Tuesday, July 28, 2009

No. 91: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I once dated this guy, Steve. The main thing I remember about him (other than the fact that he was built like a Greek statue) was that he was sweet and shy. We dated for a bit and then the Navy moved him to Florida for flight school and we lost touch.

A couple years later, I had a business meeting in San Diego that I absolutely had had had to attend in person (because my job back then was ridiculous and required me to be in, like, three places at once). To make this particular meeting, I would have had to fly there and back (from Washington DC) on the same day. Gentle Readers, same day flight in-and-outs are very expensive so the ticket was almost $3,000. I told my manager I'd be willing to spend the weekend in San Diego to reduce my airfare if I could stay someplace nice on the beach. He was all "Why are you even asking me?" so I booked myself in the lovely Hotel del Coronado and proceeded to set about unwinding all the stiff muscles in my back.

While unwinding, I took the Hotel's bike tour of the Island. Our group biked past a military installation and I asked the tour guide about it. When he informed me that it was the Naval Air Station, I knew (seriously I knew,) that Steve was on the island. I got back to the hotel, dialed information, asked for his listing in Coronado, and got connected. Conversation went something like this:
Me: "Steve?"
Steve: "Kim?"
Me: "Yeah."
Him: "You're at the Hotel del."
Me: "How do you know that?"
Him: "Caller ID. You hungry?"
Me: "Starved."
Him: "I just got Thai food delivered. I'll pick you up in front of the hotel in 5 minutes."
...and a lovely weekend with the hunky Steve ensued. The point of all this? Steve's favorite book was The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, which I know because he made me read it.

The Pillars of the Earth is basically about a builder and a monk who collaborate to build a cathedral in England in the Middle Ages. It's pretty damn great! ...and complicated. ...and suspenseful. ...and long, (which you won't even notice. Trust me). ...and banned.

The reasons for its banning include graphic descriptions of sex and violence, particularly against women. A Fairfax County Virginia (and I thought we were getting along so well Virginia) School Board member who voted to restrict the book to 10th-12th grade students called the book's content "obscene and pervasively vulgar". It's been many years since I read it but I don't remember any pervasive vulgarity. It is fairly violent but that's historically accurate to medieval times. It's also fairly sexual but it was never intended to be read by children. That said, I think kids over 14 should be OK reading it.

Read it. It's great.

One late note: Steve, if you're reading this, thanks for the Thai food.

Monday, July 27, 2009

No. 11: Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman

Over the weekend my boyfriend, Tivo, recorded a couple episodes of 30 Days for me. 30 Days is the brainchild of Morgan Spurlock who deep fried himself into liver failure by eating nothing but McDonalds for 30 days in the hilarious and disturbing documentary Supersize Me. (Banning note: Don't try that at home, Gentle Readers.) 30 Days follows the same concept as the movie – take someone with one opinion/creed/philosophy/moral conviction/living condition and have them live in the exact opposite environment for 30 days and see what happens. As you can well imagine, fun ensues from there! Spurlock has tossed an active duty soldier into the San Francisco apartment of a homosexual activist; a Boston gun control advocate onto the Ohio farm of a gun enthusiast, a New York City electronic gadget freak onto a Utah off-the-grid organic commune, a conservative Christian from West Virginia into a Muslim home in Dearborn, Michigan, and himself into a Virginia jail... all for 30 days.

It’s absolutely brilliant. In every episode I’ve watched, all the participants come out changed for the better, with less rigid opinions, an understanding of something they used to fear, and unexpected new found friendships. That is, until I watched yesterday’s show. In it, a Mormon woman, Kati, who believes that children should be raised by a mother and a father, lived with Tom and Dennis, a homosexual couple, who adopted four boys out of the foster care system. This episode really shocked me. Despite the fact that Tom and Dennis were excellent parents and that the boys were happy and healthy and would still be in foster care without them, Kati never swayed from her opinion that Tom and Dennis shouldn't have been allowed to adopt children.

