After a surge of book challenges in the 1980’s, Banned Books Week was born – a time when book lovers from all professions celebrate their love of reading and freedom of speech. Usually the last week of September, readers use this time to speak against censorship and book banning. The writers of Geeks Under Grace come together here to discuss our favorite banned books. First, though: what is a banned book, and why should you care?
What is Banned Books Week?
Challenged books are books that people have asked to have removed from a certain place, such as a school or public library, due to controversial content. Banned books have received approval for said removal and are no longer in circulation at the places where they were banned. Censorship is the act of banning certain books or other media. A censor is defined by Dictionary.com as “an official who examines books… etc., for the purpose of suppressing parts deemed objectionable on moral, political, military, or other grounds.” This next definition shows the true nature of censorship: “any person who supervises the manners or morality of others.”
Romans 14:22 states, “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” Paul was speaking to a group of believers divided over the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. One group thought the meat was fine to eat, but others were afraid of condemnation. Paul essentially tells them each person has to follow their own God-given conscience, but not to trip up someone else. This particular issue of meat may not resonate with us today, but perhaps we can relate more than we think.
As a child, I was not allowed to read Shakespeare because it contained mature themes and offensive language. The teacher at my private Christian school had no problems teaching the Bard, but my mother forbade me from reading his works. Her conscience and my teacher’s conscience condemned themselves on very different literary grounds, but neither of them were wrong. The problem occurs when people try to push their beliefs onto everyone around them, including unbelievers. This is the issue with censorship.
Why should I care about censorship?
Many books are challenged for mature themes: profanity, sexual content, LGBTQ+ agenda, political viewpoints, racism, religion, and more. However, none of these books set out to be perverted, anti-family filth. More often than not, the author’s objective is to start a conversation about a difficult topic.
As Christians, our job is not to ignore the problems of the world. On the contrary, we are to be lights on a hill shining into the darkness. Jesus asked this of the Father before his death:
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of this world, even as I am not of it. … As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified (John 17:15-16, 18-19 NLT).
We cannot pretend everything is fine. Jesus put us here as sanctified ambassadors of his love. Instead of banning books by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors, we should be showing them the love of Christ. Instead of deeming The Diary of Anne Frank “too depressing” to be read in school, we need to talk about how horrific the Holocaust was. Instead of banning The Hate U Give for being anti-police, we need to respond to the reason the book exists in the first place. While continuing to take every thought captive, we have a duty to enter into discourse about issues that affect the people God created, even when they are uncomfortable to discuss.
Here at Geeks Under Grace, our objective is never to tell you whether or not you should engage in something. We give you the details so you can decide for yourselves. That is part of our mission. The decision is yours alone, and we support your right to choose either way. Our writers do not shy away from controversial content, so we can continue to inform geeks like you. That said, here are some of our favorite banned books and the ways they impacted us.
Bone (Nathan Kiehn)
I first read Jeff Smith’s Bone a few years after I started getting into comics. I was probably in junior high and, up until that point, had primarily read a whole bunch of Spider-Man stories. One day, my dad brought home from the library Smith’s whole Bone series, contained in this massive, black-and-white tome. My sister and I both read the series individually, and I fell in love with the story and the world Smith created.
Bone is, to be blunt and rather vague “Looney Tunes blended with Lord of the Rings,” a story that adds exaggerated characters and doses of quirky comedy to a sword-and-sorcery realm. Smith balances the slapstick and fantasy beautifully, creating relatable characters you’ll either love or hate and always building on his vast world and dynamic themes. What starts out as a tame, comedic adventure turns into an epic saga that sees our main protagonists genuinely grow over the course of the series. As a reader, you’re enveloped in a fully-realized world with traditions, customs, history, lore, religions, detailed locations, and diverse inhabitants; even Smith’s supporting cast members are fleshed out and given their own arcs. Heck, one character’s a leaf that looks like a bug, and even he comes across as somewhat relatable.
Though the series has been challenged repeatedly for its violence, depiction of alcohol, and religious elements, Smith hasn’t created a story that is intentionally controversial or confrontational. He doesn’t demean anyone’s views, he doesn’t purposefully incentivize readers (kids, particularly) to drink or smoke because his characters do, and he doesn’t glorify violence. I admit that, as a younger reader, I was bothered by one fairly gory death late in the series, so I do understand the trouble parents have with that aspect of Bone.
