It happens every year—Banned Books Week brings to light the top 10 most frequently challenged titles, as well as focuses on a few classics that always seem to undeservedly get a bad rap—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye, anyone?—that everyone should read.
This year, the American Library Association lists the top 10 most frequently challenged books of 2010, as reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Here, we’ve assembled eight of the 10 we’ve reviewed over the years. Take a look. Perhaps this is the week to pick up a banned book.And Tango Makes Three
Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole
In this true, straightforwardly (so to speak) delivered tale, two male chinstrap penguins at New York City’s Central Park Zoo bond, build a nest and—thanks to a helping hand from an observant zookeeper—hatch and raise a penguin chick. Seeing that the penguins dubbed Roy and Silo “did everything together. They bowed to each other. And walked together. They sang to each other. And swam together,” their keeper, Mr. Gramzay, thinks, “They must be in love.” And so, when Roy and Silo copy the other penguin couples and build a nest of stones, it’s Gramzay who brings a neighboring couple’s second egg for them to tend, then names the resulting hatchling “Tango.” Cole gives the proud parents and their surrogate offspring small smiles, but otherwise depicts figures and setting with tidy, appealing accuracy. Unlike Harvey Fierstein’s groundbreaking The Sissy Duckling (2002), also illustrated by Cole, this doesn’t carry its agenda on its shoulder; readers may find its theme of acceptance even more convincing for being delivered in such a matter of fact, non-preachy way. (Picture book/nonfiction. 5-9)
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Ellen Forney
Alexie nimbly blends sharp wit with unapologetic emotion in his first foray into young-adult literature. Fourteen-year-old Junior is a cartoonist and bookworm with a violent but protective best friend Rowdy. Soon after they start freshman year, Junior boldly transfers from a school on the Spokane reservation to one in a tiny white town 22 miles away. Despite his parents’ frequent lack of gas money (they’re a “poor-ass family”), racism at school and many crushing deaths at home, he manages the year. Rowdy rejects him, feeling betrayed, and their competing basketball teams take on mammoth symbolic proportions. The reservation’s poverty and desolate alcoholism offer early mortality and broken dreams, but Junior’s knowledge that he must leave is rooted in love and respect for his family and the Spokane tribe. He also realizes how many other tribes he has, from “the tribe of boys who really miss…their best friends” to “the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.” Junior’s keen cartoons sprinkle the pages as his fluid narration deftly mingles raw feeling with funny, sardonic insight. (Fiction. YA)
Hypnotic and jagged free verse wrenchingly chronicles 16-year-old Kristina’s addiction to crank. Kristina’s daring alter ego, Bree, emerges when “gentle clouds of monotony” smother Kristina’s life—when there’s nothing to do and no one to connect with. Visiting her neglectful and druggy father for the first time in years, Bree meets a boy and snorts crank (methamphetamine). The rush is irresistible and she’s hooked, despite a horrible crank-related incident with the boy’s other girlfriend. Back home with her mother, Kristina feels both ignored and smothered, needing more drugs and more boys—in that order. One boy is wonderful and one’s a rapist, but it’s crank holding Bree up at this point. The author’s sharp verse plays with spacing on the page, sometimes providing two alternate readings. In a too brief wrap-up, Kristina keeps her baby (a product of rape) while Hopkins—realistically—offers no real conclusion. Powerful and unsettling. (Fiction. YA)
Katniss Everdeen is a survivor. She has to be; she’s representing her District, number 12, in the 74th Hunger Games in the Capitol, the heart of Panem, a new land that rose from the ruins of a post-apocalyptic North America. To punish citizens for an early rebellion, the rulers require each district to provide one girl and one boy, 24 in all, to fight like gladiators in a futuristic arena. The event is broadcast like reality TV, and the winner returns with wealth for his or her district. With clear inspiration from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and the Greek tale of Theseus, Collins has created a brilliantly imagined dystopia, where the Capitol is rich and the rest of the country is kept in abject poverty, where the poor battle to the death for the amusement of the rich. Impressive world-building, breathtaking action and clear philosophical concerns make this volume, the beginning of a planned trilogy, as good as The Giver and more exciting. However, poor copyediting in the first printing will distract careful readers—a crying shame. (Science fiction. 11 & up)
