Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.

This week we celebrate Banned Books Week, sponsored by the American Library Association and others to celebrate our freedom to read and bring awareness to challenges of materials in schools, libraries, and bookstores. This past year has seen a huge number of challenges in local school districts; the ALA recorded 729 challenges last year, compared to 156 challenges in 2020 and 377 in 2019 (pre-pandemic).

You may notice some trends in the top ten challenged materials this year: sex and LGBTQ+ content. Nine out of ten books fall into one of these categories. There has been a huge push by conservatives, fueled by social media use, to paint these books as pornographic or grooming or indoctrinating children. You can see this in the language they use in their complaints below: “woke” “indoctrinating” “critical race theory” “Marxist” In school board and library board meetings across the country, people have stood up to read explicit passages (out of context) from books found in school libraries to try to shock the community into having them removed from libraries and class syllabi.

Of course, not every book is appropriate for every child at every point in their development. But I reject the premise that any inclusion of sex, racism, gender dysphoria, etc. is automatically harmful. The context is important as well, and the whole point reading literature in school is to teach children to think critically. For my children, I would rather have them reading and struggling with tough concepts in an age-appropriate way, with the guidance of their teachers and myself, rather than shelter them. Books help expand one’s worldview; it’s not always a pretty picture but sometimes we find something that really resonates with us and helps us grow. Here’s a thoughtful Twitter thread from author Shannon Hale that speaks to this:

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe has been the subject of much controversy since its release in 2019. It was recently the subject of a lawsuit in Virginia in which two Republicans requested a restraining order against Barnes & Noble to prevent them from selling Gender Queer and A Court of Mist and Fury to minors, claiming they are obscene. A judge recently dismissed the case, ruling that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that either book was obscene and further that “Virginia Code § 18.2-384 is unconstitutional on its face.” However, Virginia Beach City schools did remove all copies of Gender Queer from their libraries. Gender Queer is a 2020 winner of the ALA’s Alex Award and has a 4.35 star rating on Goodreads.

The #2 title, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, was the subject of some local controversy here in Northeast Ohio. After some parents in Hudson, Ohio complained about a prompt in a book used for a college-level course (which involved the mayor threatening the school board with charges of child pornography), one parent went further to complain about Lawn Boy being available in the library, citing inappropriate sexual content. It was eventually returned to shelves after a review. Lawn Boy is a 2019 winner of the ALA’s Alex Award and has a 3.83 rating on Goodreads.

Jumping down a few to #5 is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which is the only book on this list that I have read. And I do not hesitate to say that it is a book all teenagers in America should be reading. It has been nominated for/won more awards than I have room to list and has a 4.5 star rating on Goodreads. It is gripping, compelling, and entertaining while being an educational experience; it deals with justice and morality without being preachy; it is both timely and a classic. Starr is a wonderful protagonist that I would love for all teens to meet.

Fight book banning on a local level

If you’ve made it this far in this post, you have seen how censorship is taking place on a local level, in school districts and city libraries. While I have voted in local elections all my adulthood, this past year has really hammered home to me how critical these elections are. Pay attention to the positions of the candidates for school board in particular. Since my children are not in public schools, I never concerned myself about these elections too much. But now I understand that I want to live in and foster a community that sees diverse literature for young adults as a tool for growth and self-discovery. Vote for library levies and utilize library resources; librarians are the ones on the front lines of the fight for freedom in reading. Practice thoughtful reading in your own home. When I find problematic things in children’s books (typically sexism in older books) for my four-year-old I try to mention them and give my thoughts. As he gets older, I’ll ask more for his thoughts as well.

What are your favorite banned books? How do you celebrate your freedom to read? What are you reading right now?

Previous Banned Books Week posts

2021 Reading Review

You probably wouldn’t know it from my dearth of reviews this year, but in 2021 I read about 150 books. This year I joined Storygraph to log my reading, so here are some fun stats from my 2021 reading. (You’ll notice it lists 135 as my total because I missed logging a few books)

I only reviewed three books over two blog posts this year, so here are some quick notes on the ones I didn’t have time to blog about, but still want to share.

Fantasy

Winterkeep by Kristin Cashore: One of the first book reviews I did for this blog was Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue, the third book in the Graceling series, so it was great to come back to the series with Winterkeep. Each book in that series is unique and wonderful, and I’m so happy to say that this fourth installment carries on that tradition. The worldbuilding is fantastic, moving into a new region of the same world, and the intrigue is suspenseful (there’s a character that really reminds me of Mrs. Coulter from His Dark Materials). The characters both old and new are engaging, and as always representation is on point. One downside: now I have to buy a new set of books so my covers match.

Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater: A fairy story set in the Regency period, which is like catnip for me. It manages to be fun and romantic while having surprising depth. As a debut novel from an indie author, it was one of my favorite surprises this year, and I’m so looking forward to continuing the series.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton: Another Regency fantasy! You’re shocked, I know. But this one is slightly different in that it is a novel of manners set in a world populated by dragons. If you like 19th century British literature, you will like this story. There are obnoxious relatives, country manors, marriages, courtroom drama, and descriptions of hats. All overlaid with dragon culture. It was a slow start for me but once I was in, I was hooked.

Fairy Tale Retellings

Valiant and Flight of Swans by Sarah McGuire: I’m so glad I discovered McGuire this year, because her work needs more hype. Her debut, Valiant, is a clever retelling of “The Brave Little Tailor,” and her next work, Flight of Swans, is a lovely take on “The Six Swans.” I loved them both, but Flight of Swans in particular has stayed with me. It’s a tale of love and loyalty in a beautiful ancient British setting, and I don’t know how she wrote a mute protagonist so seamlessly. I really feel it holds up next to the classics of the genre.

Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer: This was a solid retelling of “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” with a few other similar tales thrown in. It gets major points for its magical-house atmosphere (including a magic library where you can jump into the stories) and the way it blended in the details of the different tales. There was nothing particularly unexpected here, but I really enjoyed reading it and I’m looking forward to the companion novel coming out this year.

Thorn and The Theft of Sunlight by Intisar Khanani: I mentioned last year that I got hooked on Khanani‘s first indie works, and this Dauntless Path series is really holding to that promise. Thorn is a fabulous retelling of “The Goose Girl” that holds up to Shannon Hale’s classic retelling of that tale. I had high expectations coming into Theft of Sunlight, and I was still blown out of the water. I think I read it like three times. It moves away from retellings into an original story, wrapping up some things from Thorn while moving into the new territory prepped by “The Bone Knife” story at the end of Thorn. The protagonist Rae is amazing, there is no overt romance just some squishy understated feels, and the plot is really getting interesting. The only reason you should not read this (yet) is that it ENDS ON A CLIFFHANGER OMG. I need the next book NOW.

Author discovery: Mimi Matthews

In the course of my historical romance reading, I came across indie author Mimi Matthews and her wonderful, clean Victorian novels…and I kept reading. And reading. I read nine books of hers this year, including one series and several standalones: the most of any one novelist I read. In particular I recommend the Parish Orphans of Devon series and Gentleman Jim. Matthews also has her first release with a major publisher coming out this month, The Siren of Sussex, and I am so ready for it!

Nonfiction

Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild: During the semester I spent in Spain over a decade ago, I had the opportunity to attend an exhibit on the Brigadas Internacionales, the foreign volunteers who fought in Spain’s civil war in the 1930s. I had no idea of this history before then, and frankly many people in Spain still deal with Guerra Civil topics with a light touch. Hochschild’s book gives a good overview of the war, mainly from the volunteers’ perspective, from everyday Americans there to fight fascism to idealistic writers like Hemingway and George Orwell; there’s also an interesting bit about Texaco selling oil to Franco on credit, with no interference from the US government. It is an interesting look at a complex time; of course, it does read a bit like a tragedy since the Republicans eventually lost the war, leading to decades of fascist rule in Spain. For another book on the Franco period, I recommend Ruta Sepetys’s novel The Fountains of Silence.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick: Speaking of autocratic regimes, this book is a fascinating peak inside one of the most closed off countries on the planet. Having read Park Yeonmi’s memoir of her escape and taken in some South Korean TV shows like Crash Landing on You, I wanted to learn more about the people of North Korea rather than the government. This book focuses on the daily lives of six defectors and is surprisingly comprehensive, as much as that is possible. The parts about the famine in the 90s are particularly haunting; whenever I hear about current food shortages in the DPRK in the news I wonder what the real story is and if history is repeating itself there.

Manga

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I was intrigued by Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba when I heard the recent movie had claimed the title of highest-grossing anime release in Japan, beating out Spirited Away and Your Name. After watching the first episode of the anime on Netflix, I picked up the manga from the library and have been reading as fast as I can get it (each volume has a very long wait list). It is a dark story, sometimes creepy and sometimes gory, but the struggles of Tanjiro and his friends, and especially his bond with his sister Nezuko, are really compelling. I definitely had some feels at the end of the Mugen Train arc! If you liked Fullmetal Alchemist and other similar stories, I think you would like this one.

