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Why The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa is an Important Banned Books Week Read

1984. Fahrenheit 451. Brave New World.  These are all great, classic reads that highlight the dangers of censorship.  Two of them happen to be among my favorite books of all time.  Brave New World is not.  But sometimes, authors can slip in powerful statements against censorship in the most surprising of places.  Exhibit A: The Immortal Rules by Julie Kagawa.

The Immortal Rules is the first book in The Blood of Eden series by Kagawa.  It is set in a world where vampires rule.  Not sparkly vampires, but tyrannical vampires who will, in fact, suck you dry if you do not comply.  All humans are forced to register with the new vampire government and are forced to basically pay a blood tax.  Those humans that don’t register remain outside the city limits on the fringe where they barely survive, scrounging for food and praying for safety.  One wrong step and you may suddenly find yourself being used as an example.  Not a good example, but a food example.

This is where we meet Allie.  Allie refuses to register and is hanging with a rag-tag gang who despise the vampire monsters.  And Allie likes to read, which has basically been outlawed.  Understanding the danger of knowledge, the vampires have burned the libraries and tried to destroy all the books.  Allie remembers her mother reading to her as a little girl, and she knows how.  Occasionally she stumbles upon a book and she takes them to her “home”, trying to keep her stash secret.  It is in this world that we find a great defense against censorship:

“Words define us,’ Mom continued, as I struggled to make my clumsy marks look like her elegant script. ‘We must protect our knowledge and pass it on whenever we can. If we are ever to become a society again, we must teach others how to remain human.”

“There will come a time when man is no longer concerned only with survival, when he will once more be curious as to who came before him, what life was like a thousand years ago, and he will seek out answers for a hundred years or so, but humans’ curiosity has always driven them to find answers.” 

“I recognized it instantly. It was a made-up story, a fantasy, the tale of four kids who went through a magic wardrobe and found themselves in a strange new world. I’d read it more times than I could remember, and although I sneered at the thought of a magical land with friendly, talking animals, there were times when I wished, in my most secret moments, that I could find a hidden door that would take us all out of this place.” 

Allie despises the fact that those around her choose to cower in fear and ignorance.  She speaks often of the fact that if they understood what they were capable of, what the world could be like, they would choose to rise up and fight against the vampires.  Which is the very reason that the vampires have burned the books.  They understand that knowledge and story are powerful things.  That they can inspire.  That they can ignite. That they can lead those they wish to rule to challenge that rule.  And in this world we see a subtle, powerful and glaring reminder of just why we must fight for the freedom to read.  The knowledge found in the pages of books can empower us all, and those who wish to rule us would love to take that power away.  The best way to do that is to ban the books.  The Immortal Rules takes us on an exciting journey in this vampire filled world and uses this journey to remind us all, we must fight against censorship because we must fight for our right to rule ourselves.  Also, this is just a really good series.  And there are some really interesting twists.  Read it for Banned Books Week.

Banned Books Week 2013: Defending Harry Potter by Geri Diorio

It’s Banned Books Week! The most magical week in a librarian’s year! Every day, librarians celebrate the free and open access to information, but during this week, we really flaunt it. “Free and open access” includes being able to read whatever you wish, and that might mean the best-selling book series in history, a series that has been translated into more than sixty languages, a series that has a theme park, and whose author announcing that she’ll pen a movie based in the same universe as her book causes headlines worldwide. Yes, I am talking about the universally know Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. But being universally known doesn’t translate to being universally loved. The Harry Potter series is ranked number one for the most frequently challenged books of the last decade. 

Why was it challenged so often? What reasons did people give when attempting to have these books banned? Three reason were given most frequently: it promotes the occult, it has anti-family themes, and it has violence.

If your belief system tells you to avoid witchcraft and supernatural, mystical, or magical things, the Potter series certainly does seem to give you a conflict. But would it help to know that J. K. Rowling does not believe in magic? She has stated this, outright. For Rowling, magic is simply a plot device; it moves things forward in an interesting manner. And since she is very clear about good and evil in these books (good people do good with the plot device of magic and bad people do bad things with it, just as in real life, good people do good with tools and bad people do bad things them) she even has her child characters learn Defense Against the Dark Arts as part of their schooling.  But perhaps simply stating that the magic in these books is a fiction won’t help people who are concerned about this. Perhaps we can show that the spells in Harry Potter’s world don’t work in ours. Bill Peel did a elegant proof of this years ago.

