I picked up A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But a Sandwich by Alice Childress at the Friends of the Library book sale one day, probably because I recognized the title and figured it’s a book I should have read by now. It’s a pretty classic problem novel about a kid named Benjie who is addicted to heroin. (The tagline on the novel is “Benjie is young, black, and well on his way to being hooked on heroin” lest there’s any confusion about its problem novel status or the topic of the book. But I digress. )
The story is told in alternating first-person POV chapters from Benjie and the people who his drug use affect, including his mom, stepfather, grandmother, teachers, and friends. The chapters really serve as character studies to let the reader know who populates Benjie’s world as well as how they view not only Benjie but the neighborhood and other people in it.
When I found out the book was made into a movie (starring Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield, no less!), I wasn’t very far into the book and was surprised because it didn’t seem like there was really enough plot to hang a movie on, but I was wrong about that. While the beginning is pretty light on plot and heavy on premise (Benjie’s on drugs and people notice–seriously, that’s it), as the book goes on, there’s actually a lot of stuff that happens between characters, and it’s all pretty deftly handled. The characters reflect more on how they feel about what’s happened than detailing what happened to get the characters to that point. I mean, we find out, but the chapters don’t follow the standard this happened and then this happened and then this happened progression.
While I ultimately found the book just okay (it’s super short but took me a ridiculously long amount of time to read it given the length), I really enjoyed all of the relationship stuff with the mom and stepfather, and I am 100% in love with the ending. THAT ENDING. Not to mention, all of the familial relationship stuff is ace. Yeah, so that was pretty great. Also, there’s a really interesting conflict between the white teacher Mr. Cohen (who has A LOT of contempt for his black students) and the black nationalist teacher Mr. Green across the hall. They are both effective teachers but they do not particularly care for each other and they have very, very different views of the children and neighborhood they serve.
Anyway, I’m going to end this by just quoting Mr. Green because, through him, Childress basically says what I was trying to get at in my diversity fatigue post:
Look around your city and let me know if you see coloreds represented fifty-fifty in the white community. No, it doesn’t go down that way. I’m sick of explainin and talkin race. Race is the story of my life and my father’s life, and I guess, his father and all the other fathers before that. As a kid, I was in on “race” discussions in school, at home, in church, everywhere. It’s a wonder every Black person in the U. S. of A. hasn’t gone stark, ravin made from racism…and the hurtin it’s put on us.
This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is kind of a cheat for me since I have taught a version of this class in the past. So I’m going to basically share my syllabus with you–with a slightly updated reading list.
How I framed the class:
This course aims to take a critical look at children’s and young adult literature that is frequently challenged and banned in public schools and libraries. While we will discuss issues of censorship throughout the semester, our primary concern will be with understanding these books first and foremost as works of literature. As such, we will consider the choices that authors make in composing these works, focusing on the functions of the literary elements contained within. Throughout our discussions, we will be able to determine how these “bannable” ideas or elements are or are not necessary for the books to function as cohesive narratives with specific themes. In the end, we should be able to determine if or when restrictions should be placed on novels intended for young people and who gets to make that decision.
1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – it’s important to have a classic on your list because then someone will say, baffled, “But it’s a classic. How can you ban a classic?” Bonus points for Mark Twain because then you can pull out this quote:
I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distresses me when I find that boys & girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. … Most honestly do I wish that I could say a softening word or two in defense of Huck’s character since you wish it, but really, in my opinion, it is no better than those of Solomon, David, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. If there is an unexpurgated [Bible] in the Children’s Department, won’t you please…remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship?
2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou – it’s important to have someone’s actual lived experience on your list because then, when someone says that a book about incest or rape is unsuitable to age group, you can say, “Yes, but these things actually happen to teenagers and maybe we should talk about them so teens who experience them don’t think they’re all alone.”
3. The Giver by Lois Lowry – this should appear early in the semester so students can say, “It’s just like in The Giver–they just don’t want people to think for themselves.” Also, the irony of The Giver being on the banned books list will not be lost on them. Farenheit 451 and 1984 also work well for the latter purpose.
4. Forever by Judy Blume – because teenagers don’t have sex [/sarcasm]
5. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson – because kids don’t deal with sad things or have imaginations. Bonus: if you’re talking about how the book is sad and why, and a student says, “It’s just a book,” you can counter with what my friend suggested: “The Bible is just a book.” Heads might roll.
6. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers – because war sucks and lots of teenagers go to war and, surprise, it’s violent! It’s not like this will help anyone understand why their friend, cousin, brother, sister, uncle, etc. might have PTSD or anything.
7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky – I can’t even remember why this is banned. Language? Discussions of sex? Homosexuality? Probably all of those things and more. God knows you don’t want teens to read about an authentic high school experience.
8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling – because you can’t read the whole series, and this book works as a standalone. Also: magic.
9. Life Is Funny by E.R. Frank – I blogged about this book for Banned Books Week before, so I won’t repeat myself here. The main thing to know is this book was actually removed from a school library because it depicts things that actually happens to kids in middle and high school.
10. Whale Talk or Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher – Pretty much all of Chris Crutcher’s books have been banned or challenged. The list would be incomplete without him.
How I Ended the Class:
For the final project, I had them pick a novel on the ALA’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books list and write a paper explaining the theme of the novel and why the challenged elements are necessary for the reader to understand that theme. Then? Presentation on the book!