Banned Books Blog: October 2023

Welcome to the Banned Books Blog! This October 2023, we have a young girl who wants blue eyes, a memoir about a young queer black boy (who now identifies as nonbinary), and a boy who journeys to find his father.

These titles may be available in other formats or languages. Check our catalog for availability!

Did you know that October 1 through 7 is Banned Books Week? The American Library Association (ALA) has plenty of resources for you to explore. For example, did you know that in 2022, the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 1,269 demands to censor books and resources? Of these demands, there were 2,571 unique titles mentioned, which is a 38% increase in unique titles from 2021.

In Massachusetts alone, there were 45 attempts to restrict books. Of these, there were 57 unique titles mentioned. The most challenged book is Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer.

Despite these frightening figures, there's plenty of hope, too. Teen members of the Brooklyn Public Library's Intellectual Freedom Teen Council have created an initiative to increase access to banned books. The Digital Public Library of America recently launched an app to read banned books on your phone. Texas bookstores are fighting against HB 900, which requires them to rate books. But with the Banned Books Blog, there is no debate. There's only reading!

Title/Author: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Reviewer: Morgan 

Reason for Challenge/Banning: Most recently, “sexually graphic” 

Summary: A look into the life of Pecola, an 11-year-old Black girl in Ohio during the 1940s. Some chapters are told in first person from the perspective of her friend Claudia. Others are in third person and delve deeper into the lives of people around her. 

Series/Standalone: Standalone 

Genre: Fiction 

Length: 206 pages 

Content Warnings: On-page rape of a child, child pregnancy, pedophilia, racism, slut-shaming, victim-blaming, abusive and neglectful parents, domestic violence, sex, alcoholism, bullying, animal abuse, blood/menstruation, death, miscarriage, poverty 

Challenge/Banning Response: During the 2021-22 academic year, The Bluest Eye was banned in 12 school districts’ libraries, 7 school districts’ classrooms, and is pending investigation in 10 school districts. It’s been heavily challenged for years, for reasons ranging from sex to cursing to “anti-whiteness” (as absurd as that sounds).  

I’ll address the concerns around sexual content first. Yes, there is on-page rape and sex. But it’s not gratuitous — it’s there for a reason. When sex is mentioned, it’s because a wife sees it as her duty (or in one case, it’s a pleasurable instance that turns into trauma). Morrison paints stark, heartbreaking pictures of communities where sex isn’t enjoyable, where white supremacy follows people into their bedrooms. I truly don’t think she could’ve driven home the point without showing characters in their most private moments. 

Additionally, pedophilia and rape aren’t glorified. We’re supposed to feel disgusted. A lot of cities and school districts ban books that mention abuse out of what they term “concern for children.” How can children advocate for themselves if adults don’t grant them autonomy, though? How are young people supposed to know that something isn’t right if it’s never talked about? Books that teach consent, and even books that depict types of assault, are important in actually keeping kids and teens safe.  

When it comes to the “anti-white” messages, that’s just repackaged white guilt. As this excellent article about the history of banning The Bluest Eye puts it, “recognizing one’s own villainy is hard to swallow, particularly when you’re accustomed to considering yourself the hero.” Instead of looking away, white readers should confront this head-on. And what about readers of color? To me, saying that only one type of story — white stories — is worth reading does the opposite of “protecting the children.” It’s no better than what the villains of this very book do. 

And from a purely educational standpoint, young children wouldn’t be reading this in the first place. The technicalities of the language used — the word choice, sentence structure, and literary devices — are too advanced. It’s more in the range for high school juniors and seniors. Just as a shared school library wouldn’t ban A Tale of Two Cities for being too difficult for the younger students, it’s illogical to deprive older students of a book they’re capable of understanding. The Bluest Eye lines up with the English and Social Science standards that Massachusetts high schoolers are expected to master. But how can they develop these skills and then pass state and college entrance exams if they’re denied materials? As with most book challenges, the argument that it’s simply “a bad book” does not bear children’s actual educations in mind. 

