The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Banned Books Challenge #4

“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”

We all know the feeling when, no matter what else is going on, everything connects just for a minute.

Though Chbosky starts with a teen suicide and delves into some of the worst aspects of teenage life, he also deftly handles the magical moments that make life.

I started this book last night and I read it cover to cover. I could not stop. What kept me going was not the dramatic turns, but Charlie’s life as a whole- the good and the bad. I loved that his favorite book was the one he just finished. I related to that. Throughout, I had trouble understanding his emotional swings, but it made him more real all the same.

Even if the events in the book were meant to happen twenty years ago, they are still recognizable today. Sex is something that is a part of many teenagers lives. While some classics treat sex as a taboo that is part of their “experience”, The Perks of Being a Wallflower does not take such an antiquated stand. Sex, drugs, and sexuality are issues all the characters struggle with, as teens do today, not alone or on renegade adventures, but part of their day to day lives, together and apart. Is everyone having sex or using drugs? No, but some are. Just like in nearly every high school in America, I would wager. Chbosky conveys that shift in social norms with refreshing honesty.

This is the first book in the challenge that I had not previously read. Chbosky manages to write a thoroughly modern and extremely relevant coming of age story without being heavy handed. He does not disguise his admiration for other great novels that deal with finding oneself like Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, and even To Kill a Mockingbird. Like the intended audience, our narrator, Charlie, is reading all these classics as he is coming into his own. Through a series of letters to an unknown person, Charlie tells of his first crush, first kiss, personal struggles, and the difficulties his friends are experiencing. It is told brilliantly with humor and brutal honesty.

As to the challenges and bans, the content is certainly not G-rated by any means. Still, I am comforted to know this books is available to teenagers who might be struggling with real issues and feeling alone. Within the first couple pages we learn Charlie’s friend has killed himself and that kind of seriousness upfront is sure to frighten off the faint of heart. Anyone can stop reading at any point if they become uncomfortable. That is a choice and teenagers especially need to learn to make them.


Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Banned Books Challenge #3

I resisted the Harry Potter series for years. My objections were never to questionable content, but my belief that there could not possibly be a new “classic” children’s book series. One night while up late channel surfing I came across an episode of A&E’s Biography about J.K. Rowling. I gave it a chance and was so impressed I went out and bought Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone the next day… and read all four published books over the next week.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione were worth rooting for every time. Rowling really won me over though with her rich descriptions and thoughtful side characters. These “extras” were numerous, but each served a purpose and served it well. That is quite a feat in a seven book series spanning thousands of pages.

It has been years since I reread the first in the series. Rowling managed to impress me all over again. Revisiting characters who grew and matured throughout seven books was a treat. The youthful innocence was refreshing. Ironically, it was like reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or any other of my childhood favorites again.

For this very reason, I am always disappointed, though not surprised, the series gets challenged and banned so often. A series about children passing between worlds and talking to magical creatures is okay if it is written by a self professed Christian and has religious overtones? A series about children who happen to have a gift, talk to magical creatures, are loyal friends and defenders of good is Satanic because they are magicians? It defies logic.

One scene which never fails to make me smile is at the very end of the book (spoiler alert) when Gryffindor is being awarded points after Harry’s encounter with Voldemort. The bravery of Harry, Hermione, and Ron allowed their struggling House Team to tie for first place. Then Dumbledore makes an unexpected announcement. “There are all kinds of courage… It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends. I therefore award ten points to Mr. Neville Longbottom.”

Rowling wrote the scene so the one child who tried to prevent the three from breaking curfew and causing loss to their House Team would be the hero to his peers. What a horrible message to pass on indeed.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Banned Book Challenge #2

The inclusion of To Kill a Mockingbird on virtually every Banned or Challenged list has always baffled me.

The summer before I started junior high, my dad told me to go to the school library and check out To Kill a Mockingbird. Though the Missouri he grew up in was not segregated, the storytelling and message of this book still had a major impact on him and he wanted his daughter to have the experience. And an experience it was.

I have always considered myself an avid reader, even when I was young. This was the first time I was overwhelmed by how much emotion a book could stir in me. I was sad and outraged over the injustice and yet Atticus, Jem, and Scout still left me feeling hopeful. Every fall through junior high and high school I reread it.

At a dinner with my parents tonight I mentioned I reread To Kill a Mockingbird again for this challenge, they were surprised. They could not understand who would object to it. They are, for better or worse, new to the often illogical logic of Banned Books.

It has been challenged because of the way black people are portrayed and for the way white people are portrayed. Language is often an issue as well, both for profanity and use of the “N” word. A middle school in Tennessee removed it because it “contained adult themes such as sexual intercourse, rape, and incest.”

I hesitate to start a pattern in these reviews, but it does need to be said. Before the magic 9p.m. hour of prime time kids still see any of manner of “adult themes” on the evening news, crime scene investigation shows, and the realities of today’s world. That is our reality. Racial issue are not part of a bygone era either. We live in an America now with a black President, but that does not mean we can ignore our past and make today’s achievements and struggles stand alone issues.

Harper Lee gave our nation a gift when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. She touches on all the realities of injustice and society in her time and tells us of them in a soft, but strong, voice. It is a brilliantly told tale of what is and what should be. I would like to think that we are a lot closer to what could be, but the tough discussions, especially brought about by this book, must be had so we never forget.

