Banned Books Week: CRANK

Book cover for Crank. Black background with title in white letters.Crank
Ellen Hopkins

I I realize it’s Thursday of Banned Books Week and I still haven’t posted a review of a banned book, despite pledging to do so. Bad blogger. Well, here goes:

I read Crank a couple weeks ago when I was traveling. I pulled it out on my plane ride, and despite not really loving the book, finished about half of it by the time we landed. The book is nearly 500 pages long, but those pages are covered in free verse, leaving quite a bit of white space.

Number one: I was not a fan of this format. It didn’t feel like a book told in poems, but more like an outline of a book.

Number two: Lots of banned books are great books. This one… not so much.

The book is about a teenage girl who gets hooked on meth/crank/the monster. It’s based on the experiences of the author’s daughter. Spoilers Ahead: It’s rather juvenile and heavy handed in a way that I didn’t care for. Mom likes the beautiful lifeguard boyfriend who turns out to be a rapist and heavy drug user, while not being impressed with the “ugly” nice guy who trys to keep his drug use under control. There’s this whole “thank you for honoring your child” line that read as total BS when it turns out that the protaganist is pregnant by her rapist. Why is so difficult to portray abortion as a viable choice for a teenage meth addict who continues to intermittently use even after she finds out she’s pregnant? /End Spoilers.

Might it be valuable to show teenagers the dangers of trying meth? Sure. Do I think it should be banned? No. Do I think it’s a fine piece of literature? No.

Further Reading: Check out this interesting Mother Jones article about how Big Pharma is keeping meth cookers in business: Merchants of Meth.


It’s Banned Books Week!

I don’t believe in banning books, period.   I love Banned Book Week, because it’s like a giant “na-ni-na-ni-boo-boo” to people who want to keep books away from others. I mean, when you’re told you can’t have something, that it’s unsuitable, it just appeals to that juvenile side of my personality and make me want to read it.

The Phantom Tollbooth on display

The Phantom Tollbooth on display

It’s not like all the books that have been banned are exactly pieces of high quality literature. Sometimes there are even legitimate complaints one could make about them. I have the most sympathy for books that aren’t taught thoughtfully and carefully, and can end up entrenching stereotypes presented rather than critically examining them. But that’s an argument for more reading and better teaching, not the opposite.

Milo's car on display

Milo’s car, brought to life

Last weekend I was in my favorite city, the Big Apple, aka NYC, where I visited the New York Public Library. Their exhibit on children’s books featured one of my favorites, The Phantom Tollbooth. I loved the book when I was growing up. I read it again a couple years ago and was just as captivated.

(Here’s my review from 2011’s Banned Books Week.)

The story of Milo actually becoming interested in the world around him and taking off on an adventure is a perfect book for children to read.

This week I’m planning about posting about at least two other Banned Books I read recently, Ellen Hopkins’ Cranked and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. In many ways, they are at opposite ends of the literary spectrum, but their banning has brought them closer together 😉

Local Book Challenged


A local father has brought a challenge against Shadow, by Joyce Sweeney. His eleven year old daughter, a sixth grader, checked the book out from her middle school library. Apparently, it contains a sex scene, an abortion, and an “aborted rape” scene (I don’t know what that exactly means).

Obviously the book engages with heavy issues. I don’t know how well it does this, as I haven’t read it. I’d be interested to know how it handles the issues that the parent has problems with. I’d appreciate if we had books that sensitively dealt with issues like rape – especially if they make it clear that rape is unacceptable. It’s unfortunate that young people need to know of these horrors, but they do. If you watch or read the news, you know that young people are the victims and perpetrators of awful crimes. 

The book is meant for young people in grades 7 through 10. However, in most Florida schools, grades 6 through 8 are together in middle school. As far as I’m aware, all students have access to the books in their library, regardless of their grade level. That means that sometimes children will get their hands on books that are above their reading or maturity levels.

I appreciate the school district response, which said in part:

“Challenged materials may be removed from use in the school where the complaint was initiated only after the complaint and decision procedures of this policy have been completed. The material in question shall be studied by a school materials review committee. Even with these guidelines, it is possible for students to encounter reading material that is of a mature nature. In this case, the system worked as it is designed: the parent(s) properly engaged with the student, and a family decision was made that the book did not align with the student’s family’s values. The normal policy-based process is now underway to determine whether the book should be available to other students and families if they select it.” (Emphasis mine).

However, the book is still subject to be removed from shelves. The parent says he never thought he’d be the type to challenge a book, and he supports free speech, but he doesn’t think that this book is appropriate.