Personal Thoughts: This wasn’t my personal cup of tea in terms of pleasure reading, but that’s only because I tend not to enjoy literary fiction. I’m more of a mystery, romance, and horror fan. But that said, this was excellent and I wish I would’ve read it sooner. 

The Bluest Eye was my first foray into Toni Morrison’s canon. It’s clear to me why she’s an award-winning, well-respected modern master. Even with the heavy plot, it included many funny moments that had me chuckling out loud. Morrison painted a vivid image of rural Ohio immediately following the Great Depression. I love that she tackled how racism manifests in the north; just as in real life, it isn’t confined to one specific region. Even the Black characters in this book had to grapple with their own internalized racism, misogynoir, and colorism. Part of Morrison’s genius is how she managed to portray this without sounding preachy. (You can watch a documentary about Morrison, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, through hoopla with your BPL card.) 

Yes, this book is very sad. I’m still thinking about it months after finishing it. However, it’s an absolutely wonderful look into how American beauty standards, rooted in white supremacy, affected and still affect children. 

Title/Author: All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson

Reviewer: Luca

Reason for Challenge/Banning: LGBTQIA+ content, profanity, and discussions of sex and sexuality.

Summary: All Boys Aren’t Blue is a memoir written by author George Johnson about their experience growing into adulthood as a queer Black man (who now identifies as nonbinary, using they/them pronouns). Johnson tells their story of growing up in a middle-class New Jersey home with their parents and grandmother ("Nanny") in the first part of the book. They detail their early understanding of their blackness and queerness, although do not yet have the language to identify their feelings or orientation, and certainly not the language for the intersection or combination of being both Black and queer. The second part of the book discusses their experiences with family in non-chronological order. They discuss the importance of their Nanny in their personal development, the estrangement of their father, the example of their deceased transgender cousin, and their acceptance by their mother and brother. In the third and last section of the book, Johnson takes the reader chronologically through their middle school through early college years. It depicts their trajectory into adulthood, in accepting and learning about their gender and sexuality, exploring their blackness, and building community with their fraternity brothers in college. It concludes with a discussion of how death is a reminder that life is temporary and should be lived to the fullest.

Series/Standalone: Standalone

Genre: Teen nonfiction

Length: 320 pages

Content Warnings: Profanity; some discussion of sex and sexuality; discussions of racial and physical violence; bullying and harassment; injury; death; discussions of sexual abuse, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Please note that abbreviated forms of the n-word and the term "queer" are used throughout the text. The author requests that those outside the represented communities refrain from using either term.

Challenge/Banning Response: PEN America places Johnson’s memoir as the second most banned book in the 2021-2022 school year. It is only superseded by Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer. It addresses issues faced by American youth, including race, gender, sexuality, abuse, and access and these are some of the reasons school districts and other public spaces have banned this work in large numbers. In a world where abortion rights and rights to overall bodily autonomy is limited for American youth, Johnson views this ban as another way for those in power to limit the agency of students. In contrast to the claims that the book introduces youth to these concepts, Johnson notes that American youth are already inundated by these realities, and that by writing their memoir, they are empowering young readers to see themselves in the literature.

Personal Thoughts: As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I believe it is crucial that young readers are exposed to literature and education about their gender and sexuality and encouraged to develop a sense of agency over themselves. To help young people access accurate information about their developing minds and bodies, we need to ensure that libraries and school districts alike supply materials written by and for the communities their patrons and students are a part of.

Title/Author: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

Reviewer: Amy

Reason for Challenge/Banning: Violence/horror, profanity/language, and imagining community murder with a shotgun 

Summary: When Bud runs away from his foster home, he decides there’s only one place to go: Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his father performs music. Along the way, he visits Hooverville, makes some new friends, and visits the library. 

