Tag Archives: Challenged books

Answers in the Pages, by David Levithan

Donovan read a couple of chapters in the new book Mr. Howe had assigned, then left it in the kitchen while he went to watch tv. Before he realized what had happened, his mom came home from work and read some of it. She told him that she felt that it was inappropriate, took it away from him, and started calling up the other mothers in Mr. Howe’s language arts class. Donovan was filled with confusion. What in the world could be wrong with The Adventurers? He knew that his mom read the ending pages of a book before she started it. If only he could see those ending pages now!

Gideon loved turtles. He had 84 of them, but only Samson was a real, live turtle. The others were wood, stone, stuffed, or blown glass. When his teacher assigned Harriet the Spy to the class and had everyone partner with another student for a project, Gideon was secretly pleased to be paired with the new boy, Roberto of the dimpled smile. Roberto enjoyed writing in their project notebook and thought Gideon’s game of finding all the words he could within longer words was cool. He even thought turtles were cool.

In between chapters about Donovan or Gideon, the author, David Levithan, has inserted chapters of the fictitious challenged book, The Adventurers, which is an over-the-top, 1950s-style story in which Oliver, Rick, and Melody have fantastical capers involving escapes from cages hanging over boiling geysers, outsmarting bears, and motorcycle rescues wearing handcuffs. In the audiobook, these pages are read by an older man with a melodramatic voice whom you expect to say “lads” or “chums” any second.

Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Gideon’s story happened in the past, while Donovan’s story is building up to the climax at the school board meeting. Donovan’s teacher, Mr. Howe, is a gay man with a husband, and it is difficult to find any glaring problems with the book he assigned. Donovan suspects that his mother is concerned with the violence, but his classmates point out that the last page hints at an attraction between Rick and Oliver. On the other hand, Gideon and Roberto’s story does blossom into a very young romance, which is completely accepted by Roberto’s parents. Levithan, a gay man who is a prize-winning author, brings these three storylines together unexpectedly at the end of the book.

David Levithan

In this era of book banning that sets parents against teachers and librarians, with school boards often capitulating to the loudest voices in order to secure reelection, the ones who get lost are often the children. Levithan explores the experiences and emotions of two vulnerable pawns in the censorship game: the child whose mother is leading the charge and the child who identifies with the character in the book being challenged.

Levithan has written this middle grade novel for fourth to sixth graders, and parents can also read it to consider how they would have approached the situation differently, if at all. Levithan’s books, particularly his teen novels, have been among the most challenged books for years, so he has had time to consider the process and its effects on kids. If the reader gets only one conclusion from Answers in the Pages, it would be that it is so important to talk to—and listen to— your own children before speaking in public.

Appealing and thought-provoking, this is one of the first children’s books on this topic. I look forward to reading A.S. King’s book on censorship coming out in September.

Disclaimer: I listened to an audiobook copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Rashad left his ROTC meeting, stopping by the convenience store for some chips on his way to the party. Now, what flavor was least likely to ruin his breath, just in case he met that cute girl there? He made a selection, then went to text his friend that he was on his way, when he remembered that he had left his phone in his backpack, so he tucked the chips under his arm and knelt down on the floor to open his backpack. The lady who had been picking out beer in the refrigerator behind him took a step back and fell over him. She went flying, the chips went flying, and so did Rashad. Immediately, a young cop in the store accused him of assaulting the woman, and the store clerk accused him of stealing the chips. Before he knew what was happening, Rashad was in handcuffs on the sidewalk in front of the store being beaten almost to death. Rashad was black. The lady was white, the cop was white, and the clerk was white.

Quinn’s dad had died on the battlefield in Afghanistan. Grown-ups often spoke to Quinn in hushed tones, sure that he would live up to the hero image that his dad had left behind. Quinn was told that he was an all-American boy: clean-cut and handsome, a star on the basketball team, and an exemplary older brother. He never knew what to say to them. He and his friends were headed to a party after school, and Quinn wanted to stop by the store on the way there. They waited in the alley while he rounded the corner and stopped short. Some kid lay on the ground in handcuffs with blood all over him, while a cop was beating the snot out of him. The kid looked familiar, but Quinn recognized the cop immediately. It was Paul, his friend’s older brother, who had been like a surrogate dad to him since his father’s death.

