Over the past few months news media have overflowed with discussions about our right to exercise personal freedoms in the United States. This week, national Banned Books Week reminds us to recognize one of our most basic rights—the right to read, which is actually our right to think. Who we are intellectually depends on what we put into our minds, and reading is an important part of that nurture. To tell each other what we can and cannot read is an appalling violation of individual freedoms, so thank you to the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the National Council of Teachers of English and other organizations for giving us Banned Books Week to remind us of the disservice done by book banning and to celebrate our freedom to read.
As my personal way of promoting the freedom to read, I decided to find out which of my favorite books have been challenged by school boards, teachers, parents, or communities. I didn’t have to look far. Among the ALA’s 10 most challenged books of 2014 were two books I love: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
The Kite Runner is a beautiful story of life in Afghanistan before and after the rise of the Taliban. Hosseini is gifted in his ability to convey the striking landscapes of the country and the exotic customs of the people. His characters are well rounded, fully developed individuals who embody the best and the worst in all of us. Amir and his father, Baba, maintain a high standard of living, cared for by their servants, Ali and his son, Hassan. Ali and Hassan are Hazaras, which means they are an ethnic minority and don’t have the same social standing as Amir and Baba. Nevertheless, Amir and Hassan are friends and spend much time together, especially in one of their favorite activities, kite fighting.
During one of their kite fights, as Hassan runs into a secluded area of the city to retrieve the kite that Amir has defeated and sent floating to the ground, he’s attacked by a gang of ruffians and raped. This scene is the main reason so much controversy has arisen about the book. In 2014, a challenge at the Waukesha, Wisconsin high school claimed the book “desensitizes students to violence.” In 2009, 2012, and 2013 high school communities challenged the book in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas because of male-on-male rape and vulgar language.
Yes, this is a harsh scene, but it’s crucial to the plot, and if you throw out the book because of it, you miss so many chances to discuss other themes that Hosseini develops with great skill, including friendship, loyalty, betrayal, cowardice, class divisions, courage, and redemption. To prevent high school students from learning about Afghanistan before the rise of terrorism and from exploring universal themes though such a well-written story is an injustice.
Most of the challenges to The Bluest Eye also concern sexual themes. The novel does contain sex scenes, one of which involves a father raping his daughter, but these scenes are not the main focus. The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who is struggling to find a sense of identity and self-esteem in a world of poverty and violence. Her parents fight constantly, and she thinks that if she were prettier, they would like each other and her better. Because she believes beauty is in the appearance of white girls, she wishes for blue eyes.
Through this poignant story, Morrison, a Nobel Prize winner in Literature, examines ideas of beauty, where we get these ideas, how cultural influences like racism force young girls to internalize these ideas, and the sometimes devastating consequences they cause. I think the beauty myth is a particularly important theme for high school students to discuss, as are the consequences of racism and domestic violence.
Yet The Bluest Eye is challenged in a high school somewhere nearly every year. In Oklahoma, Colorado, Ohio (where the story takes place), Connecticut, Indiana, and other states, protestors decry the book’s sexual and violent content, profanity, and age-inappropriateness. One school board member said the book had socialist-communist leanings.
To battle such narrow assessments of good literature, read a banned or challenged book this week. You can find the top 10 banned books of 2014 at the Banned Books Week website. You’ll be glad you did.