It’s certainly well within the rights of adults and readers to decide what content they wish to expose themselves to, and parents definitely have a hand in considering what media their children should take in. For anyone concerned about younger readers, feel free to police the story at your leisure and discuss the themes with them. Bone is a comic worth talking about it, and I would argue that kids can be protected against some of the negative elements without eliminating the book entirely. At its core, Bone is simply a well-told, gorgeously-depicted fantasy epic with much more positive content than things to worry about.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Courtney Dowling)
I must confess, it has been a while since I read this book, but it had such a profound impact on me. Teenaged Courtney was raised in a bubble, not allowed to read anything with one instance of cursing or taking God’s name in vain. My bookshelf consisted of white characters in little fantasy towns where good always triumphed over evil. When something went wrong, it was corrected at the end, and everyone had their own happily-ever-after.
This was not my real life. My parents got divorced when I was sixteen, and my little brother has Fragile X syndrome, very similar to autism. Despite all the happily-ever-afters I read, my parents were separated, and I struggled to understand my brother. This was about the time I decided my bookshelf needed updating.
A teacher recommended The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Its main character thinks like someone on the autism spectrum, and I thought it may give me insight into my sibling’s brain. Apparently, this book caused quite a stir in the autism community. The author, Mark Haddon, did little research on Asperger’s syndrome, and the novel tends to perpetuate stereotypes instead of reality. Nowadays, there are many books written by autistic authors about autistic characters, but when I was in high school, this was the only one I knew.
In the book, Christopher, a fifteen year old British boy, finds his neighbor’s dog dead in her yard. Despite his father’s insistence to leave the incident alone, Christopher sets out on a quest to discover the dog’s killer and writes it all down in the very book the reader holds. His journey hits a snag when he discovers letters from his deceased mother, and he decides to run away from home to learn more.
My first reading was interrupted by the foul language for which it was challenged. There are a few scattered f*** and s*** with one use of c***. After the first f-bomb, I gave the book back to my teacher. My mother would never approve, no matter how much I longed to understand the autistic mind. A few years later, I was more secure in my own convictions and decided to give the book another try. This time, I devoured it.
Memories of the plotline are hazy, but I remember loving the narration. Christopher’s voice is so different from mine. For one thing, he is obsessed with numbers. Each chapter is the next prime number in sequence, instead of going from one to two. He also describes using emotion flash cards to determine how another person is feeling. I studied special education in college, but I never understood how people could have trouble reading social cues. Then, I read this book. Christopher describes why he cannot stand people touching him and how he feels during a meltdown. When my brother was silent on these details, I could understand his thought process through Christopher.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was pulled from a school curriculum in Florida because a Christian mother was offended by the language and wanted to teach her kids right from wrong. This is an understandable sentiment, although I would argue discussing the book together could serve that end. Christopher is a boy out of touch with the people around him. He swears because he does not understand social conventions, and he struggles to see why simple words would be bad.
Parents complained about the swearing. However, they said nothing about his father hitting him. They never mentioned his father’s emotional manipulation [SPOILERS AHEAD] at telling Christopher his mother was dead when she was alive and remarried. The censors did not even worry about the father killing his neighbor’s dog in a fit of rage and allowing his son to take the blame for it.
This book taught me how much main characters can show readers a perspective we will never experience. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time allowed me to understand how a neurodiverse person might think. While it is not the best book for negating stereotypes, it was all I had. Now I want to read more, understand more, and learn more. Is there language? Yes. Is there child abuse? Yes. Is there animal abuse? Yes. Is the journey worth it? Absolutely.
Slaughterhouse-Five (Derek Thompson)
I recognize how odd this is, but I actually read Slaughterhouse-Five on the beach while on my honeymoon. As I was celebrating the start of a new life with my wife, I was reading about, well, death. Anyone who has read the book probably thinks first and foremost of the phrase “And so it goes”, which was the response to any kind of death in the novel. While English professors much smarter than me might have a variety of interpretations to the phrase, to me it came across as simply admitting defeat. One moment a person is alive, and in the next, they are dead, and that’s all there is to the story.
