Fishman: Read, be radical 

Like many people, I’ve been immersed, nervous and more than slightly depressed about this year’s mid-term Congressional elections and what they say about our country and what is passing for democracy and freedom.

Between the bullying, the double-talk, the forgotten promises around Katrina, the obfuscation around Iraq, the commercials that bear little or no connection to truth, the charges around loyalty leveled at people who question the president, well, it’s not pretty. None of it.

Just when you think things couldn’t possibly get any worse, they jump 14 chapters and do. Just when you think people couldn’t get any more nasty, they do. Just when you think our election system couldn’t get any more crooked, questionable or hypocritical,  it does that, too.

Sometimes it seems as if there’s nowhere we can turn for truthfulness or honesty. Which makes the notion of banned books for children all the more disgusting.

I’ll explain. Recently I stepped into a library and picked up a bookmark listing the most challenged books of 2005. After all that is available online - have you checked lately? - or on television, all the time, 24/7, it’s kind of astonishing to think that books bearing some measure of literary standard are still questioned, still challenged.

Have these people lost their minds? It’s as bad as hearing President Bush claim he never said, “We’re staying the course” in Iraq. C’mon, folks. We’re not stupid.

I’m pretty new to childen’s books, more specifically books known as “Young Adult” or YA, but when I saw the list of challenged books of 2005 - sitting right next to the day’s newspaper filled with incrimination and accusations and a stack of entertainment magazines covering the most salacious of subjects, my interest was piqued. I knew what I would be reading for the next month or so.

Imagine my surprise to learn the sponsoring organizations of the list: the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Association of College Stores and the Center for the Books of the Library of Congress.

No pinko-commie, liberal-sissy, crack-smoking  nutcases here! They are the real deal, groups that even Head Librarian Laura Bush could get behind (though I did not see an endorsement from her).

Not surprisingly, the books, including a 1975 book by Judy Blume, Forever, address issues of sex (as if there aren’t 1400 other places for teens to read or hear about it), what it means to be different, how it feels to stand up and question authority. The Top Ten challenged authors (see below for the list of the ten most challenged books) include J.D. Salinger, Stephen King, Maya Angelou and John Steinbeck. Some things never change.

I already had a head start on one of the challenged books written by Robert Cormier - a former reporter I might add - after reading his I am the Cheese. Talk about a challenging and psychological thriller. This book totally freaked me out, in the same way Ian McEwan did a few months ago when I read his Enduring Love.

Until I met Cormier I thought McEwan,a contemporary British writer, was the master of sadistic, paranoid, selfish characters. Now I’m not so sure. The line between is very thin indeed.

In I am the Cheese, which frequently makes the top-50 banned reading lists, the main character, a young boy, is on a bicycle-riding quest to find his father, provoked in part by a discovery that he has two birth certificates. By the end of the book you are still not sure what is real, what is unreal.

But coming in at No. 4 on this year’s top-10 list was Cormier’s The Chocolate War. Although the book has been out since 1974 and 14 years later was made into a movie this was my first introduction to either book or movie. The story is about bucking the system. Really radical, right?

Specifically, it describes what happens when one individual, in this case a shy, un assertive, naive freshman, decides not to succumb to intense pressure to sell chocolates for a fund-raising scheme at his boy’s Catholic high school.

It takes you about 10 pages to learn that this book, not unlike our political times, is about bullies. Thirty years later, we have another bully who can’t admit mistakes, who wields his power without compunction, without compassion. Except this bully is in the White House.

And this is the book we don’t want teens to read.


Ten Most Challenged Books of 2005

1.   It’s Perfect Normal, Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley;

2.   Forever, Judy Blume;

3.   The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger;

4.   The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier;

5.   Whale Talk, Chris Crutcher;

6.   Detour for Emmy, Marilyn Reynolds;

7.   What My Mother Doesn’t Know,  Sonya Sones;

8.   Captain Underpants series, Dav Pilkey;

9.   Crazy Lady! Jane Leslie Conly;

10. Its So Amazing! A Book about Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies and Families,  Robie H. Harris.


About The Author

Jane Fishman

More by Jane Fishman


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