The charge that the Potter series contains anti-family themes is confounding. The friendships in the book are so strong as to practically constitute familial love. The main trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione love, respect, and watch out for each other from the moment they meet on the train. The Order of the Phoenix bond together to fight for their cause, even though individuals may differ widely in their viewpoints. Even the organization of Hogwarts, with students sorted into different houses, makes students bond into familial-like units. Perhaps it is the close bonds of these friendships that upset the people who challenged the books. Let us consider the actual families in the books. Certainly the Dursleys are mean to Harry, but real families are not always loving and supportive. The Weasleys are among the most loving families ever portrayed in fiction. Molly and Arthur have created a warm and open household for their children and their friends and spouses. The Weasleys even showed the great patience that comes from strong love while waiting for Percy to return to his senses after he went to work for the corrupt Ministry of Magic. Neville’s devotion to his family is enormous and heartbreaking. Luna Lovegood and her father Xenophilius share a lovely relationship. Xenophilius raised his daughter on his own after his wife died. He showed great strength and love for his little family of two.  And James and Lily Potter look out for their boy even after their deaths; you just can’t get more loving and family friendly than that.

As for violence in Harry Potter, well, yes, in these books people are hurt and killed out of jealousy and hunger for power, but sad to say that is no different than what happens in reality. (The United States’ war with Afghanistan is currently in its twelfth year; violence is a constant in the news.) The books do get darker as they go on and as Harry’s confrontation with Voldemort draws closer, but not every book is intended for every reader, and good parenting means being involved in what books your children read. There are ages for which Harry Potter is appropriate and only you as a parent can determine what those ages are for your family. Only you have the right to determine what books your children read. Conversely, that also means that you do not have the right to determine what books other people’s children read.

Overall, the Harry Potter series actually offers a rather traditional Judeo-Christian take on morality.  Good and evil are very clear cut, even as Rowling shows how hard is can be to do the right thing. (Think of Dumbledore’s oft quoted choice between doing what is right and doing what is easy.)  Characters in Potter do not seem to be affected by traditional racism, and those who are prejudiced against non-magical people are clearly the bad guys. The heroes of the story are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and rise to the challenge. Those same heroes are often prepared to make enormous sacrifices for the greater good. Sure, Ms. Rowling’s story is fantastical and strange at times, but at its core, it is about love, family, and doing the right thing.

~ Geri Diorio

Geri Diorio is the Teen Services Librarian and the Head of Children’s Services at the Ridgefield Library in Connecticut. She reviews books and audio and movies and apps for School Library Journal, VOYA, and Audiofile magazines and she blogs for YALSA’s The Hub. The Ninth Doctor is her Doctor, vanilla is better than chocolate, and stand-alone novels are preferable to trilogies. If you’d like to debate any of those things, you can reach her at @geridiorio.

Banned Books Week 2013: Defending The Giver by Lois Lowry (guest post by Elsa Ouvrard-Prettol)

September 22 – 28 is Banned Books Week, a week which serves to remind us that there are those who would like to ban books.  The books vary, as do the reasons.  But the bottom line should always be this: each person gets to decide for themselves what to read.  Information is power.  Story is power.  Tyrants and dictators burn books, those who believe in Democracy do not.  So this week we thought we would find some people to discuss the power and importance of some of those books that have been challenged and pulled out of schools.  Today, Elsa Ouvrar-Prettol is discussing The Giver by Lois Lowry.  

 

First confession: I did not read The Giveruntil June 2010, at the end of my first year as a librarian. While I graduated high school in 1997 and technically could have read it in H.S. since it was first published in 1993, I went to school in France, where we studied French literature. I did study English and American literatures in college, but we focused on the ‘classic’ authors. And so I came to Natomas Charter School to be the librarian, not having read one of the most well-known and studied novels of the past twenty years.

