Tomorrow is the start of Banned Books Week (September 25 – October 2), and I’d like to honor the occasion with some middle-grade books I read as a child that have been challenged and/or banned.
FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg is this group’s literary inspiration. But the story of a sister and brother who run away and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art caused someone enough angst they wanted to prevent kids reading it.
I don’t know why that is.
What I do know is that when I read the book, I admired Claudia’s spunk and intelligence. Her practicality and attention to detail. The way she manages her younger brother and his money. Claudia Kinkaid is a smart character, and while reading her story I imagined myself being equally smart if given the chance.
That was no easy trick. I grew up in Pardeeville, Wisconsin, where we didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities, much less a museum or public transportation. Without books, I might’ve grown up thinking the entire world was nothing but cows, cornfields, and people with white skin. All 1,507 of us.
Books introduced me to people and places.
THE CAY by Theodore Taylor was mind-expanding. Young white Phillip was raised to be prejudiced against blacks, but goes blind and is suddenly dependent on an elderly black man for survival. All that, plus war and an island setting!
Those Wisconsin cornfields faded away.
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl showed me a family that loved each other so much they squeezed into one bed. That was quite a concept for a girl from a family in which everyone not only had their own beds, but also their own rooms. I wanted to believe in that familial closeness, and the possibility of golden tickets and Oompa-Loompas. As I read the book, I hoped there really were Willy Wonka-esque adults in the world with as little patience for grown-up idiocy and hypocrisy as the average kid. Adults who’d call out other adults, and then sweeten the deal with unlimited chocolate.
When I read THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster (with fabulous illustrations by Jules Feiffer), the only thing I knew for sure was that I was reading a capital-Q quirky book. I’m grateful no one denied me the chance to marvel and puzzle over a story I recognized as game-changing. I might not have understood all I read, and I definitely couldn’t verbalize what made the book so amazing, but I sensed I was in the presence of greatness.
Every reader should be allowed that kind of experience.
LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott and HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh couldn’t be more different, but both helped me recognize my true self. Alcott’s Jo speaks her mind and is a writer. Fitzhugh’s Harriet carries a notebook everywhere; she’s a writer who walks her talk. Neither Jo nor Harriet say they’d someday like to write. Both write. Every day. Jo doesn’t give up when sister Amy throws Jo’s novel in the fireplace, and neither does Harriet let go of her writing dreams. And in addition to inspiring me, Harriet taught me to pay attention. Really pay attention. (Confession: I don’t notice changes in facial hair. My husband can shave his beard and I won’t catch on for more than a week. I do, however, always notice purple socks).
Each of these challenged/banned books carries its own unique memory and significance. I am who I am because of these stories plus others on the banned list, such as LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE; CALL IT COURAGE; KING OF THE WIND; A WRINKLE IN TIME; THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, and more.
There’s one book on the list I never read: BLUBBER by Judy Blume. It wasn’t that I was denied the book, I just never came across it. But perhaps if I’d read that story of a girl bullied, I would not have bullied a classmate during my sixth grade; there’s a very good chance that book would’ve slapped me upside the head and changed my attitude.
I wish I’d known about the book. Even more, I wish I’d read it. I want all kids to read BLUBBER.
For those fighting to prevent children from reading BLUBBER or another book, please understand this: I’d give an awful lot to be able to say I was never a bully. And one book might have made that difference for me.
Tracy Abell believes the quickest way to get a girl to read a book is to tell her she can’t read that book.