The Handmaid’s Tale gets a sequel

Testament.jpgNot to sound ungrateful, but after the success of the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, does it really come as a surprise that Margaret Atwood is writing a sequel?

Originally published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale was a standalone story – in fact, Offred’s story was framed as a collection of tapes found by an archaeologist in the far, far future. So it makes sense within that framing device that Margaret Atwood’s next installment, The Testaments, skips over to follow three completely new(?) female characters 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale ends. (Will we ever find out what happened to Offred? Unlikely. And I’m okay with that.)

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Banned Books Week: What’s your reading score for the 2000’s?

So you were a Subversive Canary in our Banned Books Challenge Part 1, but how are you in the modern age?

Here are the top 100 Banned/Challenged Books for 2000-2009, courtesy of the American Library Association. How many have you read?

1. Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
2. Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
3. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
4. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
5. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
6. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
7. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
8. His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
9. ttyl; ttfn; l8r g8r (series), by Myracle, Lauren
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

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I Watch R-Rated Movies!

That just doesn’t have the same ring as this week’s battle cry of, “I read banned books!”, does it?

When CanaryTheFirst asked me to write about Banned Books Week, I scanned the list of the most frequently banned and challenged books and shook my head. It’s chock-full of classics. I mean, why on earth would anyone challenge Fahrenheit 451? The Lord of the Rings? To Kill A Mockingbird?  Really? It’s enough to send us, traditionally mild-mannered bibliophiles, to the ramparts to battle the dark forces of small-mindedness and censorship. I felt my internal hyperbole generator getting into gear.

But, as much as I am a reader, I spend most of my day and energy being a scientist–and scientists don’t deal with emotions. We’re not supposed to write in hyperbole. We’re trained to deal with data, make observations, and draw conclusions.

So, let’s look at the data, as provided by the American Library Association. For the past 20 years in the United States, there have been slightly over 10,000 challenges to books. Of those, the most challenges have come from parents (with library patrons placing second). The reasons cited are varied, but by far, the greatest number of challenges are directed to content that contains “sex”, “violence”, “foul language”, and (perhaps more ambiguously) content that is “unsuited to age group”.

Challenges

The ALA’s data suggests that parents want to limit their children’s exposure to sex, violence, and offensive language.

Hmm.

That doesn’t seem too outrageous, does it?

I don’t even have kids and I want to limit kids’ exposure to those things. In a way, it buoys my faith in people to think that parents are aware and engaged in what their kids are reading. As a society, shouldn’t we do the same?

MPAA ratings

In fact, we do it all the time. We keep pornographic materials behind brown paper and post warnings on websites. We rate movies because we believe that there are certain things that children don’t really need to see, or things that children shouldn’t be seeing, but which are probably okay for teens.  We screen and label movies, and we leave it up to the parent to decide.

We have similar ratings systems in place for video games and television shows that seek to empower parents with information about what their kids (and they) are consuming. In most stores, children aren’t allowed to buy M-rated games without the parents being there.

Game Ratings

And yet, I think back to one of the formative series I read in my high school years. This book is listed in NPR’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Top 100The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

What about its content? Cursing? Mild. Violence? In spades. Incest? Yep. Rape? Yep.

Would I want my imaginary 10-year-old picking that up? No way! What about my 15-year-old? Maybe.

And so, after thinking about this, I wondered… why isn’t there a rating system for books? As media, what makes books free from this sort of industry regulation? My guess is that the answer lies in the issue of scale. The sheer number of books published monthly eclipse the film and game industry by orders of magnitude. And no matter how good a speed-reader you might be, it probably takes you longer to digest a book than a tv show. This combination likely makes the evaluation of books impractical if not impossible.

Even so, the question I want to put out there to the Canary Faithful is this:

By asking this question, I certainly do not want to suggest that I am somehow pro-censorship. As an adult I believe that I have the right to read whatever I damn well please. And like most of you, I shake my head with incredulity when I see a book like Harry Potter challenged on the ground of it being “occult”. But I do wonder, would its magic really be diminished if there was a little sticker in the corner that read: PG?

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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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Why We Read Banned Books

It’s Banned Books Week, so like many other readers, I find myself coming back to the question of censorship.

When I look over the list of books that most frequently get challenged or banned, my overwhelming thought is that, with a few exceptions, these are all either established classics, or stories that particularly moved me when I was growing up. It’s amazing to me, and a little fortifying, that stories still have the power to frighten and move so many people. So why are some people or groups trying to get rid of them?

Book banning stems partly from fear, of course. I’ve read before, somewhere, that horror movies are one of the best ways to tell what a culture is afraid of—zombies represent mindlessness, vampires represent sex, and so on. The same goes for what we don’t want others to read. Books tell us about who we are, and book banning tells me what we’re scared to admit about ourselves and the world we live in. Continue reading

Banned Books: What’s your reading score?

Here are is the ALA list of the 100 most frequently challenged books from 1990–1999. Which have you read?

  1. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
  2. Daddy’s Roommate, by Michael Willhoite
  3. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
  4. The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
  5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain Continue reading

Banned Books Week

Sept 24-Oct 1

First launched in 1982 as a response an increase in the number of books challenged in schools, bookstores and libraries, Banned Books Week celebrates our freedom to read. Every year, during the last week of September, hundreds of libraries and bookstores commemorate Banned Books Week by showcasing challenged books and related events.

It’s book week, canaries!

What does it mean for a book to be challanged? What does it mean for it to be banned? Continue reading