After years of pretending she has a “normal” family, a worried teen finally confronts her father’s alcoholism. Thirteen-year-old Samantha knows her father has a drinking problem, but her parents seem oblivious. Sam’s father makes empty promises to stop drinking while her mother immerses herself in yoga classes, defending her husband as a “good man.” Although Sam carefully camouflages the situation by inviting friends over only when her father’s away, his binges are getting worse and she’s afraid he will lose control. Desperate to confide in someone other than her friends, Sam leaves notes in the library asking for advice from an older girl she doesn’t really know. When her drunken father injures her little brother and the family’s future is jeopardized, Sam must deal with anger and uncertainty as she makes some surprising discoveries about her family, her friends and herself. Sam comes across as a savvy as well as naïve teen who tells her own story with humor, honesty and hope. Realistic family drama. (Fiction. 12-15)What My Mother Doesn’t Know
This year’s umpteenth novel in verse begs the question, if the narrative were told in conventional prose, would it be worth reading? The answer in this instance is, maybe not, as it does little more than chronicle one ninth-grade girl’s progression through boyfriends until she arrives at last at an unlikely Mr. Right. Laid out in a series of mostly free-verse poems, however, the text gets at the emotional state of this girl so completely and with such intensity that a conventional narrative framework would simply dilute the effect. Sophie’s romantic travails take her from sexy Dylan (“ . . . when he kisses me / all I feel is / the overwhelming / overness of it”) through cyberdude Chaz (“If I could marry a font / I would definitely marry his”) and friend-from-preschool Zak (“I hope I didn’t embarrass him / when I laughed. / It’s just that I thought he was kidding”) to class dork Murphy (“I mean, / we’re talking about Murphy here. / He’s not exactly boyfriend material. / Is he?”). Along the way she must contend with casual anti-Semitism, her parents’ failing marriage, and her mother’s depression, but she is also bolstered by her friendship with Rachel and Grace…Romantic and sexy, with a happy ending that leaves Sophie together with Mr. Right, Sones (Stop Pretending: What Happened when My Big Sister Went Crazy, 1999) has crafted a verse experience that will leave teenage readers sighing with recognition and satisfaction. (Fiction/poetry. YA)
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in Boom-Time America
How do millions of the poor (especially the unskilled and often illiterate young mothers now forced off welfare and into the labor market) get by on minimum-wage jobs? Ehrenreich (Blood Rites, 1997, etc.) decided to try for herself, and began a new life as a waitress in Florida earning $2.43 an hour plus tips. Moving next to Maine, she worked during the week for a housecleaning service ($6.65 an hour), and on weekends for an old-age home ($7). Later on, she moved to Minnesota and took a job at Wal-Mart ($7). Everywhere she went she faced a great scarcity of affordable housing, and at one point she was paying $245 a week (more than her net salary) for a run-down motel with no lock on the door and no screen on the window. As for health care—well, what can be done about illness or pain when (1) you can’t afford to miss a day of work, and (2) health benefits, if they even exist, are lousy? Ehrenreich found that most of her fellow workers, despite their financial, physical, and emotional burdens, were kind, generous, and diligent—not slothful or embittered as some observers would have it. Her personal experiences are bolstered with statistics on jobs, wages, and services available (fewer and fewer). Is there an answer? More government support in terms of housing and childcare subsidies would help, she says; so might unions. But the most important improvement would be a better understanding (on the part of those who can effect change) that it is the working poor who are the “major philanthropists of our society,” sacrificing health, family, even nourishment, to sustain those above them in the food chain.
Sun-loving Bella meets her demon lover in a vampire tale strongly reminiscent of Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. When Bella moves to rainy Forks, Wash., to live with her father, she just wants to fit in without drawing any attention. Unfortunately, she’s drawn the eye of aloof, gorgeous and wealthy classmate Edward. His behavior toward Bella wavers wildly between apparent distaste and seductive flirtation. Bella learns Edward’s appalling (and appealing) secret: He and his family are vampires. Though Edward nobly warns Bella away, she ignores the human boys who court her and chooses her vampiric suitor. An all-vampire baseball game in a late-night thunderstorm—an amusing gothic take on American family togetherness that balances some of the tale’s romantic excesses—draws Bella and her loved ones into terrible danger. This is far from perfect: Edward’s portrayal as monstrous tragic hero is overly Byronic, and Bella’s appeal is based on magic rather than character. Nonetheless, the portrayal of dangerous lovers hits the spot; fans of dark romance will find it hard to resist. (Fantasy. YA)
Banned Books Week is Sept. 24 through Oct. 1. What’s your favorite banned book?