by Wil Mara
Since I’ve done a few things in the news over the last few months due to my stance on banned books—my publisher has asked me to submit a list of my five favorite banned titles, along with a few thoughts on why I have come to love them so dearly. So here goes—
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
This is the most accurately crafted novel on the general malaise of the teen experience. Anyone who can’t feel their own misery through that of Holden Caulfield should check for a pulse. Catcher was released by Little, Brown and Company in 1951 following a partial serialization at the conclusion of World War II. Those who have appointed themselves purveyors of All We Should Think (or Not) usually banish this one from library collections due to “foul language” because Holden occasionally uses a few words rarely showcased in polite society. The larger truth here is that Holden, in his actual role as the magnificent conduit of late author and brilliant observer of humanity J. D. Salinger, helps a young audience see the superficial and manipulative nature of the adult world as well as the more distasteful tendencies of those in his own generation. Because there’s no one who wants to get a book off those shelves faster than somebody who realizes they’ve just been found out.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Released in July of 1960, during some of the most torrentially violent activity in the southern civil rights movement, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant hit that elevated the previously unknown Lee to authorly superstardom and won her the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year. The original manuscript was a largely unfocused collection of short stories and vignettes, but editor Tay Hohoff of J. B. Lippincott Company transformed it into a tour de force of the human experience covering a broad range of subject matter, including the powerful nature of the father-daughter relationship, a multidimensional chronicle of smalltown American life during the Great Depression, and, most notably, the appallingly nearsighted white perspective of its Black citizenry. While the book banners cited profanity and rape as the central reasoning for sidelining this one, the truth ran more along the lines of whatever discomfort was felt after Lee, born and raised in suburban Alabama, was bravely willing to hold up a mirror to those around her.
- 1984 by George Orwell
This one cracks me up. George Orwell’s 1984 (which he originally styled as Nineteen Eighty-Four) is a devastatingly clarified exposé of the manifold horrors of authoritarian societal rule. Or, to put it more simply, Orwell (real name: Eric Arthur Blair) went out of his way to warn humanity that those who try to control the general population through the force and power of government are the last people who should be invested with such faith in the first place. This is the novel that gave us wonderfully portable concepts that have stood the test of time such as “Big Brother is watching” and the “Thought Police.” Unsurprisingly, it was insta-banned in prison camps, including those in the Soviet Union, from the moment it appeared in 1949 (along with, a few years prior, its companion volume, Orwell’s anthropomorphic and thus slightly softer Animal Farm). What’s startling is that it has also been banned in the United States over the years. The excuse often given here (are you sitting down?) is that it’s a subtly crafted love letter to socialism pushed to the extreme. But let’s face it—anyone reading 1984 who seriously believes they’ve got some kind of thinly disguised Commie indoctrination manifesto in their hands may need to take their sensibilities into the shop for a tune-up.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
I vividly remember my first reading of Lord of the Flies. I remember where I was (summer camp), how old I was (12), the general weather (most days like an oven and asphyxiatingly humid), the book itself (a well-worn paperback acquired through a library book sale for probably no more than a thin dime), and countless other ridiculous little details (e.g., at that particular camp, the scent of wild blueberries was in the air no matter where you stood). And I believe the reason I remember these things with such lucidity is because, like any other remarkable book, every page of Lord of the Flies heightened my senses. I really think I evolved during its consumption and digestion, as it expanded my base perception of the world into which I’d been born and those who populated it. While the main characters were all children, they were also walking, breathing archetypes who, left to their devices, did not also evolve but rather de-volved—and author William Golding communicated this in a way that I, a kid myself, could understand! Today, the reasons Lord of the Flies is banned include violence, profanity, sexually charged content, etc.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
This is maybe my favorite banned book, not because it’s my favorite book overall but because it’s about the lunacy of censorship, yet it gets targeted all the time. Ray Bradbury’s dystopian masterwork, first set loose upon the world in 1953, tells the story of Guy Montag—a “fireman” charged with assisting the campaign to burn any book that doesn’t fall within his society’s prescribed laws of acceptability. And in the larger sense, of course, it’s about maintaining a healthy gap between people and knowledge. Bradbury was reacting to the hearings led by Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy to root out communists operating in America’s power sectors, and also to the book-burning bonfires that became commonplace in Nazi Germany. Over the course of the story, Montag becomes uncomfortable with his fireman role and begins to appreciate some of the material he’s been ordered to barbecue. Here again we have the paradox of our contemporary censors—a book designed specifically to demonstrate the dangers of handing away our power of personal choice banished by people who don’t want their kids to make the personal choice to read Fahrenheit. But hey, hypocrites don’t exist without a healthy measure of hypocrisy, right?
One final thought—the above blog post is being offered in observance of National Paranormal Day (May 3rd). This seems particularly appropriate since the word paranormal generally refers to that which has little or no satisfactory explanation, and few things make less sense than attempting to deny the right to enlighten and educate ourselves through reading in a nation whose foundation is supposedly built upon the principle of personal freedom.
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Wil Mara is the author of more than 300 books, both fiction and nonfiction, for children as well as adults. He is the only living author with at least one book in all ten of the Dewey Decimal categories. His 2005 novel Wave won the New Jersey Notable Book Award. His 2013 novel Frame 232 reached the # 1 spot in its category on Amazon. And his football novel The Draft became the 2014 hit feature film Draft Day, starring Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner.
His books for kids include the popular Twisted series, which has received the Gold Standard Award from the Junior Library Guild, tremendous critical reviews in all major journals (School Library Journal, Booklist), and glowing endorsements from librarians around the nation for their smart storytelling and strong appeal to reluctant readers. There are currently eight Twisted books available, with the ninth—a story about book banning—and tenth due in early 2024. He’s also the author of two series for early chapter book readers—Izzy Jeen the Big-Mouth Queen and Logan Lewis: Kid from Planet 27. All three of these series are currently being developed for television.
He was recently interviewed on television, both on PBS and News 12 New Jersey, to talk about book banning in America’s libraries. He has also received many awards, including the Lime Award for Excellence in Fiction and the Literary Lion Award from the United States Library of Congress. In 2020, he was New Jersey’s Author of the Year.