Scary Stories: Banned Books Challenge #1

When I was in grade school Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, and the subsequent books in the series, was one of my library favorites. My parents eventually caved in and just bought the first two at my school’s book fair one year. At the time they were a collection of scary stories and storytelling ideas that were fun for late night reading and the occasional Halloween party or sleepover.

I was surprised the see the series on the frequently challenged list. Sure, Stephen Gammell’s illustrations are very creepy, but they certainly keep the faint of heart from picking it up (in case the title wasn’t enough). Since I was spending some time at my parents’ house this weekend anyway, I decided to get my old copies out and reread them for the challenge.

As soon as I took them out, I realized I had never paid close attention to the full title as a child, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark: Collected from Folklore and Retold. Schwartz has footnoted each story with citations of their roots in Americana folklore. In the opening of the first book, he discusses the importance of storytelling, especially of scary stories, from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale to American settlers and all manner of groups throughout history. The tales in his books are part of America’s rich oral tradition. They were tales of amusement and warning.

Many citations for challenges and bans are for occultism/Satanism. I find this interesting. Witches, ghosts, and all manner of ghouls have always been used to keep kids in line. Be good or the bogeyman will get you. Don’t wander off alone or you might meet a witch. Have you ever read the original legend of Santa Claus in the Netherlands? The point is, the generations that have learned their lessons from cautionary tales are now trying to protect their kids from the very same lessons. If kids are so protected they never know fear of fabled creatures, how are they supposed to know caution and suspicion when it comes to real-life monsters?

As a side note, it seems the books have been reissued with new, milder cover art by Brett Helquist. Though I think Helquist is extremely talented (who doesn’t like the Series of Unfortunate Events covers), it is another way kids today will be deprived of a chance to decide their comfort level and maybe get a little scared. I guess parents would rather have their kids watch CSI.

Scary then...

...not as Scary now.

Color Your World

First, I have to say that I take some pride in the fact I only listened to this audiobook while working out. Given my laziness lately, it probably took a while longer than it ought to have for me to finish.

Shades of Grey is a dystopian novel, but in a very Jasper Fforde way. If you have ever read his Thursday Next series, you know he is witty, sarcastic, and extremely clever. That genius shows through in this tale as well.

The world in which Edward lives is somewhat recognizable as a distant version of the United Kingdom we know today. Rather than being separated by class and birthright, the new structure is based on one’s ability to see hues of a particular color and postcode. Greys are the lowest in the hierarchy, Purples at the top. The rules that govern are often silly and arbitrary, but strictly followed so as not to slide back into the ways of the “time before”- the time we would recognize today. The Collective is not quite Big Brother, but the blind loyalty of citizens to it makes this color-centric world very discouraging and frightening at the same time. Shades of Grey only thinly masks its allegory- and it is all the better for it.

It is oddly enjoyable reading as naive and compliant Eddie has the wool pulled from his eyes, namely by Jane. The progression of their relationship really made the book for me in the end. On his site, Jasper Fforde compared Eddie and Jane to Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre. I only hope they will have their own happy ending by the time the proposed trilogy wraps.

As a whole, Shades of Grey was an amusing read. For Fforde’s almost sickeningly sweet world to have such a dark underbelly was surprising- and I do like it when authors manage to surprise me. The ending left me a bit frustrated. Some of the last minute plot twists seemed like unnecessary points to draw the story out. I have faith they will pay off by the end of the series and the story as a whole warrants a full three books. Since it was published two years ago, I hope we can look forward to the second book in the series very soon.

For some additional fun check out
Shades of Grey at Jasper Fforde’s website.

True True Blood

I picked up the first book in Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series while still working as a bookseller when the new HBO tie-in cover was produced. The first season followed the book faithfully enough that I think I must have put it down and never finished it. After what I thought was a horrible fourth season of the TV show, I decided to give the book a second chance. Well worth the read.

Dead Until Dark introduces us to Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress in small town Louisiana. Though a very beautiful woman, Sookie has no real social life to speak of and lives with her grandmother, who raised her after her parents were died when she was young. Sookie has a “disability”, she can read people’s thoughts, so she is not the most popular person in her parish.

One day a handsome stranger walks into the bar where Sookie works and she excitedly realizes he is one of the vampires she has heard so much about. You see, in Harris’ fictional world almost everything is the same as the world we know, except vampires are real and they recently “came out of the coffin” thanks to the invention of synthetic blood.

Sookie becomes more fascinated when she realizes she cannot read the vampire’s thoughts. A nearly fatal incident in the parking lot after their first meeting finds Sookie actually saving the vampire, Bill. This starts up a relationship that is unusual in the premise, but actually quite a standard, though enjoyable, romance as a whole.

Several “fang bangers” (humans who offer themselves to vampires) are found strangled, and Bill and some of his vampire companions find themselves suspected and in danger. When Sookie herself becomes a target for the serial killer she has to protect herself and her new love.

I found Dead Until Dark to be quite a good read. A fan of the TV show, I was surprised how much more I like the Sookie and Bill of the book than the series… or at least the series over the last couple seasons. Sookie is a solid female character- not foolishly strong willed, but not missish either. Bill is still the Southern Gentleman he was when turned into a vampire over 100 years before, but he is a vampire. He often shows cruelty and a lack of human sympathy. Still, they are very likable as a couple it makes the story a fun, exciting read- vampire Elvis (read it, you’ll get it) and all.