Second confession: I have always loved dystopias. And I do mean ‘always’, as in since the early 90’s when I was in middle school and discovered the genre, and not ‘always’ as in “I had never heard the word ‘dystopias’ until The Hunger Games came out, but now I love them”. So of course, I loved The Giver and Gathering Blue when I read them in 2010, and I loved Messenger and Son, when I got them later on for our collection.
I can see why some people would be troubled by the first opus of the quartet. Euthanasia, murder, suicide. Drugs. Infanticide. Violence. Sexual arousing. Life-endangering situations. The novel even starts with Jonas describing his feeling; more accurately, he is trying to find the word that pinpoints the degree of fear that he is feeling. At the same time, in just the first few pages, Lois Lowry describes Jonas’ community as a quiet, orderly place where everyone has its own role, and knows and abides by the rules. This dichotomy of Jonas being fearful in a place which makes things as comfortable as possible sets the tone for the rest of the novel, for of course, Jonas is right to be fearful. The discoveries that he makes throughout the novel (see the list at the beginning of this paragraph) transforms his view of the community to the point that he decides to leave it – a choice so radical that he will have to be presented as dead instead of runaway.
So, yes, The Giver is controversial. Of course, I would not put the book in anyone’s hands before they are ready to read it – this is the golden rule for any book, really. Give a book at someone before they are mature enough to understand it, and it will, at best, be lost on them, and at worst, turn them off from reading the book (and possibly others!) later on. But I do believe that The Giveris one of those books that middle schoolers (in that wide range of grades 6-9 that “middle school” covers throughout the country) should read at one point.
One of the lessons The Giver teaches us is about making one’s own choices, and not letting others (even well-meaning, knowledgeable ‘Elders’) make all the decisions for you. Jonas’ community might look ideal at first, and blind faith in a group of decision-makers does allow the removal of many issues: having to distinguish right from wrong, taking the risks, dealing with the possible consequences of being wrong, etc… Daily life is much easier without these burdens.
But to me, the people in Jonas’ community are more like sheep than humans. They follow blindly and willingly their leaders, trusting in their good judgment, only thinking of the bad things they are not experiencing, and having forgotten the good things they have given up. This is the lesson that I want my stepdaughter, and, in time, my daughter, to learn: knowledge is power (can you see why I became a librarian? 😉 ). I do believe in the power of knowing as much as possible about one’s situation, so as to make the best decision possible. Of course, it means that one does bear the burden of Responsibility, Consequences (good or bad), and everything that comes with them. But being one’s master is the key to one’s freedom.
These two extracts from a conversation between Jonas and the Giver seem to apply to those concerned parents who tried to ban the book:
“Why do you and I have to hold these memories?”
“It gives us wisdom,” The Giver replied.
[…]
“But why can’t everyone have the memories? I think it would seem a little easier if the memories were shared. You and I wouldn’t have to bear so much by ourselves, if everybody took a part.”
The Giver sighed. “You’re right,” he said. But then everyone would be burdened and pained. They don’t want that.”
(The Giver, Lois Lowry, p111 and 112-113, Dell Laurel-Leaf, 2002)
Note that this passage mentions two points: memories give us wisdom, and people do not want to be hurt. Let’s talk about pain first.
Parents worry about all the different ways their children can be hurt in this world, and for good reason, because there are a thousand ways to get hurt, and of course parents, out of love, want their children to be safe. But this is not just utopian (for pain is inevitable), but also deeply ironic, as the novel describes a process that every family goes through. We all ask questions to our parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc… and discover incidents, however big or small, that influenced their lives and that might shock us. Our family members’ memories are usually how we start learning about how scary the world can be.
For example: I heard World War II stories shared again and again during family meals at my grandparents’ when I was a child. That’s when I learned about my grandfather’s stepfather, who was given to the Germans by his own sons for owning a WWI German rifle. That’s also when I learned about sorrow and despair (my great-grandmother never received any news from or about her husband once he was put on a train to whichever camp whence he never returned), but also about love, for she would not have hurt as badly as she did if she had not loved him as much as she did. That is another important lesson from The Giver: there is no high without low. You do not know the true extent of love if you do not experience absence or loss. You cannot truly enjoy down time if you never work.
The other bit that we learned from the quote above is about wisdom. This is mostly why I do not understand people who want to ban The Giver, and why I will always proudly recommend it to my patrons: I want to encourage students’ critical thinking skills, I want them to read what happens to a society which gives up its powers to a small group of individuals without any system of checks and balances, I want them to become responsible citizens of a healthy society, participating in their democracy so that it remains one and not turn into a dystopian one. 
Encouraging children and teens to think for themselves can be worrisome – what if they do not learn what we deem to be the ‘correct’ lesson?! – but that is exactly what’s necessary for them to become mature and sensible adults. Literature is the safest way, as well as the most important way, to allow kids to think things through for themselves. It is the safest because these are works of fiction; if one gets too scared or overwhelmed, it is easy to close the book until one is ready to pick it up again. Parents can also read the book with their children, explaining things when the child has questions. Reading about controversial topics allows the readers to see things from another perspective without putting themselves in danger. Literature is also the most important way to help kids grow up because reading engages one’s mental capacities (understanding, deciphering, critical thinking, etc…), which are extremely valuable in the real world, especially now that information is everywhere.  The end goal of childrearing is to have an adult who is the masteroftheirfate – how will kids become that if they are never allowed to stretch out their wings or their imagination?
About Me:
I am the Library and Media Instructor at NatomasCharterSchool, working mostly with grades 6-12. 
I am always looking into how better serve my patrons, so I love to try new things! I love my OPAC (Yay, FollettDestiny!), Twitter (@NCSLibrarian), YouTube (ElsaPrettol), and I am so thankful that our school has iPads, Chromebooks, Kindles, Nooks and the whole Gmail suite for students and teachers. If you have questions about  any of those technologies, do not hesitate to email me at eouvrardprettol@natomascharter.org 

Sunday Reflections: A Radical Banned Books Week Thought – Throw Out Your Materials Challenge Form and Truly Embrace the Freedom to Read

A funny thing happened on Twitter a couple of weeks ago.

