My Childhood, My Reading List

Tomorrow is the start of Banned Books Week (September 25 – October 2), and I’d like to honor the occasion with some middle-grade books I read as a child that have been challenged and/or banned.

FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg is this group’s literary inspiration.  But the story of a sister and brother who run away and hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art caused someone enough angst they wanted to prevent kids reading it.

I don’t know why that is.

What I do know is that when I read the book, I admired Claudia’s spunk and intelligence.  Her practicality and attention to detail.  The way she manages her younger brother and his money.  Claudia Kinkaid is a smart character, and while reading her story I imagined myself being equally smart if given the chance.

That was no easy trick.  I grew up in Pardeeville, Wisconsin, where we didn’t have a whole lot of opportunities, much less a museum or public transportation.  Without books, I might’ve grown up thinking the entire world was nothing but cows, cornfields, and people with white skin.  All 1,507 of us.

Books introduced me to people and places.

Small selection of banned books from my household

THE CAY by Theodore Taylor was mind-expanding.  Young white Phillip was raised to be prejudiced against blacks, but goes blind and is suddenly dependent on an elderly black man for survival.  All that, plus war and an island setting!

Those Wisconsin cornfields faded away.

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl showed me a family that loved each other so much they squeezed into one bed.  That was quite a concept for a girl from a family in which everyone not only had their own beds, but also their own rooms.  I wanted to believe in that familial closeness, and the possibility of golden tickets and Oompa-Loompas.  As I read the book, I hoped there really were Willy Wonka-esque adults in the world with as little patience for grown-up idiocy and hypocrisy as the average kid.  Adults who’d call out other adults, and then sweeten the deal with unlimited chocolate.

When I read THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster (with fabulous illustrations by Jules Feiffer), the only thing I knew for sure was that I was reading a capital-Q quirky book.  I’m grateful no one denied me the chance to marvel and puzzle over a story I recognized as game-changing.  I might not have understood all I read, and I definitely couldn’t verbalize what made the book so amazing, but I sensed I was in the presence of greatness.

Every reader should be allowed that kind of experience.

LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott and HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh couldn’t be more different, but both helped me recognize my true self.  Alcott’s Jo speaks her mind and is a writer.  Fitzhugh’s Harriet carries a notebook everywhere; she’s a writer who walks her talk.  Neither Jo nor Harriet say they’d someday like to write.  Both write.  Every day.  Jo doesn’t give up when sister Amy throws Jo’s novel in the fireplace, and neither does Harriet let go of her writing dreams.  And in addition to inspiring me, Harriet taught me to pay attention.  Really pay attention.  (Confession: I don’t notice changes in facial hair.  My husband can shave his beard and I won’t catch on for more than a week.  I do, however, always notice purple socks).

Each of these challenged/banned books carries its own unique memory and significance.  I am who I am because of these stories plus others on the banned list, such as LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE; CALL IT COURAGE; KING OF THE WIND; A WRINKLE IN TIME; THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER, and more.

There’s one book on the list I never read: BLUBBER by Judy Blume.  It wasn’t that I was denied the book, I just never came across it.  But perhaps if I’d read that story of a girl bullied, I would not have bullied a classmate during my sixth grade; there’s a very good chance that book would’ve slapped me upside the head and changed my attitude.

I wish I’d known about the book.  Even more, I wish I’d read it.  I want all kids to read BLUBBER.

For those fighting to prevent children from reading BLUBBER or another book, please understand this:  I’d give an awful lot to be able to say I was never a bully.  And one book might have made that difference for me.

Tracy Abell believes the quickest way to get a girl to read a book is to tell her she can’t read that book.

Tracy Abell
  1. Kimberley – Now THAT’S the kind of friend we all love having. Good for her!

  2. Thanks, Tracy. (She has an issue with the folk healer in the story).

    What you said is exactly it: “Let other people form their own conclusions!”

    Yesterday, a mutual friend said: “I don’t let other people tell me how to think. I loved your book and don’t agree with what she’s saying, and I’m going to tell her exactly where she’s wrong.” Yay!

  3. Kimberley – I’m so very sorry to read this. That’s got to be a painful and confusing situation. I admire your take on the situation and hope you can hold onto that understanding: it isn’t about you or your book, it’s that person’s own issue.

    Still. I wish she’d stop! And let other people read THE HEALING SPELL and form their own conclusions.

  4. Well, I’ve been experiencing the pain of a banned book. THE HEALING SPELL that was just launched this summer is being banned here in my hometown by a *friend* who is actively warning others not to read it (by email). It’s really hurtful and the things this friend is saying aren’t even true. She’s extrapolating ideas and intentions from my story that aren’t accurate or intended.

    This isn’t as public or wide-scale as other books – at least not yet! – but this person is actually telling other adults not to read my book. Warning them away from it and telling me I might be punished from God for leading people/children astray.

    I’m stunned, flabbergasted, and hurt.

    The only conclusion I can come to is that something in my book struck a chord about an issue THEY are having a hard time dealing with. This is not about ME or my book. It’s about THEM.

  5. Caroline – thank you for sharing THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH with your students all these years! You’re giving them a gift!

    Melodye – It doesn’t surprise me we share literary heroes. And that Maya Angelou sure knows how to cut to the chase. 🙂

    Laurie – Yes, we are sisters in all this. Glad you laughed about the CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, but I was dead-serious. Willy Wonka is the man!

    Robin – I’m also so grateful I was able to choose my own reading material. When I look at that list, I’m stunned by how many books are questioned.

    Amie – I tried not to dwell on why certain books were targeted, but I do wonder if the fact that most of them really make people ask questions and think for themselves played a role.

    Jennifer – It’s scary how many books are targeted. And trying to figure out the hows and whys makes your head spin. Thank you for taking to heart my point about BLUBBER; it’s a painful memory I’d like to help other kids avoid.

  6. Wow! I’m looking at your list as well as your stack of books and I’m thinking that maybe it’s more common for a book to be challenged than it is for it to be left alone.

    Tracy, your last comment about how reading Blubber might have made a difference in your childhood is very thought provoking. Thanks for sharing that.

  7. I remember being shocked years later to find out that some of the books I loved as a kid were on banned lists. Some, I couldn’t work out why at the time, and some I’m still not sure now. I remember reading plenty of these, including Blubber. Many books on lists like these made me think, started conversations, introduced new perspectives that I would never have found in the place I grew up.

  8. It always amazes me to see how many of my childhood favorites are on the various banned lists. Thank goodness my parents believed that I should be free to make my own decision about what to read (within reason, of course) — all the amazing books out there definitely expanded my heart, my mind, and my understanding.

  9. From one small-town girl to another: such a great post about the power of books in our lives…(and your blurb for Charlie & the Chocolate Factory cracks me up.)

  10. This is a lovely list, Tracy. I’m a big fan of Jo and Harriet, especially.

    I’m reminded of a quote by Maya Angelou: ”I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.”

    But if you kick ass in an unjust manner, well. Ain’t none of us perfect, iz we? It takes courage to allow others a glimpse into the shadows, so kudos for that. We allow novel characters the freedom to be fully human (ergo, “flawed”), and I believe we should extend to ourselves the same grace. xo

  11. I absolutely adore THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH. I’ve read it with my students over the years…probably thirty times!

  12. Apologies to those who commented earlier. A technical glitch wiped out the post and all comments. Even though those comments are gone, please know I read them and am holding them close.