Series/Standalone: Standalone  

Genre: Children’s fiction  

Length: 236 pages  

Content Warnings: None! 

Challenge/Banning Response: In 2001, a Texan elementary school challenged Bud, Not Buddy due to its profanity and violence. As a result, its use was restricted within that school. Very few other challenges have been made towards this title of Curtis’, though his other titles have been challenged as well.  

Firstly, I can only imagine profanity here meaning "to debase" or "to treat with abuse" because the language was not vulgar. Bud peppers all of his sentences, when speaking to adults, with sir’s and ma’am’s, taking extreme caution to be polite. There’s plenty of slang on the page, but there’s no colorful language, no four-letter words. The closest we get to seeing any sort of vulgar language is when Bud thinks of one of his rules: “Never, Every Say Something Bad About Someone You Don’t Know — Especially When You’re Around a Bunch of Strangers. You Never Can Tell Who Might be Kin to That Person or Who Might Be a Lip-Flapping, Big-Mouth Spy.” In fact, Bud apologizes to adults left and right, even when he knows he’s not in the wrong. So as far as profanity and language goes, Bud actually seems to be a role model! 

Secondly, this book does indeed have aspects of violence. I’ll begin with Bud imagining community murder with a shotgun — which makes it sound worse than it is. Within the first few chapters, Bud is sent to a foster home. There, he meets the Amoses and their son Todd, who does not take kindly to Bud. Todd shoves a pencil up Bud’s nose and beats him without his parents finding out. When Bud finally escapes their house on the first night, he discovers the family shotgun and picks it up, imagining a sort of revenge not on a community but on the very boy who gladly harmed him. However, he understands, “these things were just too dangerous to play with or to take chances with, that’s why the first part of my revenge plan was to get this gun out of this way…I took the gun outside and put it on the back porch in a corner where they wouldn’t be able to see it until daytime. I felt a lot better when it was out of my hands.” So, we can see that Bud is not comfortable with gun violence, and like any boy who was picked on, he wants what came around to go around.  

The next aspect of violence happens when Bud and his friend Bug visit Flint’s Hooverville. Hoovervilles were born of the Great Depression and were built across nearly every city by transient folks and those experiencing homelessness as a means to form a community and get by. At first, Bud and his friend want to hop a train and travel west to make money like many of the other Hooverville residents. But when Bud can’t catch the train, he continues back to Hooverville and discovers that the cops are burning the town down and are shooting their pistols at pots and pans to make them useless. While nobody is harmed (one of the cops comments that he isn’t paid enough to deal with that many people), the brutality coming from the cops is a continued commentary on class warfare, as Bud notes that there were people of “all the colors you could think of” and hears someone shout, “welcome to the club, brother” when a cop argues that he’d lose his job if he let the residents of Hooverville hop the train.  

It's clear that Bud, Not Buddy does not glamorize violence but rejects it instead. Though Bud may not understand the politics that adult readers may infer, he finds the violence to be totally unfair. 

Personal Thoughts: I’d read Bud, Not Buddy years ago, likely in elementary school. I remembered the cover artwork fondly and knew even in adulthood that it was a fantastic read.  

Bud makes for a likeable if not well-loved character, with his "Rules and Things" and quick thinking. Though he’s only 10, he has plenty of experience in how people interact with each other, and what he lacks at times in world experience he makes up for in earnestness. As he navigates Michigan, he meets many characters who give him both cause for concern as well as comfort. 

Probably the most enjoyable part for me was when Bud visits his local library! He greatly enjoys his time spent there and his perception of the librarians who work there had me laughing. As he continues his journey through Michigan, he meets a cast of characters who help reflect the Great Depression, including a fictionalized Lefty Lewis, a baseball player, who supports unions but knows he must fly under the radar so as to not stir up any suspicion.  

There’s a reason why this is a beloved children’s classic. The payoff at the end of the book, when he finally meets the man he’s looking for, is bittersweet and unforgettable.