Um, okay? You’re either for book censorship or you’re not. If you don’t want your daughter to read it, then don’t let let. End of story. Why deny other students access to the book, especially seventh and either graders who are the book’s target audience?
What do you think? Should books be removed from schools because not all students are mature enough to read them?

A Pair of Mini Reviews

Death and the Penguin

I’m rather behind on reviews, so I thought I’d post a pair of minis to try to catch up. These two books couldn’t be more different, but hey – I’ve got eclectic tastes.

Death and the Penguin*
Andrey Korkov
Translated by George Bird

Death and the Penguin is the story of a Viktor, a frustrated writer, and his unwitting involvement in a Ukrainian crime syndicate.  When we meet Viktor, he’s a pretty pathetic sight. His girlfriend’s left him, he doesn’t have a job, and his only companion is a depressed penguin, Misha, that he adopted from the zoo after it could no longer feed the poor animal.

Viktor writes short stories, but can’t even get them published in a newspaper that “generously published anything, from a cooking recipe to a review of post-Soviet theatre.” Two days after being rejected everywhere, he gets a call from the Editor-in-Chief of a newspaper, asking him to come in. He’s offered a position writing obituaries – a somewhat morbid, but decently well-paying gig.

Of course, nothing is as it seems. Soon Viktor’s life is full of new characters, including a young girl left in his charge, a young army officer, and a baby-sitter-turned-paramour. Viktor and Misha are invited to attend the funerals of Viktor’s obituary subjects. Our clueless protagonist asks no questions, until it may be too late.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. It’s one of those books where you just have to suspend your disbelief and dive into the absurdity. It’s a pretty quick read, as the chapters just zoom along, much like the events in Viktor’s life. There’s a followup, Penguin Lost, that I’m sure I will read soon.

The Catcher in the Rye
The second book for review today is that old classic, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. I have to confess that I never read this in high school, and have been avoiding it ever since. After seeing it mentioned several times during this year’s Banned Books Week, I decided to go ahead and read it.

My thoughts? Meh. It wasn’t nearly as excruciating as I was prepared for it to be. Yes, Holden is whiny and sophomoric. I may have pulled a muscle with all the eye rolling, but I’ll recover. On the whole, not terrible. Is there anything else to say? I think this book has been reviewed ad nauseum.

I do wonder what my fifteen year old self would have thought about it. Would I have had more of a reaction? I don’t know. I do think there are some books you have to read (at least for the first time) at a certain age, or they lose something. I read 1984 about four years ago, and had much of the same reaction. I could recognize why it’s a classic, but it just didn’t do anything for me. Have you ever had this experience?

*The publisher, Melville House, sent this book after I won a prize drawing by participating in Melville House’s Art of the Novella reading challenge. My posts for that challenge are here

Elvis in Nigeria

GraceLand, Chris Abani

Chris Abani
A while ago I posted about the Nigerian Literature Challenge in celebration of Nigerian Independence Day (October 1). I chose to participate by reading a novel by Chris Abani, an author born in Nigeria, but now living in the United States.
GraceLand is the coming of age tale of a young Nigerian man named Elvis. He spent the early part of his life in a rural area of Nigeria, living with his extended family. After his mother died of cancer, and his father suffered a crushing political defeat, the two of them moved to the slums of Lagos.
Elvis has a strained relationship with his father, he’s dropped out of school, his best friend may be big trouble. His dream of being a dancer and Elvis impersonator isn’t working out. He tries to maintain a connection to his mother through the journal she left behind, but it is not helping to guide him.
It is all he can do to survive poverty, violence, and government oppression. TW: LOTS of violence here, both physical and sexual (not that they’re mutually exclusive). The book ends with some hope for Elvis, although his path is far from clear.

I am glad that I heard about this challenge and discovered a new author. I will be reading more Abani in the future.

Oooh: A little late for Banned Books Week, but I just saw that GraceLand was removed from reading lists in Florida last year.

The Phantom Tollbooth – A Banned Book?

The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth
Norton Juster
Illustrated by Jules Feiffer

As I’ve mentioned before, things have been a bit stressful lately. I was seeking a comfort read, and I found one in The Phantom Tollbooth. When I first read this book, many years ago, I was utterly charmed and enthralled. I loved all the plays on words and the whimsical illustrations. None of these delights were diminished on my recent re-read.

The Phantom Tollbooth  is the story of Milo, a bored little boy who has no interest in the world around him. One day, after hurrying home from school, he discovers a mysterious package in his room. He reluctantly unwraps it, and discovers a “genuine Turnpike Tollbooth” in need of a bit of assembly. Since he has nothing better to do, Milo decides to construct the tollbooth and see what happens.

