The week before last was Banned Books Week, which is our yearly reminder that words still hold power enough to make people want to control what words others read. Perusing banned book lists, you come across books one might expect, like E. L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey (sexually explicit scenes, general obscenity). You also see a lot of fantasy books like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy being banned for connections to the occult. Religious books like The Quran and The Bible have been banned by numerous governments for a variety of reasons. Opposing religions have wanted either removed; atheist nations like the USSR have banned them as well. Christian nations have even banned some Bible translations. Spain had certain Bible translations banned from the 13th to the 19th century. Then you get the surprising ones, like Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham, which has been banned for Marxist and homosexual undertones.
The banning of books affects kids the most. Much of the banning of books in the past century come from schools or libraries who don’t want kids to be exposed to challenging ideas–seemingly forgetting that being exposed to challenging ideas is 98% of life. They also tend to often be books about children. That’s no surprise considering 60% of adults experience traumatic events in childhood. When you’re a kid, of course, you are more malleable, and everything hits you harder because it’s new and you are more open than you will be once you grow up. What you read and watch in childhood will also leave its mark on you, which is why so many push to protect children from difficult books, forgetting that most children experience difficult events firsthand. Speaking for myself, seeing other kids going through troubles in stories was validating and made me feel less alone.
Here are five banned books that hit me hard in my childhood and teens–all of which feature child narrators.
*trigger warning: several of the following books feature rape/sexual abuse*
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
banned for pornographic references
Card’s breakthrough 1985 novel is a prominent feature on the recommended reading lists of the US Marine Corps, while also being a science fiction classic (1986 best novel winner of both the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award). The main protagonist is Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin, a boy genius who is chosen by the government as the one they’ve been waiting for, the only one who can save Earth from an inevitable alien invasion. In a lot of ways, the story is the familiar Chosen One trope (e.g. The Matrix, Star Wars, Harry Potter), but is unique in that Ender is not an inarguable hero, or even necessarily a good guy. When the story begins, Ender is six years old and a victim of the bullies at school and at home. When he is enlisted into military school, he is further victimized, bullied by older kids and left to suffer by the adults who want him to grow a tougher skin. Unlike his fellow Chosen Ones, Neo, Luke Skywalker, or Harry Potter, Ender is essentially alone. His friendships only go so deep and as his specialness is accepted, he becomes respected rather than loved, feared rather than admired. He grows to understand others, but he struggles to truly empathize. He is a hero, in a greater sense, becoming a strong leader and overcoming every challenge, but each success feels increasingly empty as the story goes on.
The novel is not a stand-alone work; there are a lot of sequels, written in various order, telling the rest of Ender’s story and the stories of his friends and family. These sequels are essential to understanding Card’s actual intent. But Ender’s Game works as a stand-alone piece, so is often judged as one, with its ending being the last word on its message. It is terse prose, full of fast-paced action and intense violence, but also slow-moving thoughtful scenes of Ender wondering over his purpose. The pornographic language in the book is not related to sexuality, as sex has no role in the story, but there is crudeness in the interactions of unsupervised children, especially since most of the characters are boys, and there are several phallic references. The later mention of adolescent body hair made many adult readers awkward, though it is just a passing thought of a prepubescent character. The strange combination of crudeness and innocence is what defines the dialogue and relationships of Ender’s Game. Ender’s childhood is (hopefully) not like our own childhood, but there is something in the tone that recalls childhood, in a way that is both nostalgic and unsettling.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
banned for sexual situations and violence
Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is not for the faint of heart or the extremely sensitive. But if you aren’t haunted by this book, there’s something wrong with you. The omniscient narrator of the book is a young teenaged girl who is raped and murdered by a neighbor in a small 1970s town. The very premise is off-putting and it’s a painful read. (Confession: I’ve reread this book many times and I cry every time.) But it’s also one of the most gloriously hopeful and beautiful books I’ve ever read.
After her brutal murder, Susie Salmon is in a perfect afterlife, but she can’t let go of the people she left behind: her broken-hearted parents, her devastated sister, her almost-boyfriend, and her murderer. Due to her postmortem omniscience, she is privy to their personal lives, so we get to know all the people whose lives are affected by Susie’s death. The book begins with the unimaginable horror and that sets the backdrop for the storyline. But the further we get, the more Susie’s death becomes a memory, as does the living Susie herself, and we see how the tragedy of her death changed people for the better in some ways, how it taught them something about life. If it wasn’t for her death, they would all have gone on placidly, smothering their frustrations and troubles, but with her murder, everything comes to the surface. Every detail–from the Monopoly pieces, the sexual awakenings of the teenaged characters, the relationship between Susie’s mother and grandmother, the childhood memories of the murderer–all come together to form a complex story that is incredibly like real life, if we could step back enough to get a good look at it.
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
banned for profanity and vulgarity
This is the kind of book that I always thought would be over-rated, but it’s actually every bit as good as it’s built up to be. Holden Caulfield is a privileged New York City teen in the 1950s, and is completely incapable of enjoying a moment without stepping outside of himself and over-analyzing the situation and everyone in it. The narration is jocular and as if Holden was telling his story to you, occasionally recalling something he forgot to tell you, and letting you know when he leaves out unimportant parts. Kicked out of boarding school for flunking classes, Holden decides to live it up in the city instead of telling his parents, while imagining he might just run away.
The novel is all about straddling that line between childhood and adulthood, moving from unselfconscious authenticity to the curated grown-up versions we all become eventually. Holden’s greatest criticism is something or someone being “phony”, but he himself pretends to be a cooler and more confident version of himself in every interaction. He adores children, but is suspicious of adults, even the kind ones he likes. He can’t get out of his own head and critical mindset, second-guessing himself and regretting everything he chooses to do. It’s an honest sort of story, and it’s crude, though Holden is occasionally apologetic for his crudeness. I read it near the very end of my teenage years and was torn between relating very much to Holden and yet understanding the adults who try to help him. Re-reading it again as an adult is humbling–most of us would seem fake to Holden. Because we can be, as adults. No one tries as hard as teenagers do, but by adulthood we’ve all developed our persona and values, becoming phony in a lot of ways. Whenever I re-read The Catcher in the Rye I am reminded that sometimes it’s better to be real, especially if you work with kids, because they know when you’re being fake. But it’s also important to remember that it doesn’t really matter if teens roll their eyes inwardly at you. It’s inevitable. We all did it to adults. And it’s okay, because those teens will be adults too, and be a little phony at times.
Speak by Louise Halse Anderson
banned for pornographic scenes
Speak is a novel that hits me more each time I read it. It’s seemingly a simple writing style: first-person, present tense, choppy, stream-of-consciousness, occasionally just dialogue like a play, broken up into short sections with headings instead of chapters. I read it when I was in high school and it shook me. The older I get, the more I realize how realistic it actually is. Speak is narrated by Melinda, who enters high school a social outcast and not willing or able to interact comfortably with others. Her life is falling apart, her grades are terrible, her parents think she’s a delinquent, her old friends hate her, and she knows it. Her narration is cynical and darkly humorous, as observant and critical as Holden Caulfield’s. Yet unlike Holden, Melinda is suffering not just because of the stress of adolescence, but because of a traumatic event that occurred the summer before freshman year.
The book has been banned because of it being “soft core porn”, referencing, I suppose, the flashbacks to when a drunk and confused Melinda was raped by an older boy. Somehow rape references and the trauma it causes has been seen by some adult readers as pornographic, something that may excite readers, which says something very unpleasant about our culture. Unfortunately, Melinda’s story is like those of many girls and women (and boys and men) in real life. Because of that it is a book that should be available for teenagers–seeing a main character go through sexual abuse and survive (i.e. NOT like the misogynist victim-shaming BS of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy) can provide hope. It can also help make those who haven’t experienced sexual abuse understand and empathize with those who have.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
banned for vulgarity and pornography
The only outright TRUE story on this list–and it has been censored and banned. Anne Frank (if you live under a rock and don’t know) was a young Jewish girl who went into hiding with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the early 1940s. She was a voracious reader and a highly ambitious writer, so she recorded her daily life in diaries from 1942-1944, until she, her family, and their housemates were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Anne spent months in Auschwitz and then Belsen-Bergen, where she died of typhus and was buried in a mass grave. She was fifteen.
Her father, Otto Frank, was the only member of the Frank family to survive the Holocaust, and when he obtained Anne’s diaries from a family friend, he edited them for publication. He cut out Anne’s arguments with her mother, her criticisms of neighbors, and her musings about her own burgeoning sexuality. This censorship was well-intended, being meant to respect the dead. After Otto Frank’s death, the Anne Frank Foundation released an expanded edition that respected Otto’s edition while including more of Anne’s turbulent teenaged angst. That was the version I first read as a teenager, and was surprised to find this girl, locked away in a secret apartment for years, who thought so like me, questioning herself and everyone around her. Yet her diaries have been banned for crudeness and vulgarity–meaning her thoughts on her changing body and attempts to understand it from a scientific perspective. Anne was brilliant and funny, the kind of person who it just seems especially unfair for the world to have lost.
These books are really five of my personal favorites, and I could go on and on. But each one is a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story, and because of that, is filled with realistically awkward moments. Childhood may be touched with naïveté and innocence, but just as toddlerhood when told is 75% crudeness, puberty is unavoidably crude even in its naïve self-realizations. The truth is that childhood isn’t always comfortable. Life isn’t always comfortable. Books shouldn’t always be comfortable. What makes us uncomfortable makes us think.
Brittany Ann Zayas