Banned Books Week: How Books Change Us — And Save Us

When we started research for Banned Books Week, I viewed it as nothing more than a fun, silly exercise. The Canaries were tossing around stories about the risque books they’d read that had ended up on the “Most Challenged Books” list published by the ALA. I was laughing while scrolling through the titles–Junie B Jones, Where’s Waldo, anything Judy Blume ever wrote, even the utterly benign Captain Underpants–until I hit number 64. Mick Harte was Here by Barbara Park.

And my heart simply broke in two.

* * *

When I was seven, my cousin died. Our grandparents owned a lake house, and one early morning, he got out. It was a man-made lake, so instead of beaches there were foot-wide retaining walls and a sheer drop. Beyond the wall, there was nothing but deep, cold water.

He was seven, too, and didn’t know how to swim.

I hadn’t wanted to go to the viewing. Instead, I stayed home with my mother to watch TGIF shows like Step-by-Step. Now, two decades later, I don’t recall if I went to the funeral or not. Sometimes I think I can remember his face, serene and sleeping in a casket near a church altar. But I’m unsure if it’s a memory or just my mind filling a hole it knows is there.

I do know that I never talked ot anyone about it. For years. I don’t think I knew how to talk about it, or perhaps I too young to realize that it was even something to be talked about. But the senselessness of the situation ate at me. How had he gotten out of the house? Why didn’t anyone notice? Why did he have to go to the part of the wall surrounded by deep water? The questions had no answers, and the silence was intolerable.

Another hole in my memory is how I first came across Mick Harte was Here. Likely it was given to me by my elementary school counselor, but I also remember getting my own copy at a Scholastic book fair where my mom asked me why I was buying a book I’d already read.

“Because it’s a good book,” I told her.

She accepted that–or at least did not press the matter. But the fact of the matter was that I had to have my own copy. The book had changed my life, had become an essential part of who I was because of the message it contained.

It is a story of Phoebe Harte, the sister of a mischievous little boy who’s killed in a bicycle accident. An avoidable accident. And the death? He would have lived, if only he had been wearing a helmet. The story follows Phoebe as she tries to come to terms with that unfair reality and her grief.

I read the book endlessly, wanting to understand every part of what Phoebe went through in order to come to terms with her brother Mick’s death. And I applied Phoebe’s lessons to my own life. With her help, I learned to cope. I learned how to move on.

* * *

It has been over a decade since I thought about Mick Harte was Here. Its sudden appearance on the ALA most challenged books list came as a jolt. The title brought back a rush of the memories and feelings that I had set aside as a child and not touched again in my adult life.

But mostly, I could not fathom why such a heartfelt, wonderful book could have ever wound up on a list like this.

I decided that I had to read it again, not as a kid looking for help, but from the perspective an adult keeping an eagle-eye out for topics and stories that I would not want my own child to read. After breezing through the slim 59-page book, I think I understand the controversy.

I can see the book being challenged on two grounds. First, and perhaps least obvious, is the reaction of Phoebe’s parents to the accident. They act as we would expect parent’s to–overcome with grief to the point of neglecting their other child. Phoebe’s mom begins to take sleeping pills to get through the night and Phoebe’s father withdraws into himself. I could see how this reaction–while realistic–may not be a reality parents would want their children exposed to. Parents are supposed to be a rock, strong and infallible in the eyes of children. The failings of Phoebe’s parents might be one of the causes for the book’s place on the challenged list.

But I think it is the second aspect that really gets the book into trouble.  There is one section where Phoebe questions why the accident had to happen.

“And my other grandmother says that God must have needed Mick more than we did. Only what kind of a selfish God is that? To just snatch somebody away from the people who love him? […]

Zoe frowned in thought. “So maybe both your grandmothers are wrong,” she said. “Maybe it was a real honest-to0-goodness accident, and God is just as sad about it as everybody else.

I nodded. “Yeah. Well, that’s sort what I’ve been thinking too. Only that would mean that God had no control over it. And if God has no control, then he can’t be all that powerful, can he? Unless, of course, he makes it a rule not to interfere in our lives or something. Or who knows? Maybe there isn’t a God at all. Only I don’t even want to consider that option right now.”

Religion–and especially questioning religion–will always be a hot button among parents. It may be particularly troubling in Mick because the topic is never overtly resolved. There is no moment of epiphany where Phoebe announces how she completely understands and trust’s God’s plan for her family and for Mick.

Still, there is is a subtle moment when something unexplainable happens, something miraculous and simple, that seems to suggest that perhaps God is present–and that he is just as sad about Mick’s accident as everyone else. For a parent and child, the moment would be a beautiful discussion point not only about religion, but also about the fragile nature of human plans.

So I get it. Parents don’t want their kids reading about death, especially when that goes hand-in-hand with questioning the existence of God. But I think that challenging this book underestimates the ability of children to put things into perspective. For those who haven’t experienced the kind of tragedy that’s in Mick Harte was Here, the story can simply spark excellent discussion.

And for those children struggling to cope, those looking for any sort of lifeline to help explain what has happened, Mick Harte was Here can change everything. For me, it was not just a story. It was my story. I shared every bit of Phoebe’s grief, and, so much more importantly, as she learned to move on, so did I.

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One thought on “Banned Books Week: How Books Change Us — And Save Us

  1. Pingback: Best and Worst: Finding (a Red Tree at) the End of the World « thecanaryreview

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