Monday, September 28, 2009

I Read Banned Books!

This week (September 26-October 3) is Banned Book Week. It is the twenty-seventh such national celebration sponsored by the American Library Association. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges come from all across the United States; they come from urban areas, small towns, and suburban and rural communities. The challengers represent different ages, different races, different religious beliefs, and different political viewpoints. What they have in common is their conviction that they have the right to decide what others can read.

Books are challenged on the basis of language (slang, offensive labels, profanity, and obscenities), sexuality (too explicit, too much, the wrong kind), and offensive content (most commonly violence and the occult). I should note that few challenges result in outright bans; more frequent is the imposition of some restrictions. Since most challenges are based on a parent or community’s concern that children be protected from “inappropriate” books, YA books are frequent targets and classrooms and school libraries often the center of controversies.

I taught high school English for fifteen years, and every one of those years I had to deal with at least one parent who objected to some assigned reading material. The objections were directed at works ranging from Seventeenth Summer, a YA classic (1942) by Maureen Daly in which the protagonists are innocent, the kisses chaste, and the darkest shadow the reader’s understanding that WWII lies just ahead, to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, in which Celie, a Black woman in the South writes letters to God in which she tells about her life as daughter, sister, wife, and mother; from “The Miller’s Tale,” Chaucer’s bawdy, low comic tale of adultery and ribald trickery to “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” Flannery O’Connor’s short story about a hypocritical Southern grandmother and a serial killer. In each of these cases, the parent was objecting to his/her child reading a particular text, and the problem was resolved by my allowing the student to substitute a parent-approved text.

Did I think the parents’ objections were foolish? Indeed, I did, but I also believed—and still do—that a parent has the right to make decisions about his/her minor child. Where I draw the line is when the parent thinks he/she also has the right to decide what my child or your child can read. I can accommodate a parent’s request that his/her child not read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I will fight with all the resources I can muster the parent who wants to prevent other students in my classroom or other classrooms from reading the novel.

The American Library Association (ALA), a sponsor of Banned Book Week, states on its website:

Celebrating the Freedom to Read is observed during the last week of September each year. Observed since 1982, this annual ALA event reminds Americans not to take this precious democratic freedom for granted. BBW celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one's opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular. BBW stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where the freedom to express oneself and the freedom to choose what opinions and viewpoints to consume are both met.

I read banned and challenged books regularly. I exult in my freedom to choose what I read, regardless of how popular or unpopular my choice is. In fact, every day I read from the #1 banned book of all time, the Bible.

Among the many other banned or challenged books I have read are:

1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
2. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing by Maya Angelou
4. Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin
5. Forever by Judy Blume
6. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
7. Heart of Darkness by Jospeh Conrad
8. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
9. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
10. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
11. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
12. Grendel by John Gardener
13. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
14. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
15. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
16. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
17. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
18. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
19. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
20. Ulysses by James Joyce
21. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
22. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
23. Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
24. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
25. The Giver by Lois Lowry
26. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
27. Beloved by Toni Morrison
28. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
29. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
30. Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov
31. 1984 by George Orwell
32. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
33. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
34. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
35. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
36. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
37. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
38. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
39. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
40. Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
41. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
42. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
43. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
44. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
45. Sophie's Choice by William Styron
46. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
47. Rabbit Run by John Updike
48. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
49. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
50. Black Boy by Richard Wright

This weekend I’ll be reading aloud A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle to the ten-year-old grand. It’s a book I have long loved, one that has been frequently challenged, and one in which evil is mind control. I think passing it and its ideas on to another generation is a fit celebration of Banned Book Week.

Do you read banned books? Are there any on my list that you find particularly surprising?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rainy Days, October Dreams

I have had a surfeit of gray days. It’s been raining for nine days, and the forecast says we can expect it to continue for another five. We’ve moved from drought conditions to rainfall of historic proportions, bringing sinkholes in Interstate highways, washed out bridges, and school closings. I am casting a wistful eye toward October with its blue, blue skies. It’s strange that the autumnal season, that prelude to the shroud of winter, should fill me to the over brimming with life. Nothing seems impossible in October. No task seems undoable; no dream seems out of reach. I love a line from poet W. S. Merwin: “I have been younger in October / than in all the months of spring.”

So sitting inside on this surly September afternoon, I am dreaming of October and the joys it will bring. First, I have set another monthly goal of 30,000 words. If I did it in September with all these gray days, (only another 4054 to reach my ULYS goal), I should certainly be able to do it in glorious October. I want to start the month with a burst of words by writing 3000 on October 1. Then there’s Halloween at the end of the month. Halloween is well down on my list of favorite holidays, but it’s always fun to see the Grands in costume. Between the start of my personal writing marathon and the invasion of the trick-or-treaters, there are at least a dozen other things to celebrate.