Milo and Tock meet the Which
What happens is an incredible romp into an adventure of learning and exploration in the kingdom of Wisdom. Wisdom is a strange type of place, where cars may run on thinking, or silence. Milo somehow is put on a quest to restore Rhyme and Reason (two twin sister princesses) to the kingdom. Without Rhyme and Reason, the kingdom has dissolved into a place of absurdity.
So why would a book that promotes learning and exploration be challenged or banned? I have no idea. I’ve seen The Phantom Tollbooth referred to as a banned book, but I can’t find any details about it. Does anyone have any details about this?

Update: I notice people keep finding this post by wondering why The Phantom Tollbooth was a banned book, so I thought I’d post a link to what I found: Supposedly a librarian in Boulder, Colorado, removed it from the shelves and locked it away because it was “poor fantasy.” I have no idea how accurate this is, but it’s the only reason I’ve discovered. 

In Cold Blood review, and giveaway!

In Cold Blood book cover
In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood
Truman Capote

Welcome to Day SIX of the Book Journey Celebration of Banned Books Week, 2011 Edition!

Be sure to pick up all the clues from Saturday, September 24, through Saturday, October 1 and leave a comment on each of the participating blogs to be eligible to win the prize package. Participating blogs are posted daily at Book Journey. Good luck and have fun!

Reason for Ban: According to the ALA, In Cold Blood has been challenged because it contains sex, violence, and profanity. Um, yeah. I really don’t want to read a book that doesn’t contain at least one of those things.

In high school, I had a friend who grew up not far from Holcomb, Kansas, where the infamous events of In Cold Blood took place. In fact, shortly after we met, I picked up a copy of this book, read the first chapter or so, and then promptly lost the book. I never did find it, but I always wanted to finish reading it. When I spotted a copy at the Borders liquidation sale, I bought it.

The book is known for ushering in a new style of non-fiction writing. In fact, I found my copy in the literature/fiction section, even though it depicts true events. Truman Capote became interested in the grisly murder of the Clutter family, and began covering it as a reporter for the The New Yorker. He and his friend Harper Lee travelled to Kansas, spending significant amounts of time interviewing townspeople, investigators, lawyers, and the defendants.

For those unfamiliar with the general story, four members of the prominent and well-liked Clutter family, were murdered in their home. The two killers were drifters who spent time in and out of prison throughout the country.

This is never a real “whodunit,” since the reader is privy to the murderers’ identities from the very beginning, before there’s even a murder.  Capote manages to keep the reader interested by juggling two simultaneous storylines, one following the events in Holcomb, and one following the killers. The first fifty pages or so have you waiting, ever more anxiously, for the showdown that you know is coming. You’re kept waiting until the very end before the murders are described from the viewpoint of the killers.

Capote describes the Clutter family and their home at River Valley Farm as quaint, unstylish, outmoded. They seem to spring from a different time and place than Capote, living in New York, must have been used to. At times it seems that he holds them and their lifestyle slightly in contempt. Here he describes the interior of the Clutter home: 

“[T]here were spongy displays of liver-colored carpet intermittently abolishing the glare of the varnished, resounding floors; an immense modernistic living-room couch covered in nubby fabric interwoven with glittery strands of silver metal; a breakfast alcove featuring a banquette upholstered in blue-and-white plastic. This sort of furnishing was what Mr. and Mrs. Clutter liked, as did the majority of their acquaintances, whose homes, by and large, were similarly furnished.”

Dick and Perry, the killers, are seriously troubled young men. But Capote makes you realize that they are people, not monsters.  Perry, in particular, is a pathetic case. He was one of four children. Two of his siblings died tragically, and his other sister, Barbara, has tried her hardest to escape what she sees as a family curse. She had cut off contact with Perry, saying she was afraid of him. This was a far cry from the love she’d felt for him when they were children, before their family had broken up. She recalled some of the hard times, scouring the country, looking for work during the Great Depression, not having enough to eat: 

[She] remembered that once the family had lived for days on nothing but rotten bananas, and that, as a result, Perry had got colic; he had screamed all night, while Bobo, as Barbara was called, wept for fear he was dying.

The book ends with Perry Smith and Dick Hickock paying the ultimate price for their crimes. Even knowing the ending, In Cold Blood is well worth reading as a compelling account of a crime and its aftermath.

Want to read this? Enter to WIN my copy of In Cold Blood by leaving a comment telling me (along with something else) that you’re interested. I’ll pick a winner next Monday, October 3rd. 

US entrants only, as I am a poor unemployed blogger with a mountain of student loans.
And here’s your clue: