Read a Banned Book

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Happy Banned Books Week, RLB readers!

Chances are, you’ve already read more banned books then you realize. Book banning isn’t something we think of as commonplace in Free Speech, USA, but there is a pervasive trend of books being challenged in our country, which can lead to those books being removed (i.e., banned) from certain libraries or schools.

The American Library Association is a great resource for Banned Books Week (including lists of challenged and banned books), as is the Banned Books Week website.

Here at RLB, we’d like to highlight some banned/challenged books that feature great female characters. It’s worth noting that the top three reasons for challenging a book in the US are because it is believed to: be Sexually Explicit, contain Offensive Language, or be Unsuited for Age Group.

Which leads us to the unsurprising discovery that several of the books on this list feature young girls or women who are coming of age, exploring their sexuality, challenging conservative social norms, and generally rousing the rabble.

Whether you choose a book from our list, or the ALA’s list from the above link, this week is a great time to cozy up with some rebellious, illicit, scandalous reading material. Like something from the Captain Underpants series.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
If you were a girl growing up anytime between 1970-1985, this book probably found its way onto your shelves. Featuring a sixth grade girl who talks with her friends about (gasp!) boys and (the horror!) periods, this book is sure to turn your precious angel princess into a pinko lesbian commie in no time. Say it with me now! “We must, we must, we must increase our bust!”
AYTGIMM

 

Dangerous Feminist Propaganda

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
This is Morrison’s first novel, and it tells the story of a year in the life of a young black girl, named Pecola, who develops an inferiority complex due to her eye and skin color in the years following the Great Depression. Because of the controversial nature of the book, which deals with racism, incest, and child molestation, there have been numerous attempts to ban it from schools and libraries. Because you know, those things don’t ever actually happen.
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Scandalous Truth-Teller

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Winning awards means your book can never be banned, right? Wrong! No books are safe from the Annals of American Moral Righteousness. The Color Purple won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the National Book Award for Fiction, and was later adapted into a film and musical of the same name. The book takes place mostly in rural Georgia, and the story focuses on the life of women of color in the southern United States in the 1930s. This wasn’t a pleasant time in our country’s history and no one wants to talk about it so shhhhhhhhhh!
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I said, shhhhhhhhh!

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
From Wikipedia: Set in the near future, in a totalitarian Christian theocracy which has overthrown the United States government, The Handmaid’s Tale explores themes of women in subjugation and the various means by which they gain agency…. I think we’ve heard enough on that one, yes?
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Oh dear God, just look at this! Imagine all of the satanic witchcraft tattoos piercings and criminal activity our daughters will embrace because of this depraved literature!!

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There’s also this cover, which….. I don’t really get it. But I’m sure it’s still evil.

The House of the Spirits by Isabelle Allende
The House of the Spirits is an epic saga that spans four generations, but focuses primarily on the lives of two women, Clara del Valle and Alba de Satigny, and the connection between them. There’s magic realism, magic magic, demonic possession, telekinesis, politics, psychic powers, murder, brothels, revolutionaries, ghosts, steamy love-making (i.e. people have sex and they like it!), Socialism, abortion, rape, drug use, women running businesses, cooperatives, refugees, fingers chopped off, and women writing stories and having thoughts of their own.
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Clearly every copy of this book should be burned.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Does anyone else think it’s hilarious when people try to ban Shakespeare? This story has been around for roughly 400 years, but quick! We best ban it so it doesn’t Destroy Humanity! There’s cross-dressing in it.
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Gaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh nooooooooooooo!!!

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird was immediately successful. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it has become a classic of modern American literature. The plot and characters are loosely based on the author’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that occurred near her hometown in 1936, when she was 10 years old. Sounds pretty deviant so far, right?

From schmoop.com (yes, that’s a thing): It’s hard to argue with To Kill a Mockingbird’s message of standing up for what’s right even when the costs are high. But not everyone agrees that the book holds the moral high ground. While the main reason it frequently appears on lists of banned books is its use of profanity, it’s also been challenged for its one-dimensional representation of African-Americans as docile, simple folk who need whites to protect them. Some people see the novel as taking a powerful stand against racism. Others just see it as promoting a kinder, gentler form of racism.

And again, who wants to have challenging, thought-provoking conversations about racism? No one. Personally? I think this book is challenged so often because people keep naming their kids Scout and Atticus. How many more dogs do we need named Boo Radley???
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Give it a rest, Scout.

Lastly, I’d like to mention that there are several books on the challenged/banned list that are meant to teach children about the biological realities of their bodies, which will clearly lead to thoughts of sex, which will lead to teenagers having sex, which will lead to the end of civilization as we know it. Teenagers have never had sex before, and I for one don’t want to see what will happen if they ever do.
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All sarcasm aside, I really, really love this book. Teach your kids to read, and never have an awkward sex-ed talk ever again!

Now make us proud, and go read a banned book!

xoxo,
RLB

Small point of pride: NM doesn’t have any blue dots on this map!

RLB Book Club: Since You Asked

Maurene Goo
Maurene Goo

Hello beautiful humans, it’s time for book club!

Since You Asked by Maurene Goo is a brand new YA novel. It just came out last week. We are on THE CUTTING EDGE here, guys. Here’s the summary from Goodreads:

A humorous, debut novel about a Korean-American teenager who accidentally lands her own column in her high school newspaper, and proceeds to rant her way through the school year while struggling to reconcile the traditional Korean values of her parents with contemporary American culture.

Fantastic. I decided to move this book to the top of my to-read list yesterday when I saw it posted on the very excellent Diversity in YA blog, which was founded by YA authors Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo, as a way celebrate & promote books that feature characters that reflect the true diversity of this world– whether it be through race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

(Coincidentally, I just finished reading one of Malinda Lo’s books, Ash, which I would recommend to anyone who agrees that the Cinderella folktale could be improved upon with the addition of fairy circles, horseback riding, and lesbians.)

A lot has been said and written on the topic of diversity in young adult fiction, including by me, in RLB’s first book club feature. In short, that post discussed the rage-inducing practice of “white washing” book covers. That is, book covers that should feature a person of color (PoC), but instead end up either obscuring the model’s face, showing them in silhouette, or (my favorite) just straight up featuring a white person.

CoversIt happens way too often to be a chalked up to coincidence or artistic choice, especially when you can see a plethora of pretty white girls staring back at you (full faced) from the YA section of any book store. (Let’s save gendered book covers for another conversation entirely.) Publishers are doing this on purpose because they think these books won’t sell.

So, what can we do? Do we boycott these books? That seems wrong, because the books themselves reflect the diversity we want, and we don’t want to lend credence to the publishing industry’s idea that books about PoC/LGBTQ/etc don’t have an audience. These authors need our support to change that.

We do have a few hopeful signs of change. Perhaps because so many authors and readers have been pushing back publicly about this issue that over the past few years, several white washed covers have been retracted and replaced. To see some great book covers that don’t have a problem presenting their main characters accurately, check out this Pinterest board, One Hundred+ YA Book Covers of Color!, which is like a fabulous book rainbow of diversity.

With all this in mind, and also just because it looks like a great book, let’s read Since You Asked by Maurene Goo, and meet back here to discuss. If you’re living on the same half of the planet as I am, it has been frakking hot and you weren’t going to do anything but stay inside and read anyway, right?

First book club question: What do we think of the cover? I have an opinion (shocking) but I’d like to hear yours.

Since You AskedMore on this and related topics from around these fine internets:

Kids of Color and the New American Whitewashing

Are YA Covers too generic?

Cover Shots: A CBC Diversity Panel Discusses YA Book Jackets

Cover Trends in YA Fiction: Why the Obsession with an Elegant Death?

Judging the Cover by the Book

Karen LordToday in the first ever (woot!) edition of RLB Book Club, we have The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013) by Karen Lord on the table! Or, maybe it’s in your lap as you lay in a hammock? Spring!

This is Lord’s second book. Her first, Redemption in Indigo, won boatloads of awards, including: the 2011 William L. Crawford Award and the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.

And because this book’s cover is Bananas, we’ll also be discussing the state of book covers & the publishing industry.

THE BOOK

This is a smart, and, at times, quite sexy, piece of science fiction which follows a team of government officials in their mission to aid a certain group of humans, called the Sadiri, who have been recently displaced due to the cataclysmic destruction of their home world. With their population all but destroyed, the surviving Sadiri, who are mostly male, are attempting to rebuild their society with the help of the government on the planet Cygnus Beta.

In this universe, there are several different strains of humanity which seem to have been evolving separately over time, developing unique cultural, physical, and mental traits. For example, the Sadiri are telepathic, and this aspect is a key component to the success of their society. Telepathic bonds form the basis of their relationships, and the Sadiri would be incomplete without them.

The story is told from the point of view of First Officer Grace Delarua, a government official who serves as a cultural liaison on the mission to discover any surviving Sadiri attributes in other human populations in order to preserve the Sadiri way of life. If they find traces of the Sadiri ability to form telepathic bonds in the population of Cygnus Beta, the Sadiri may be able to preserve their cultural practice of telepathic bonds by intermarrying.

Now this all might sound a bit serious, and it is, but due to the fact that Grace is a very likable and amusing protagonist, her warmth and humor bring a lot of emotional depth to the story, making it feel downright Jane Austeny at times. Jane Austen in space! Who could resist?

Now, keep in mind that this book is about preserving cultural identity as we move on to:

THE COVER

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I know. What? What? Okay, so it’s overexposed (so you know it’s about the fuuuuuturee) and the font is a horrible computer-y font on top of a half-face and a tiny clip art elephant.

What I really must call shenanigans on is this cover model. This cover model is someone who I DO NOT KNOW after having read this book. Is she supposed to be a robot? (And if so, where is she going in that great smokey night-eye?) Spoiler: There are no robots in this book! Certainly this cannot be officer Grace Delarua, who describes herself as being brown haired, browned eyed, and cedar brown skinned?

Whitewashing characters on book covers is not a new problem. Take for example the original cover of Octavia Butler’s Dawn (1987), whose protagonist is a black woman:

DawnWHERE IS SHE?? Hmm??

