stick out in my mind as things that make this book memorable, even for the sort who don't go for romances. The author captures accurately the emotional states and minds of two characters in difficult situations they didn't chose to be in.
  • Returning to Paradise by Simone Elkeles: [This book is a sequel to the above mentioned book, and therefore its plot will not be given, due to potential spoilers.]
    This book is well worth reading for much the same reasons as the first.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie: Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, a Spokane Indian from Wellpinit, WA. The bright 14-year-old expects disaster when he transfers from the reservation school to the rich, white school in Reardan, but soon finds himself making friends with both geeky and popular students and starting on the basketball team. Meeting his old classmates on the court, Junior grapples with questions about what constitutes one's community, identity, and tribe. The daily struggles of reservation life and the tragic deaths of the protagonist's grandmother, dog, and older sister would be all but unbearable without the humor and resilience of spirit with which Junior faces the world. The teen's determination to both improve himself and overcome poverty, despite the handicaps of birth, circumstances, and race, delivers a positive message in a low-key manner.
    I'm a little late on this one, since some districts have already succeeded in pulling it from their shelves, though I can't imagine what part of it they found inappropriate for teens, except maybe the parts that mirror reality. (Have I mentioned I think censorship is stupid?) To that end, I'm declaring this touching coming of age story, which deals handily with the topics of racism, disabilities, and poverty, a red alert book. Read it before someone tries to tell you you can't.
  • Looking For Alaska by John Greene: 16-year-old Miles Halter's adolescence has been one long nonevent until he leaves Florida for a boarding school in Birmingham, AL. His roommate, Chip, a dirt-poor genius scholarship student with a Napoleon complex, lives to one-up the school's rich preppies. Chip's best friend is Alaska Young, with whom Miles instantly in love, is literate, articulate, and beautiful, and she exhibits a reckless combination of adventurous and self-destructive behavior. She and Chip teach Miles to drink, smoke, and plot elaborate pranks. Alaska's story unfolds in all-night bull sessions, and the depth of her unhappiness becomes obvious.
    A friend once gave an annotated copy of this book to her girlfriend as a guide to understanding her. Alaska is that well realized a character. This book somehow manages to be light-hearted and quirky and deep and dramatic at the same time.
(Summaries of these books are copied from, based on, or edited versions of the summaries given by Amazon.)

Any of the books listed above is one I consider a great book and would recommend to a friend or a high-schooler in a heart beat. Too bad the qualities that I think make them important and memorable are the qualities that might make people want to ban them.

What books do you think every high school student should read? What books you love do you worry might get banned?


  1. Speak is one I have just purchased because of the banning but thank you for putting this together, it allows me to see the others that I'd considered reading! It's sad to see them, but just another reason why this weekend will be novel buying weekend!

  2. Great list. I haven't read all of them, but I plan on it.

  3. Jen -- Yes! Read banned books! I know that certain books don't belong in schools has definitely added books to my To Read list.

    Susan -- Thanks. I'm glad. Always happy to share good books. Let me know what you think.