As far as reading goals, last year I said:

I’m not making any reading goals for 2021. I’m going to read whatever I want to!

And I did! haha I’m starting to figure out a way forward with my reading list that works for me as a working mom. Of course I wish I had more time to read award-winning novels or the latest hot thing, or that I hadn’t staying up til 2am reading on that night my kid wouldn’t sleep. But like everything in life, it’s a work in progress.

Next year I really want to get back to writing more, both here on the blog and my own fiction. I already have a couple book reviews kicking around in my head. Here’s hoping you’ll see me around more!

What were your favorite books from 2021? Do you have any reading goals for 2022?

Banned Books Week: Books Unite Us

It’s Banned Books Week, that wonderful time of year that we celebrate all the wonderful books that have been challenged, banned, or censored.

The ALA tracked 156 challenges last year; here are the top 10 most challenged books of 2020.

Congrats to author Jason Reynolds, who managed to have two books on the list this year (#2 and #3). I discovered his writing when his middle grade book Ghost made the Great American Read’s top 100 list. I absolutely loved that series and I can’t wait to read more from him. He’s also just a really cool person and I love hearing him talk about writing.

We’ve actually had a recent local kerfuffle that you may have seen making the national news…a college writing course at a local high school was using a book (for five years) that had some more mature writing prompts involving sex and drug use. Though these specific prompts had never been assigned, and parents had to sign a waiver acknowledging adult themes in the class, the book was pulled after some parents complained. The town’s mayor then publicly accused the school board of child pornography and demanded they resign. The county prosecutor had to state that there was no basis for the child pornography claims; no one from the school board has resigned. I have no idea if the book was actually a useful tool for the students, but all the pearl-clutching is pretty embarrassing.

Feeding Reading 2021

It’s once again summer and that means free books from Kellogg’s Feeding Reading program. Buy any of the participating Kelloggs products and submit a photo of your entire receipt, and you will receive a credit for a book from their selection, which this year includes some classics and some recent releases.

Some of this year’s free books

You can get up to six free books either to ship to your house or donate to a library of your choice. In our house we live on Pop-Tarts and Eggo waffles, so I have already gotten all six of our books, some for my kids, some for my nieces…and one for me.

The program goes until the end of September, but make sure you submit your receipts within two weeks of purchase to get your credits. Happy reading!

Review: Other People’s Butterflies by Cora Ruskin

One of my favorite things about blogging has been meeting other writers and discovering some really great indie authors. I’ve been a reader of Cora Ruskin’s blog Cora Still Writes for a while, so I was happy to receive an ARC of her debut novel, Other People’s Butterflies. It’s contemporary YA with a fabulous protagonist and healthy dose of drama. Plus look at this gorgeous cover!!

Gwen Foster is a typical high school girl, dealing with school and friend drama…except for the part where she’s secretly collecting personal information on all her classmates, not to mention trying to figure out why, unlike her classmates, she has no real interest in kissing anyone. As Gwen is coming to terms with her asexual/aromantic nature, an unknown person starts dishing out all the dirt Gwen’s collected on social media. Can Gwen’s favorite character, a 1940s femme fatale super spy, show her the way to fix everything?

Although I read a lot of YA, contemporary YA is not my usual genre. However, from the first pages I was hooked on Gwen as a character. I loved her narrative voice (and her very British sense of humor), and her growth over the story felt very real. The suspense and mystery parts of the story were really intriguing, and I liked how the scenes with Gwen’s fictional idol are interspersed to create tension and further the themes of the story. Parts of the ending felt a little abrupt, but I think that was because I wanted to read more of Gwen!

I especially appreciated reading the perspective of an asexual character, which is not something very common in any genre of fiction. I liked the organic way in which Gwen came to identify herself by that label, and the difference it made to her to know that she wasn’t the only person who felt that way. I hope anyone reading this story and seeing themselves in Gwen will feel the same!

So if you like high school drama, spy stuff, childhood friends, Briticisms, and diverse characters, I highly recommend checking this one out! It’s especially great that it is releasing during Pride month. I look forward to reading more by Cora in the future!

Get Other People’s Butterflies on Amazon

Check it out on Goodreads