Slaughterhouse-Five was (and still is) often banned for profanity, vulgarity, and even blasphemy. Some objectors called it “anti-Christian” for a certain passage where God calls Jesus Christ His “loser, bum of a son”. Geeks Under Grace exists so that people can recognize God’s hand in everything, including Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s not that I read it and then think, “Good point, life is meaningless, just like it says in Ecclesiastes.” It’s that I read it and then think, “What a hope we have in Jesus!” We can read about this kind of experience, feel impacted by it, and give thanks that the reality Vonnegut paints is not the one in which we live.
The Hate U Give (Maurice Pogue)
My greatest writing regret during my tenure here at Geeks Under Grace is reading The Hate U Give (THUG) but writing a review for the film rather than the book. The latter is a cheap imitation of author Angie Thomas’ masterpiece, a novel that I would place alongside a literary titan like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God as a modern-day coming of age story.
Besides earning the highest of praises that I can offer, something else these texts share in common is that they have made the American Library Association’s (ALA) list of Banned & Challenged Books. Hurston’s text is on the list of challenged classics because of its “sexual explicitness,” despite the fact that it is not really sexually explicit at all. I suppose Janie daring to say that she enjoyed sex with two out of her three partners, with the outlier being the ugly husband from an arranged marriage that she left, was scandalous in the late 1930s onward. Thomas’ book made the top 10 banned lists in 2017 and 2018—for “pervasive vulgarity, drug use, profanity, and offensive language” in 2017 and for “profanity, drug use, sexual references, and being anti-cop” in 2018.
I would like to draw attention to the way in which the ALA documents the reasons why THUG was banned in 2017, describing bad language twice, arguably three times depending on how one interprets how “vulgarity” is deployed. In other words, someone’s momma must have been beside themselves huffing and puffing in dejection. And yet I wonder, do these people actually know any middle or high schoolers? Have they seen a PG-13 movie lately? THUG’s depiction of how a teenager can politically engage yet find time to fantasize about making it to second base with her boyfrien, is very much a common, healthy expression of teenage life.
Thomas moves the plot forward in THUG by illustrating the institutionally-inflicted tragedies upon everyday black life. Starr Carter attends a house party where teenagers engage in legally dubious activities that are not necessarily harmful—that is, until gunfire disperses everyone. Her best friend, Khalil offers her a ride home, to which she agrees. A police officer pulls him over because of a broken tail light. After the officer accosts Khalil, he tells him to stay put, but Khalil, impassively reaching for his hairbrush as he talks to Starr, is lethally shot by the police officer who thinks a weapon is being drawn. This traumatic ordeal impacts Starr in ways so profound that she is neither capable of returning to life as normal, nor can she move forward under her own power. Her metamorphosis takes place over time as she navigates between the two worlds of the very white Williamson Prep and her predominantly black neighborhood, Cedar Grove.
When I see ALA’s 2018 description of THUG as “anti-cop,” I wonder what does that even mean? If this text were listed as islamophobic or anti-LGBT, one could simply describe Thomas as a bigot and move on with life. However, a close inspection of the linguistic gymnastics at play reveals insidious motives. For example, I have noticed that the majority of the ALA’s modern banned list includes the inverse: pro-Islam and pro-LGBT texts. In other words, the language of “anti-cop” is a directly reactionary response to Black Lives Matter, a movement in which Starr becomes peripherally involved. Thus, Thomas’ THUG gets swept up in the whirlwind of bad-faith censorship.
Unlike race, religion, or sexual orientation, police work is an optional vocation, not a protected class in the United States. I cannot help but to conclude, then, that THUG only qualified as a banned book to undermine its message of racial justice in the United States. And what, pray tell, is the most prominent, readily-visible ideology that actively opposes racial justice? To state it plainly, THUG’s inclusion on ALA’s banned books list should be attributed to the demonic imaginations of white supremacy. I would further argue that the Black authors included on the list of banned classics—Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison (x2), Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin—all literary titans, were included for related reasons.
I pray that the individuals who judged THUG in this way will come to repentance for their hatred. Meanwhile, I will continue to celebrate THUG and its redemptive qualities. My favorite of these is DeVante, who abandons his wayward lifestyle and commits to living the straight and narrow path—a plot element that the movie omits to its detriment.