Banned Books Week

I make my way most months to New Orleans for an SCBWI meeting where I spend my time looking at a sign in the front of the room like this facsimile I have reproduced. Since next week, September 5 – October 1, is Banned Books Week, it seems like a fitting thing to consider censorship blindness. Some of the frequently challenged and banned books make my head swim. Let me give a few instances.

There are those I read aloud to my students – Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

My daughter began her career as a fifth grade teacher with Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli as her first read-aloud book.

Coming soon is a movie of a favorite, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. Gilly uses some non-Sunday school language in a powerful foster child story. The book would be less without that language. Come to think of it, Katherine gets herself in trouble with the book police fairly often. Jacob, Have I Loved, probably my favorite Paterson book though I love them all, has come under their microscope more than once. Katherine, missionary’s child and preacher’s wife, what could she be thinking?

There are classics like Gone with the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird and best sellers like The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini that have been called into question.

With some degree of regularity, I read from the Holy Bible – are the book police serious? Of course, the Bible does have quite a bit violence, harsh words, and sexuality.

It seems to me the books most often threatened are the ones that make us think and see. Hear me carefully, I’m not saying we don’t need to make judgments as to what we read. In our book discussion group last week, we got off topic – not unusual – and drifted into book recommendations. A grandmother in the group listened to get book ideas for her grandchildren. As we discussed one book recommended for her granddaughter’s age, she said, “My granddaughter would be terrified. The book would not be for her.” The difference? She was making a decision for a child she knew, not in any way suggesting the book should be banned from the library or school for those who would enjoy such a book. Reading reviews and discovering if a book suits your taste or is appropriate for those in your care is quite legitimate.

I recommend celebrating Banned Books Week – choose a book from this blog or google “banned books” to find several lists. Live dangerously and read one. You don’t really want to be blind.


A Monster Calls

The question arose as I read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness as to whether the book or the story behind the book was the more interesting. I’ll start with the story behind the book.

Siobhan Dowd had begun her fifth novel when she died prematurely at 47 with cancer. Their common editor asked Patrick Ness to take the idea and write his own novel. According to Patrick in his author’s note, “She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have, unfortunately, was time.” I’ve read a few books that were finished posthumously by somebody close to the author. I’ve not found them to measure up. This book is different. Patrick began with her idea and wrote his own book. The honoring of what happened to Siobhan is not lost on the reader.

The chilling monster of the book haunts Conor, but not the monster he’s expecting from his regular nightmare that he’s had ever since his mother started treatment. This monster is from the ancient yew tree and shows up at seven minutes past midnight. It wants the truth while Conor clings to his relationship with his fragile mother, faces a dismissive father, and struggles with a stern grandmother.

Our de Grummond Book Group read this for our July selection. Lively discussion ensued on which parts of the story were real and which were Conor’s imagination. There was no disagreement about how much we enjoyed the book that ranged from gripping to funny to moving. We could understand why it is sometimes even more appealing to adults who have dealt with loss than to its intended children’s audience. It certainly deserved the Carnegie Medal won in 2012 by the author and the Kate Greenaway Medal for the hauntingly beautiful illustrations by Jim Kay as the year's best children's book published in the UK.

The movie will be out in time for Christmas which leaves me drawn to it and terrified that the filmmakers will destroy the story as they often do. However, I’ve checked out the trailer, and they must have channeled my imagination in the casting of Lewis MacDougall in the starring role. As we say in the South, he’s the “spittin’ image” of the picture I have in my mind. The rest of the cast, with Sigourney Weaver as the grandmother, isn’t bad either. Read the book for sure. I’ll let you know about the movie.


Hummingbird Harangue

Okay, you hummers, listen up! You waste too much time chasing each other off the feeders. Two feeders hang at this house – the red one in the front and the multi-colored one in the back. Each has four feeding stations. Count them and do the math – a total of eight. I’ve never seen more than three of you at a time at either feeder. There is room for everybody.

Neither do you have to sit on the alert when you are the only one at the feeder. All the time you have your head up watching for an invader is time that could be spent enjoying the flavorful sugar water I have prepared for your feeders.

Which brings me to another point, have you ever known the feeders to run out of the tasty treat? I have plenty of sugar and plenty of water. Before your stock is exhausted, I have always refilled your supply.