October 1 is Homemade Cookie Day. Now that’s a holiday that demands participation. Thumbprints are a family favorite, and they look so pretty they make me feel far more accomplished a baker than I really am.

While I’m eating thumbprint cookies, I plan to read my first Christmas book of the year, the anthology The Heart of Christmas, which includes “This Wicked Gift,” a novella by the fabulous Courtney Milan. CM’s debut merits a major celebration.

October 6 marks the publication date of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), a book that captivated me the summer I was ten and one that I have reread countless times since then. I have also read connected books like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, but I plan to pass on any contemporary redos in which Rochester is a vampire, a shape shifter, or a demon.

October 8 marks the date Lord Peter Wimsey married Harriet Vane in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon(1937). As a devoted fan of Sayers and her most famous characters, I definitely find this anniversary worthy of a toast or two.

October 13, 2008 saw Caitlin Elizabeth, Grand #7, enter the world, red-faced and screaming. A year later, she is bright and beautiful, no longer red-faced but still able to scream with the best. And she makes every day a joyous one.

October 17, the third Saturday in October, is Sweetest Day, a day to make someone happy, a day to appreciate family, friends, and anyone who makes our lives better. And the traditional gift? Chocolates. I plan to encourage everyone I know to celebrate Sweetness Day.

October 23 will find me in a movie theater watching Amelia, the story of pilot Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to attempt the daring nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. A movie about a real-life heroine played by Hilary Swank, an Academy-Award winning actress, surely deserves to be noted.

October 27 is another Super Tuesday in romance publishing. I’ll be on a book search to find Captive of Sin , Anna Campbell’s new tale of an H/H with secrets and sizzle; Tessa Dare’s A Lady of Persuasion, the third book in her first series and one that led Romantic Times to make it a Top Pick and to praise Dare’s “stellar storytelling"; Suzanne Enoch’s The Care and Taming of a Rogue, which introduces a new series; Lorraine Heath’s Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel, book 4 in her Scoundrels of St. James series; Susan Mallery’s Hot on Her Heels, the fourth book in her Lone Star Sisters series—Garth and Dana’s story; and Nora Roberts’s Bed of Roses, book 2 of her Wedding quartet. Eloisa James has already proclaimed it a great read. Any one of these books would be enough for me to take a reading holiday; together they make the last Tuesday in my favorite month a red-letter day. I’ll be looking for one more book that day: To Love a Wicked Lord by the late Edith Layton. It’s her last book, and I’ll buy it with regret that it is the last but with gratitude for the many, many years of books worth celebrating that Lady Layton gave me.

October 30 is another family birthday. Grand #3, Mitchell Thomas, our athlete, artist, animal lover, and story teller, turns eight. Just thinking about him makes me smile. You can bet I’ll be celebrating that he’s made 2920 days special.

October 31, 1795 was the birthday of John Keats. He’s a perfect poet for a romance reader/writer to celebrate on the last day of October—a romantic with a tragic love story who wrote some of the most sensuous lines in English poetry, among whose most famous poems is an ode “To Autumn” that begins: SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun.”

Ahh! October celebrations! Dreaming about them brightens today's sullen skies.

What’s your favorite month of the year? What will you celebrate in October?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Exercising My Rights

A bill of rights is a formal summary of those rights and liberties considered essential to a people or group of people. Daniel Pennac in Better Than Life (1996), his wonderful book about reading, lists the rights of readers. Pennac's primary concern is with instilling a love of reading in children, but I think his list is important to any reader. These are rights I consider only slightly less important than those guaranteed to me by the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States. I exercise these rights freely, and I will defend them fiercely.

1. The right to not read any book.
I have the right to not read any author’s works, any subgenre, or any particular book that I find poorly written, offensive, boring, or just not to my tastes. I don’t read vampire books, scary thrillers, or erotica. I see my choice as a matter of personal taste, not a reflection of my intelligence or morality. There are also particular writers whose books I don’t read. It’s my dime and my time invested in the act of reading. I’m entitled to exercise my autonomy. I may be puzzled by your inability to appreciate the books I love, but I respect your autonomy too.

2. The right to skip pages.
I usually begin a book by skipping pages because I read the end first. Family members and friends look at me askance when I admit to this habit, but I’m not interested in the journey if the destination is wrong. I often skim or skip altogether scenes of graphic violence in romantic suspense. I also skip sex scenes that seem to me gratuitous, mechanical, or deep purple.

