Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Banned Books Change Lives!

In honor of banned books week, I am re-posting a guest post that I wrote 2 years ago on Steph Su Reads' blog about the effect a banned book had on me as a child.

Any discussion about banned books always brings a particular book to my mind. I fell in love with Judy Blume's Fudge series in fourth grade. Naturally, when I finished those, I moved on to her other books. In fourth and fifth grade, I read Forever; Tiger Eyes; Just As Long As We're Together; Blubber; Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret; and Deenie. Most of these books faded from my mind quickly after I read them (even the salacious Forever), but Deenie stayed with me.

Deenie is a 13 year old girl defined by her pretty face. As her mother likes to say to complete strangers: "Deenie's the beauty. Helen's [her sister] the brain." While Deenie senses that her mother's statement is wrong, or at least embarrassing, she still buys into the importance of her own looks. Her mother's plans to turn Deenie into a model are thwarted when Deenie is diagnosed with a severe case of scoliosis. She must wear a back brace for at least four years to prevent permanent deformity. Suddenly, Deenie is more of a freak than a beauty. Deenie shows how adversity can transform a shallow, selfish beauty first into an emotional wreck but ultimately into a more complex, sensitive, and thoughtful young woman.

Deenie came at the perfect time for me. I was diagnosed with scoliosis shortly before reading the book. Fortunately, the only inconveniences I experienced from the condition was an annual doctor's visit four hours away and an admonition not to run marathons or go horseback riding. But with my penchant for hypochondria, I was certain that my back was going to twist into a new and extreme shape at any moment. Reading about a character with scoliosis was therapeutic. Unlike Deenie, I thought the idea of a back brace sounded interesting, or at least dramatic (I imagine I would have felt differently had I actually been required to wear one). I also loved reading about Deenie's typical adolescent issues, particularly any and all references to her period. Few things were more exciting in my pre-pubescent mind than menstruation. It was certainly a lot more interesting than boys.

I read and re-read my elementary school library's tattered copy of Deenie and encouraged my friends to do the same. I was shocked when my friend's grandmother called the school and demanded that the book be removed from the library. Why would anyone want to keep such a wonderful book out of the hands of kids? I didn't see anything wrong with it. This was my first experience with banning books. The idea that one person could keep me from reading a book, any book, that I might care about seemed horribly unfair. Who were they to decide what I or anyone else was entitled to read? My school declined to remove Deenie from its library, and I was glad.

I picked up Deenie last week. It's been almost twenty years since I last read the book. I knew Deenie was frequently on banned book lists, along with many of Judy Blume's books, but still didn't understand why. All I remembered of the book was Deenie's scoliosis, her shrew of a mother, and references to menstruation. I re-read Deenie in a few hours. To be honest, I was disappointed. I didn't remember Deenie being such a shallow brat before developing scoliosis; she would have tormented a plain-looking, quiet girl like me. I also thought the characters were flat and the writing was too simplistic (which explains why I was able to read it easily at 9 years old). It felt reminiscent of the cookie-cutter after-school movies.

Now, I definitely understand why Deenie makes banned book lists. There are several references to masturbation. A few are very subtle, but there is also a clear definition of what it is and a discussion of its morality. It was just thrown in there, like a public service announcement. I almost laughed out loud when reading it. My 9-year-old brain completely skipped over this. It was so blatant that I can't believe I missed it, especially given how many times I read the book, but it clearly was too far above my maturity level to be absorbed. I imagine Blume included it in there, because few books of the time (or even now) discussed masturbation at all, and she thought teens should have a safe place to learn about it. It certainly didn't further the plot.

Does Deenie deserve to be on the shelf of a school library? Yes. I don't believe that any book should be flatly banned from shelves. That being said, if I had a 9- or 10-year-old daughter, I would might not let her read Deenie. It really is more appropriate for a 12- or 13-year-old girl. But I think it should be up to a parent to decide for his or her own child. You may just have a young girl with scoliosis desperate to read everything she can about the condition who also happens to be so naive that she skips over any material inappropriate for her age. Individuals differ. What is inappropriate for one person may be just what another person needs to read. Banning books unfairly assumes that what is right for one is right for all.

What banned book(s) made a big impact on your life? Especially one you read at a young age.

2 comments:

  1. Aw, that was nice, thanks for sharing. It's nice that you had this outlet in school, though it's a shame that it is decidedly less awesome than you remember it. It's pretty funny that you didn't notice the masturbation references, haha!

    For me, the answer to your question is obvious: Harry Potter. But also, His Dark Materials, The Witches by Roald Dahl, and I believe The Goosebumps books were also challenged?

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  2. It's so nice to see another blogger honoring Banned Books Week! Thanks for stopping by my own post on the matter (though no need to thank me for the Barcelona warnings; that stuff shouldn't happen to anyone). :)

    I think you've hit on something important about banned books here. If a situation or phrasing in a book is over the reader's head, they'll often skip over it or put it out of their mind. Deenie helped you with scoliosis; you never saw a problem an adult might hone in on. Plus, banning books just draws attention to a book, gets more people reading it, and talking about that which the banners tried to stifle.

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