Thursday, September 29, 2011

One Does Not Love Breathing...

I read this awesome post, by The Bloggess today which let me know that this week is Banned Book Week.  I don't know if that's for sure.  I mean, it's not marked on my calendar or anything, but Jenny doesn't typically steer me wrong.  (Yes, I refer her to as Jenny.  She follows me on Twitter.  Well... me and like 13,000 other people.  It's a minor detail.) 

And it did what all awesome writing does.  It made me think.  And reflect.  And smile.  And feel inspired.

Man, words are totally effing incredible sometimes.

I think I've made it clear that I love books, yes?  I love them here, or there, or anywhere.  So the idea of banning books makes my skin crawl.  Even a book that I hate (although, off-handedly, I can't think of one of those).  Maybe it's because I don't have children to shelter from the cold, cruel, sex-crazed, profanity-laced world.  Or maybe it's because I hope that, even if I did have children, I'd own up to the fact that we all live in a cold, cruel, sex-crazed, profanity-laced world... and then TEACH them how to NAVIGATE it rather than fear it.

The closest I've ever been to a banned book is my elementary library.  And by "elementary library", I mean the school library I used from 1st through 12th grade.  (Don't forget that my first grade classroom and my Senior English classroom were only like 150 yards apart and connected by a couple of breezeways).  But the library was separated into some clearly defined shelving systems.  The end closest to the door and the check-out counter was for the elementary school kids.  Then biographies (which were open to all).  Then, in the middle of the room -- and, yes, I said "room" as in singular -- was the Holy Grail in my eyes.  The Young Adult shelves.  That section was both the metaphorical and literal barrier to grown-up books. 

Well, truthfully, it was the barrier to the reference section, but that just doesn't have the same ring, now does it?

But my flirtations with the Young Adult Shelves doesn't begin with me.  It begins with my brother, the local boundary pusher in my family.  My brother is four years older than me.  He is a voracious reader who imparted both the skill and love for reading to me when I was merely 5.  When he was in the early stages of junior high, he decided that he'd had enough of the elementary section, waltzed over to the YA section, picked up a forbidden book, and plopped it down on Mrs. Stavenhagen's desk. 

She promptly told him to put it back.  And what Mrs. Stave said... you did.

I don't know if there was much of a fight put up at the time.  All I know is that later that evening, my mom was presented with some pen and paper and asked to write a note declaring that she was perfectly okay with my brother checking out books from any and all categories.  In truth, I think it was as much about knocking down a seemingly stupid rule (my brother absolutely detests stupidity) as it was about which book he wanted.  Nevertheless, the next day, my brother crossed the threshhold.  More than anything though, he blazed the path for me.  For that, I will be thankful.

By the time I was in the 4th and 5th grade, Mrs. Stave would simply stand aside and watch me go, knowing full well that my brother's note from so long before served as my note as well.  My goal was to read every book in that library, no matter which shelf it lived upon.  I fell short, of course, but the lessons I learned within those bindings live with me still today.  No other reading has affected me like the reading I did as a pre-teen/teen.

The first book that ever grabbed hold of me was "To Kill a Mockingbird".  I have probably read it 20 times, and there are still moments that I have to close its cover and breathe a deep breath or throw it down in anger or hold it to my heart and weep.  It made my cheeks burn with shame and put the microscope on humanity.  Then it held my eye to the lens.  But it wasn't just the acknowledgment of injustice and prejudice, it taught me about courage.

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It's when you know you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do."

It taught me about  love.  It taught me that friendship knows no boundary of age or class or color.  It taught me that growing up is neither graceful or delicate.   And most certainly, it was not easy.

"Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad."

There it is.  The lump.  In my throat.  Oh, God.  Talk amongst yourselves.

I had probably read this book 5 times before I ever heard that someone wanted to ban it.  And, honestly, I am still unsure why.  Each time I re-read it, that thought, the thought of it perched on the top of a madman's bonfire, makes my stomach ache.

But there were many books that changed me, some controversial, some not.  Yet their importance in shaping who I am, how I view the world, and what I believe is true and necessary has never faded.  The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. (I still cannot re-read this book. I wept for days. I weep still to think of it. This reason alone, I think, is why I will never teach the 8th grade.) Fahrenheit 451... Brave New World... 1984... Animal Farm... Catcher in the Rye... Where the Red Fern Grows... Bridge to Terabithia... The Outsiders... The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn... Charlotte's Web... Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret... The Red Badge of Courage...  The Pigman... Carrie... Flowers in the Attic... Lord of the Flies...

The list could go on forever, and I find myself -- even at the elderly age of 35 -- still adding to this list of important Young Adult literature.  The Hunger Games Trilogy... Speak... The Harry Potter Series... The Book Thief (oh, how I cheered her on.)... Only now, it's the for the Young Adults in my classroom.  And there's no age limit upon my little bookshelf.

So in honor of Banned Book Week, I leave you with an invitation to tell me about your own life-changing books -- controversial or otherwise, YA or otherwise -- for I'm always on the look-out for a good book... and with one last quote from the smartest narrator I've ever known, Scout Finch.

"Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing." -- To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

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