In preparation for Banned Books Week I came up with what I thought was a great idea: We would put challenged books on trial and I tweeted out asking everyone if there were certain books they wanted to write a defense for as guest posts.  You will see those posts during this next week.

But one person replied and said: What if I said we shouldn’t even be arguing the merits of books? What if that’s not the point at all?

And then we talked about it and he was right.

Why do we have material challenge forms and give people the option of trying to say, I don’t like this book or it offended me or whatever so I think you should remove it from the library – all because of me.  Maybe this whole time we have been doing Banned Books Week and Intellectual Freedom wrong.  Throw out your forms!

Read the Freedom to Read Statement from ALA 

Here’s a snippet of the conversation:

If we truly believe that people have the Freedom to Read what they want to read, then the answer isn’t to hand out forms saying well, maybe we’ll remove this book if you can make a good case.  The correct answer when someone complains about a book is simple: I’m sorry that this book offended you, let’s do some awesome reader’s advisory to see if we can help you find some other materials that are right for you.

It’s a radical notion, I know.  I have written the collection development policy at two libraries now and made the actual materials challenge form at one.  It was a masterpiece.  And now I think it was wrong.  Our whole approach is wrong.

I get there are things that offend people, but those things are different for each person.  And when I read the comments, most people say the same things for other types of media: If you don’t like a show, turn the channel.  If you don’t like a song, turn the radio dial.  If you don’t like a movie, don’t go see it.  And the answer for books should be the same: If you don’t like the book, read a different book. 

Banned Books Week is September 22nd through the 28th

There are shows I don’t let my children watch (a lot of them actually.)  Just the other day I told my YouTube cruising Tween that she had to add her former favorite Miley Cyrus onto the list of music videos she wasn’t allowed to watch.  I have a list of actors whose movies I won’t go see.  I have banned Spongebob Squarepants because I don’t like the way they treat one another.  But here’s the thing: those are all personal parenting decisions.  I know that other parents would make different ones.  I don’t get to make those decisions for your kids and you don’t get to make them for mine.  Which is why we shouldn’t even have material challenge forms.  Because it gives the impression that sometimes, maybe, we would in fact let someone make those decisions for an entire community; that if they could make a strong enough case that we might, in fact, decide to remove a book from the library allowing one person (or a group of people) to make personal decisions for an entire community of people, people for whom they don’t actually have the right to make that decision.

There is no “unless you can prove it doesn’t have literary merit” – who gets to decide that? There is no “unless you can prove it is dangerous to society” – we once thought the belief that the sun was the center of the universe was a dangerous idea, people died for that belief.  Oops, turns out we were wrong.  The only exceptions would be if a book had questionable authority (which you should be catching in your collection development process so it shouldn’t be an issue on the reader’s end) or books that do or advocate breaking the law (like books from NAMBLA, they apparently exist).  Tyrants and dictators ban books, those who believe in democracy do not.

So instead, when a patron comes to a staff member complaining about a book and asking that it be removed, we use this moment to remind patrons about the goals of a library.  Instead of handing them a book challenge form, we could hand them a bookmark or pamphlet that states the Library Bill of Rights and affirms their rights to self-selection and parental guidance.  And then we ask them if we can help them find a new book to read and start the reader’s advisory process.  This moment becomes a teachable moment where we reinforce the library’s mission to the entire (and very diverse) community.  Instead of discussing individual titles, the conversation becomes one about Intellectual Freedom.

I believe that people have the right to read what they want to read.  I believe that you and I don’t get to make those decisions for other people.  Full stop.  That’s actually the end of the argument.  Throw out your forms.

More Banned Books Week on TLT:
Banned Books Week 2012
Teen Fiction is . . . 
A Banned Books Week Primer
Redefining the 3 Rs for Banned Books Week
Libraries are radically unsafe places . . . and that’s a good thing
My Banned Books Week Posters

Edited 9/24/2013 to add a clarifying paragraph.