Author N.K. Jemisin mentions Dawn (and its cover) in this excellent blog post on the practice of whitewashing book covers. She describes how the discovery of Dawn changed her life:

“I didn’t realize the protagonist was black until 20 pages in. Didn’t realize the author was black until years later, though I suspected it after reading the book. (Gay people have “gaydar”; black people have “blackdar”. Trufax!) But reading this book, and the author’s subsequent books, rocked my world. I realized, thanks to Ms. Butler, that I could write science fiction and fantasy if I wanted. That we have a place in the future too, and our past is more than slavery and Civil Rights. I will say this point-blank: if I had not discovered Octavia Butler then, I would probably not be publishing a novel now. Might not even be writing.

Obviously I would have found her more easily if the cover art had been representative. I can’t help wondering how many other kids like me missed the chance to see something of themselves in SFF [Science Fiction & Fantasy] back then, because they had no idea SFF was about anything but white people.”

N.K. Jemisin’s experience reading Dawn is a perfect example of why young people need books. I also remember the first time I read a book that really spoke to me in this way. It was the first time I recognized something of myself somewhere outside of my own head. That experience is such an important part growing up: realizing there’s a place for You. That is huge. Huge for any young person, because we all felt (& feel) like weirdos, but super huge for a person like N.K. Jemisin, who didn’t know it was okay for her to enjoy an entire genre because that genre didn’t seem to include anybody besides white people in jumpsuits. I cannot stress this enough: I felt like a complete weirdo as a teenager in many, many ways (and frequently still do) and this feeling was offset (and still is!!) by reading stuff that I identified (identify) with.

A few years ago, author Kate Hart analyzed the covers of popular Young Adult books and created some depressing charts, including this one:

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This chart is from 2011, but a cursory glance at the YA section in a bookstore would probably tell you that things haven’t changed much in two years. These numbers partially reflect the fact that the majority of YA books feature white protagonists. But, let’s not forget that there have also been puh-lenty of instances in which the main character’s racial identity has been completely changed on the cover, as in Jaclyn’s Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass (2011):

Magic Under GlassThere was so much backlash after Bloomsbury released this cover, which features a white model despite the fact that the book’s main character is African-American, that the cover was withdrawn and replaced.

So, that’s an example of when images of people of color are erased entirely, which is really fun! But even when a P.O.C. makes the cover, you might not be able to tell.

The Secret KingdomOn this cover, you may not be able to see the face of the protagonist, who is an African prince/wizard, but you certainly are able to see the face of that (white) witch.

Secret KingdomSame series. Again, you don’t see the face of the protagonist, but you DO see the face of a BIRD! A bird?!

A Confusion of PrincesHelloooooo over there? You, sir! Are you a person of color?

A Confusion of Princes 2Well, that’s better, except, SCARF.

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So. This is the cover of the edition of The Moorchild (1996) by Eloise McGraw that I picked up at the public library in my neighborhood when I was, oh, maybe ten? Eleven? I did not have a Goodreads account at the time. I did not read book reviews in the New York Times! I picked this book out because of the cover. Because there’s a little girl in the middle of it with wild hair and brown skin, long toes, and almondy eyes, and everybody is looking at her like she’s doesn’t belong there. That is why I picked it. The Moorchild is a fantasy story about a girl who is half-human, half-fairy, and was left in the place of a human baby by the fairies, who wanted to take a human baby, to do… whatever fairies do with human babies? What I remember most is the way this story helped me begin to process my feelings of being biracial myself, (“half”), and I still remember the feeling of these ideas blossoming in my brain where there had only been half-felt pangs before: I didn’t look or feel entirely one way or the other, just like the character in this book.

“Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisaton and misrepresentation. Publishers don’t randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism….

That is what this is about: pervasive racism in every aspect of our world so that young kids grow up thinking they are inferior because they see so few reflections of themselves.”

– Justine Larbalestier, whose book, Liar (2010), was also released with a cover that she did not approve of because the model was white and her character was not.

People need books. Young people really need books. There are books being published about young people of color, DON’T HIDE THEM from the kids who are craving and needing and searching for them.

Karen Lord’s book, The Best of All Possible Worlds, (with the robot girl and the smokey night-eye on the cover) is not a YA book, it’s for adults. Her first book received tons of critical acclaim. Why the misrepresentation on her second book’s cover? It seems that even an established writer cannot escape the racism that permeates our media today.

It is heartening to know that there are publishers out there who are challenging the status quo. Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low, is one example. Tu Books publishes fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels with diverse characters and settings for a young audience.

From their website:

The best way to encourage a love of reading is to provide stories that all readers can identify with. Books can be both a mirror and a window to other worlds for readers. Tu Books hopes that by publishing books for children that feature multicultural characters and settings inspired by the world’s many non-Western cultures, we can offer a mirror to some, and open a window to many.

Lee & Low is also dedicated to providing educators with tools to promote diversity and literacy, challenge stereotypes, and encourage discussion about racial issues in the classroom.

Which is great. Because we need more windows, and more mirrors. I’ll leave you with the UK edition of the The Best of All Possible Worlds, which features a hummingbird.

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