Since All American Boys was written by two authors, the audiobook is narrated by Guy Lockard and Keith Nobbs, who do a stellar job alternating chapters between Rashad and Quinn, showing a realistic reaction to the chain of events from a black and a white high school kid’s perspective. Quinn’s English teacher has just come to the end of a unit on Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, and Quinn slowly realizes that, although Rashad is on his basketball team, he hadn’t even known his name. Paul automatically expects Quinn to be on his side, since their families are so close, but once the video of the beating hits the internet and then the news, Quinn is forced to rethink a lot of things.

All American Boys was written in 2015 and won a Coretta Scott King Author Honor and the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature, so why is it being challenged today? The authors depicted a society that was already sick of these incidents, and this was five years before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Both of these boys are good kids; they are both All American Boys.

Reynolds and Kiely

Lest we think that all of racism has been dealt with, and that it’s about people “out there,” and not people near us, here’s a little, tiny incident that happened near me last week. I was in Walmart, scanning the shelves in the wine aisle, when I looked ahead and thought, “Wow, that’s a terrible label. It’s so covered with writing you can’t even tell the name of the wine.” I got up to the bottles and realized that they were turned around to the back. I picked one up and turned it to see BLACK GIRL MAGIC on the front. At first, I was disgusted to think that someone had gone to the trouble to turn the bottles around, so I started turning them back when I saw that all of the bottles, all the way to the wall, were turned around. Then, I was furious. It was either the stocker or someone who had taken a lot of time and energy to make sure that no one saw the name of the wine. How could there be so much casual racism still out there, right in my neighborhood? As I walked to the end of the aisle, I saw a young black woman across the way, choosing orange juice. I was immediately crushed in my spirit, thinking of how it would feel to be just shopping for your family and suddenly be confronted with the fact that someone found your race and gender so offensive that they felt compelled to hide the fact of your existence, as if to make you invisible.

All American Boys, like so many books these days, is being challenged because it might make someone uncomfortable. As if it’s important to make racists nice and comfortable. Book challenges are not just news stories to me; they’re personal. It’s my job to put kids’ books into libraries. I spend my days searching out great books like this one that will build children’s character, to help them to live someone else’s life for a while so that they will develop empathy and become good neighbors to one another, so that they would never, ever try to erase another human being.

This book is highly recommended, although the language is high-school-boy dreadful. Let’s get uncomfortable.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library audiobook of this title—which I put there, by the way. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Authors’ image originally appeared in the NY Times.

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Beautiful Banned Books

I have been following with interest and fury the efforts of parents and school boards to remove every book written by any author of color from school libraries, and sometimes even public libraries. Here are two award-winning children’s books that— I was flabbergasted to find out— were removed from school libraries in Texas. Both of these beautiful books tell the tale of the authors’ childhoods in which they were oppressed by white people and others. Keeping our children ignorant does not make the world a better place, even for them. Please read them yourself, and if they make you uncomfortable, read them twice.

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang

Mia and her family have just moved to the United States from China, and they are disappointed at how much more difficult it is to survive than they had been told. They think they’ve found their lucky break when Mr. Yao offers them the management of one of his motels, but their fellow countryman turns out to be a cheat and a bully. Mia and Jason Yao are the only two Asian kids in their class, but they are not the only ones hiding secrets about their families.

Mia is a spunky girl with a precocious understanding of business and finance, and her optimism often keeps her parents’ spirits up when their mounting debt threatens to force them to despair. On the other hand, she is a child, so sometimes her I Love Lucy schemes fall to pieces and put them in danger. She makes friends easily with adults and children alike, leading to a hilariously varied cast of characters.

This semi-autobiographical novel details Kelly Yang’s early years in California, the bigotry she encountered, and the poverty and hard work her parents endured to secure a better life for their daughter. She has written a sequel called Three Keys. Although it is highly readable and enjoyable, the story of Mia’s journey was more heartbreaking than I had expected. It all works out, though, as Ms. Yang went to college at age 13 and later became the youngest woman to graduate from Harvard Law School. Front Desk won the Asian / Pacific American Award for Literature in 2019 and the Parents Choice Award in 2018, as well as appearing on many “Best Book of the Year” lists. Illuminating.