So, today I am thinking about gay and lesbian parents. Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman seemed like a fine book for The Daily Banning. This book is about a child, Heather, raised by lesbians; one of whom gets pregnant via artificial insemination, and the other who helps raise Heather. It centers around Heather's new playgroup, where the other kids and their parents talk about Heather's mommies simply and positively. No big deal, right? Wrong!

This poor book is so banned that its author, Leslea Newman, gave an interview on beliefnet.com stating that she had two jobs -- one as a writer and the other as a defender of Heather Has Two Mommies. Apparently this book has been praised, banned, showered with awards, burned, read aloud in the US Senate, and gotten people fired. Quite a track record for one little childrens' book. I think the thing that most shocked its censors is that Heather's family is virtually indistinguishable from their own family. If that's true, then what happens to their conviction that being around gay people is damaging to children? They might have to change their minds and we can't have that.

Let me bottom line it for you, Gentle Readers... Kati would hate this book. That alone should make you run out and buy it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

No. 60: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

I read somewhere that a group publishes a newsletter titled “How to Ban Judy Blume” and that Judy Blume herself actually subscribed to it. I’m torn between hoping this is true because that would be the most awesome thing ever, and hoping that it’s not true because I really can’t afford another girl crush right now. I’m already trying to figure out how to be BFFs with Gwen Stefani (rock star, fashion designer, hot husband, cute kids), Michelle Obama (brilliant, confident, great wardrobe) and Tina Fey (hilarious, brilliant, writer, producer, actress) and really have no time to add Judy Blume to my crush corner. ...but if it’s true, Judy’s cool factor is rocketing (rocketing!) up the scale. Plus, I couldn't have gotten through junior high without Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret which is much in Blume's favor.

So let's talk about this banned book. Margaret, 11-years old and the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, moves from New York City to suburbia just before the start of sixth grade. Her new teacher assigns the class a year long study project, which Margaret decides to do about faith because she herself is no religion and she needs to chose one. Margaret makes friends, hangs out with her grandma, and worries about bras, periods, and kisses from boys -- none of which she has experienced at the start of the book. Along the way, she talks to God, always starting with "Are you there, God? It's Me, Margaret..." as if God wouldn't a) be there or b) know who she was.

This book is brilliant and painful and funny and beautiful. Here's a passage that makes me laugh and breaks my heart at the same time:
“Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else.”
I know, right? Don't you just want to cover your head or eat chocolate or burst into tears or something because this is exactly what puberty was like? Margaret has all the doubts, fears, and worries of a typical girl and Blume captures all of it. As a result, the book is full of 'tween angst but at its sweet center is Margaret just talking to God and trying to figure out her world.

So why is this lovely book banned? Censors seem to take issue with it's portrayal of religion (a political quagmire on a good day) and its frank discussions of boobies (the horror!) and periods (oh God no! anything but that!). Well, newsflash -- this is what little girls think about. Banning a book because it addresses growing up in a way that makes you uncomfortable is just retarded. ...and shortsighted because kids are going to think about these things and grow up whether you like it or not. So here's the deal censors (and I repeat myself): if you don't want your kids reading this book, don't let them. The rest of us will give our kids Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret in hopes that it will do for them what it did for us - arm them with a little more information and make them feel a little less alone.

One last thing... leave Judy Blume alone. This woman is a national treasure (and I don't mean that snarky), right up there with my BFFs Gwen, Michelle, and Tina.

Monday, July 6, 2009

No. 1: Scary Stories by Alvin Schwartz

Last summer, my mom and I laughed ourselves silly as an old family friend (Andrea) explained to us why her neighbor didn't like her. Get this - her sister hosted a slumber party for her daughter's girl scout troop (which the neighbor's daughter also attended), and Andrea decided it would be a great idea to scare them. So she acted like a zombie and tried to climb in the window when the girls were all sleeping. (...and no, I am not kidding.) The girls were, like, scared out of their minds. Apparently, there was shrieking and screaming and dogs barking and all kinds of mayhem. I laughed for days every time I thought about it because, who does that? What normal adult sees a group of girl scouts and thinks "Hey, I think I'll scare them!"? I'm counting at least two people: Andrea and Alvin Schwartz.

The Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz is subtitled “To Tell in the Dark” but I think a more apt title might be “To Make Your Fellow Campers Wet Their Bunks.” This book is kind of the (big, fat, scary) bomb. It is also the ALA’s No. 1 banned book of the past several years. I was surprised because there isn’t one single gay person in the whole thing. After researching the banning, I think it has more to do with exhausted parents of terrified kids than anything else.

The book itself is scary but somewhat familiar to anyone who sat around a summer campfire telling ghost stories. Schwartz based his Scary Stories series on American folklore and some classic urban legends because let’s face it, Gentle Readers – we don’t have tons of folklore compared to older countries like China. Remember the one about the couple making out on lover’s lane when the radio announces the escape of a one armed madman from the local insane asylum and the couple speeds off and arrives home to find the madman’s bloody hook hanging from their car door!??! It’s in there.

Schwartz also gives tips like “lower your voice so that your listeners have to lean in close to hear you” and “when you get to this point in the story jump out at your listeners and scream “BWWWAAAAAAAAA!!!” Excellent instructions for maximum scare-age, yes? It brings us to our banning. Many of the internet accounts I’ve read say “This book is great but I read three stories to my 4-year old and he wound up sleeping in bed with my wife and me for months afterwards.” Variations include “cried himself to sleep,” “had night terrors,” and “started bed wetting again.” Well, Asshat, maybe you shouldn’t have read ghost stories to your toddler.

Other critics cite cannibalism (in one story a farm boy finds a toe growing in his field and his family cooks it for dinner), murder (severed heads bounce down the chimney), witchcraft, and ghosts (of which there are many) as reasons for banning. Several websites had bigger problems with the illustrations (which I have to admit wigged me out) than the stories themselves.

Here's the bottom line for this one - don't read it aloud to your toddlers but older kids will love it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

No 23: Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

When I was a teenager, my mom was convinced that any song lyric she didn't understand was a reference to drugs. We'd be riding along in the car with the radio playing and mom would turn to my sister and me and say "That's slang for cocaine." My sister and I were all "How on earth do you know that?" and she would nod gravely and say "I just do." Now, my mom is not some drug-using hippie. She's a straight arrow, school teaching, christian, ex-military wife who has never even taken more than the prescribed dosage of an advil. Turns out that she was right about at least one song I remember. I can find no logical reason for my mom's accurate knowledge of drug slang and am therefore assuming that she picked it up from Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (aka Beatrice Sparks).

First published in 1971, Go Ask Alice shows up at number 23 on the ALA's List of 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books. The title is a reference to that horrible Jefferson Airplane song, White Rabbit, which everyone but me seems to love. It is presented as the diary of an actual (anonymous) 15-year old girl who accidentally takes LSD, and begins a descent into the world of drugs, runaways, rape, violence, sex, and sex for drugs (which I think we can all agree is a different category of sex altogether).

Gentle Readers, do I even need to go into why this book is banned? That's what I thought.

There is another controversy altogether surrounding this book (which seems interestingly not to have impacted its banning one way or the other) and that is its veracity as a diary. Go Ask Alice written by an actual, real life, walking, talking, high school attending 15-year old girl? Yeah... not so much. I mean seriously, the book goes into pages of detail about her first drug trip (where she understood Adam & Eve's secret language) and then spends less than two paragraphs talking about a boy she likes. Does that sound like any 15-year old girl you know? Me neither.

Still, I felt sorry for the (made-up) teenage girl. She repeatedly tries to get off drugs only to be left lonely as the druggies torment her and the straight kids want nothing to do with her. "Lonely" and "teenager" are not a good combination.

Instead of banning this book, it would be great to use it as a jumpstarter for a conversation with teenagers about drugs. Granted, it's fairly dramatic (and possibly overblown) but also a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when bad drugs happen to nice kids.