[Happy Banned Books Week! In high school I had a deeply nerdy sweatshirt that read “Celebrate Freedom: Read a Banned Book”; this week I’ll do so by AmericanStudying books that have been frequently banned, in the past or recently. And yeah, read a Banned Book this week!]
On two iconic, frequently banned or challenged YA novels that fractured my innocence right alongside that of their characters.
The early teenage years—those of late middle school into the beginning of high school—seem to resonate particularly well with the idea of a loss of innocence. I’m sure that kids who grow up in far more difficult situations than I did, or who have to deal with loss at a young age, or otherwise are confronted with the world’s darker realities experience the shift from innocence to experience, naiveté to maturity, earlier. But even those of us who make it through childhood unscathed are going to come up against the harsher sides to life at some point, and ages 12-15 seems like a pretty common such milestone. I say that partly as a kid who was badly hazed by his cross country teammates during his freshman year of high school—but also partly the one who read John Knowles’ A Separate Peace (1959) and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) and Beyond the Chocolate War (1985) in 8th grade.
I’d be lying if I said I remember much at all of the three books—that’s about 30 years, and a whole lot of books, under the bridge. But what I do remember are a couple of specific and very dark moments, of literal and symbolic falls: the seemingly accidental fall that Knowles’ protagonist Gene purposefully causes his friend Finny to take, a fall that eventually leads to Finny’s death (among other destructive effects); and a profoundly disturbing suicide scene in Cormier’s sequel, one that locates readers in the perspective of a young student leaping to his death after being ostracized and abused for his homosexuality by his peers and even a teacher. Obviously those weren’t the first literary deaths I had encountered—in 6th grade English I read Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None (1939), for crying out loud!—but they might have been the first in which kids my own age were killed, at least in such purposeful and brutal ways (ie, not the accidental drowning in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia , traumatic as that was for this young reader).
Perhaps it was that sense of proximity and (in a way) threat to myself that led these particular moments, and the novels in which they occur, to hit me as hard as they did. Perhaps it was that all three books are deeply concerned with what it means to be a teenage boy, in some of the better but (I would argue) mostly some of the worst senses. And perhaps it’s a tribute to their interesting and almost entirely implicit engagement with the wars during which they’re set—Knowles does have his characters engage with World War II toward the end of his novel; I don’t believe Cormier mentions Vietnam at all, certainly not at length, but his titular war certainly gestures in that direction. War, after all, has long been one of the most overt and catastrophic ways in which young men—and their societies—lose their innocence; in my reading of these young adult novels and their effects on me, I was led to feel such effects far more intimately than might otherwise have been the case. One of many arguments for teaching, or at least for not banning, these YA novels.
Next banned book tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Banned books you’d highlight?
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