Not that I see it often, but you would enjoy your meals much better if you would do as these last two hummingbirds have done when they’ve taken a place across from each other, sipping nectar to their hearts’ content. If I’m not mistaken, one of them said, “Mmm, good!” and the other answered, “You, betcha!”

If you could only reason as humans do and take a lesson on the joy that comes from sharing what you have with your neighbor instead of fearfully hoarding your possessions, keeping them for yourself.

Wait, did I just miss something in this last paragraph?



I will admit to an ulterior motive when I requested an ARC of Teacher by Michael Copperman. The memoir from a young man with Teach for America (TFA) brought back memories of the program. I was lead teacher for ten to twelve second grade classes with as many as three of these young people assigned to teach on my hall.

Some came open and willing to learn from the experienced well-trained teachers in our school who wanted them to succeed in their classrooms. Others had attitudes that I attributed to TFA that they were coming to an area where the educators themselves were inadequate. In the multi-cultural school where I taught, the need came from a shortage in the number, not capability, of trained teachers. Classroom discipline, another major issue, seemed to come from a TFA philosophy that if the teaching is interesting, problems will not happen. 

Idealistic Michael Copperman left Stanford University for the Mississippi Delta and taught two years with the TFA program. His very honest account rang true to what I knew of TFA with the additional problem of the extreme poverty in the delta.

Political emphasis on teaching the test complicated his high ideals. Classroom management raised its head early for Mike with the “Teach well, and you’ll succeed,” philosophy from TFA crossing with the philosophy of the assistant principal’s paddle. A better answer than either of these came with the card-behavior system he borrowed from an experienced teacher – a system we used effectively in our second grade classes.

His second year began with a more realistic preparation for the challenge of classroom discipline and a focus on his students as individuals. For instance, he built on the beginning by a TFA colleague to engage one student with Boxcar Children books and the child’s determination to read them. He also came to realize one of his problems was that the world tells delta kids that this is all there is, a hard-to-fight attitude.  

After he moved away into another job, still teaching students from challenging backgrounds, he confronted a speaker who disparaged the long term effects of the TFA program on young college graduates. He said the speaker “had no idea just how affecting the TFA experience was, that he couldn’t imagine what it was like to be in America’s troubled schools, to be responsible for children with so much promise and so little opportunity.” 

Michael Copperman gives an honest and well-written account of his own experience with Teach for America. He pictures a program with high ideals that would be even more effective with practical guidance replacing some of the inspirational speeches. I would concur.  


Barbed Wire Sunday Anniversary

I’m almost a month late for an exact anniversary, but I didn’t want to skip this one. On August 12, 1961, on what has been nicknamed “barbed wire Sunday,” the barbed wire Berlin Wall went up almost overnight, soon to be reinforced with an additional solid concrete wall. Strangely, it would change our lives as well. People in Al’s age range who had been passed over for the draft were revisited with the increased need for soldiers, and he got an invitation from Uncle Sam. In his case, the Army put a square peg in a square hole, and he stayed for a career.

Twenty years later we visited the wall with our children and were able to cross over into East Berlin on a military bus with Al in uniform. I described it in our 1981 Christmas letter.

We made our last – and by unanimous vote – most meaningful trip of our European tour in late spring to East and West Berlin. Pages and books could not describe the impact of leaving West Germany with its beauty, industry, and purposefulness and crossing into the East. Words cannot adequately relate what we saw and felt, but some that come to mind are – dilapidation, watchfulness, gloom, oppression, and heartlessness. We could tell the difference in the railroad tracks at night as we crossed the border from the modern, smooth-running ones in the West to a “Ka-bump, Ka-bump” across the East until we arrived in West Berlin. The Wall Museum, devoted to methods and means of escape, and the sight of the wall itself left a tremendous impact on all of us. Over and over again, I kept thinking that 50 years ago, these people were a part of the beautiful Germany that we had lived in for three years and come to love. I could go on, but the bottom line is that not one of us will ever again take our freedom so lightly.

Less than ten years later when the wall came down, a young German friend, who knew our link to it, came bringing me pieces of concrete with graffiti. Her father, who lived near the wall, had sent her a box of shards to share with those who would treasure them. They came from Berliner Mauer, Grenz ibergang, Berlin-Wedding, Chausseesbrase as best I can decipher her handwriting (English identification – Berlin Wall, checkpoint, district, boulevard).

Robert Frost said, “Something there is that doesn't love a wall,” and goes on to caution, “Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offence.”