3. The right to not finish.
For years I felt that if I started a book, I had to finish it. No more. Now I rejoice in my right to give a book up at any point. Sometimes I read one page and know it’s not for me; sometimes I read a hundred pages or more before the book becomes a DNF. Occasionally I return to a DNF book and find that my mood or tastes have changed, but more often the DNF is just not my cup of tea.

4. The right to reread.
How often did you reread your childhood favorites? I’ve never known a child who did not reread. I’ve just never given up the habit. The major criterion I use to separate keepers from just books I enjoyed is whether the book is worth a reread. Rereading is like visiting old friends; it is warming, reassuring, and constant. I even have a reread shelf because often a passing reference to a book in conversation, real or virtual, or a connection in a new book to something I’ve read previously makes me long to return to the world of a particular book.

5. The right to read anything.
I read romance (single-title and category, historical and contemporary, sweet and sizzling), mystery, women’s fiction, literary fiction, history, memoir, poetry, and anything else that captures my fancy. My choices are unaffected by the prejudices of those who attach adjectives like “trashy,” and “esoteric” to my chosen reading material.

6. The right to escapism.
Some books I read to be confronted with realities beyond my own experience—the insanity of war, the grimness of real poverty, the suffering of the powerless. Sometimes I read to escape the disappointment, the heartbreak, or just the sameness of my own life. The right to escape is every bit as precious and necessary as the right to discover.

7. The right to read anywhere.
I live in a book-filled world. I have books in every room of my house, in my car, and in my purse. I read while I drink my morning coffee, when I have a solitary lunch, before I fall asleep at night. I read when I wait in my doctor’s office, when I stand in line at the grocery store, and when I get caught in traffic. So long as my reading endangers no one, I read anywhere.

8. The right to browse.
I am constitutionally unable to pass books without browsing. I go to the library or bookstore to pick up one book, and I examine a dozen or more, sampling pages. A quick trip to the grocery store is extended by fifteen minutes because I have to take time to browse the book section. Having dinner at a friend’s, I pick up a paperback from an end table and riffle through the pages.

9. The right to read out loud.
I love to read out loud. I grew up with a book-loving mother who not only read to her children when they were small but who also was wont to exclaim “Just listen to this” just before she read her adult children a passage from a current read that had struck her with its beauty, insight, or humor. I find myself doing the same thing. I am also a poet, and not surprisingly I relish the feel of the word in my mouth, its fall against my ear. When a prose passage I write seems wrong and I can’t find the problem, I read it aloud. I find the ear is often a better critic than the eye.

10. The right not to defend your tastes.
The summer I turned ten was a defining period in my life as a reader. That summer I discovered Emilie Loring and Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen and Agatha Christie, and ever since the canonical and the popular have filled my bookshelves and peppered my conversation. I read Proust and Putney and see no need to defend any of my choices.

Have you ever thought about a reader’s rights? Are there others you think should be added to Pennac’s list?

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Work of Writing

I’m spending my Labor Day laboring. I’m wrestling with characters who want to go their own way. I’m weaving in bits of research about grief-stricken children, commitment phobic men, and guilt-ridden women. I’m struggling to find the best words and craft them into the best sentences. I’m writing, and writing is hard work.

I’m indolent by nature and a world-class procrastinator, but I have an extra incentive to fight my inclination to waste time and to persevere in meeting a personal goal of 30,000 words by September 28. I just started my second week as a member of the Bon Bon Chocolate Mafia team in the 2009 Unleash Your Story fundraiser to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The team is made up of a dozen (at last count) friends, most of who met on the Eloisa James/Julia Quinn bulletin board. We are writing, reading, and editing our way to a team goal of many thousands of words and $1500.

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system of about 30,000 children and adults in the U.S. and 70,000 worldwide. Research has led to progress. In the 1950s, few children with cystic fibrosis lived to attend elementary school. Today, thanks to advances in research and medical treatments, many people with the disease can now expect to live into their 30s, 40s and beyond. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation works to find better treatments and, ultimately, a cure for this fatal illness. (Information from the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation website).

You can join the Unleash Your Story event by making a donation through my page, joining one of the existing teams, or signing up as an individual and collecting donations from family and friends for meeting your own writing or reading goal.

Those of us who write and read romance fiction have a special dedication to the HEA. Participating in Unleash Your Story directly or through contributions to a participating writer or reader allows us to play a small part in working toward a real-life happy ending for the tens of thousands of children and adults whose lives are threatened by this disease.