New Kid, by Jerry Craft

Jordan wants to go to art school, but his mom wants him to go to the very best prep school she can find, even though that means extra work for his parents. When Liam— the student assigned to show him around— and his dad pick him up in their limo the first day, Jordan is sure that he will not fit in to this new school: he is not white, he is not rich, and he really doesn’t like school. He just wants to draw.

As it turns out, there are several other black students at Riverdale Academy Day School, and white Liam is a really great kid. The racism that Jordan encounters is mostly the liberal elite, microaggression type. One of the coaches is so afraid of making a racist remark that he can barely get out a sentence without apologizing for it. Many characters hurt the minority students unintentionally out of ignorance, since they rarely interact with anyone outside of their rich, white bubble.

On the other hand, one of the white teachers calls all of the black kids by the same stereotypical names because she can’t be bothered to learn their real names, and while this is annoying and insulting, Jordan and a friend make a game of it and start calling each other by a different name every time they talk. Eventually, they confront her, and she is surprised to come face to face with her own racism. The students have frank and productive discussions of bigotry, and Jordan has friends of every ethnicity.

Jordan’s parents are joyfully loving and supportive, especially his delightfully gushy mom. After his initial disdain, Jordan discovers that the art teacher at Riverdale really does have things to teach him, and the book has occasional breaks to show young Jordan’s sketchbook pages, drawn in a different style from the rest of this appealing graphic novel.

Another autobiographical work by a person of color, New Kid was the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Award in 2020 and is followed by the sequel, Class Act. It also won the Coretta Scott King Award and the Kirkus Prize. Jerry Craft combined his own and his two sons’ experiences in this work, which shows that even in our day and even among very “nice” people, the playing field is not even and there is still work to be done. You’ll want to read the sequel.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of these two books. Opinions expressed are solely my own, I swear, and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Dear Martin, by Nic Stone

Justyce was trying to help when he got arrested. His girlfriend was drunk and struggling to get into the driver’s seat of her car, while he was trying to get hold of her keys and move her into the back seat. Right after she threw up all over him, the police arrived and put him in handcuffs. Melo’s father was black, but she got her looks from her Norwegian mother, so the policeman saw him as a black boy molesting a white girl. Justyce had always been a good kid with a positive attitude towards the police, but after going to jail, he had a hard time continuing his Martin Luther King project, reading MLK’s writings and composing letters back to him in his journal.

Justyce and his friend Manny were two of only eight black kids in their exclusive prep school, so of course their circle of friends was composed mainly of wealthy white teens, including the serious and brilliant S.J.—short for Sarah Jane—who seemed to be more concerned than they were about racism. Justyce knew that S.J. had a crush on him, but he kept his distance, since his mama had warned him against getting involved with a white girl. She wasn’t even happy about Melo.

When tragedy strikes, Justyce has to make tough decisions in the midst of his grief. Where can he find the strength to continue his previous college-bound path, and how can he fit in? Or should he just give it all up, since he knows that the local gang leader would be glad to have him? “Dear Martin….”

Dear Martin has recently been challenged in schools, although it had garnered starred journal reviews when it came out in 2017. The celebrated author, Nic Stone, has gone on to write a sequel, as well as many other critically-acclaimed books. Justyce is a lovable character; he makes good grades, loves his mother, and is kind to girls. His own negative emotions trouble him, and he struggles to make moral choices. The language in the novel is filled with words I wouldn’t say, but Dear Martin is not unusual in its vocabulary for young adult books.

One of the objections to the book is that white people and the police were portrayed negatively. The police were portrayed negatively, it is true, but Stone’s depiction is not without provocation. This was written three years before George Floyd, and the situation would be even more stark today. Some of the white boys who were Justyce’s friends were written as idiots and racists, yes, but they were pretty realistically shown as privileged teenage boys who were sometimes unaware of the hurt that they caused, perhaps because Manny and Justyce didn’t know what to say without losing their relationship. The final scene, though, redeems a great deal of the pain in Justyce’s heart. S.J., however, and her white family are wonderful people, and since she is an important character, we cannot say that the author never sees good in white people.

No one should ever have to suffer for their skin color or other Immutable characteristics, whether in a classroom or anywhere else. It is obvious that this book could be a catalyst for excellent discussions, and a good teacher should be able to facilitate these conversations in such a way that all of the students will learn and no one will suffer humiliation.

Highly recommended for those who can bear the language.

Disclaimer: I listened to a library e-audiobook of this title. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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