Reading challenge: banned books & LGBTQ authors

This month's challenge for Karen was to read a young adult or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ and a book that has been banned or challenged.


These topics somewhat go hand-in-hand, as often books that have an LGBTQ character or theme have been banned or challenged. However, this challenge was a little bit different - the author had to identify as LGBTQ, not necessarily the main character (although it is often the case). One of the books on my to-read list was George by Alex Gino. This book has gotten a lot of great reviews and I was really looking forward to reading the story of George, a fourth-grader who may look outwardly like a boy, but George knows she is a girl. George really wants to play the role of Charlotte for their class production of Charlotte's Web, but isn't given the role because it is a girl's part. George and her best friend Kelly come up with a series of plans to help George maneuver through the school day, bullying classmates, family that doesn't understand, etc.

I really wanted to like this book and I just didn't. I felt like there were times it was too preachy and I thought there wasn't enough of a transition when George started using female pronouns. While I know kids can often be a lot more accepting than adults at times, I thought it was confusing when George immediately started using "she" without necessarily explaining all that was going on. As an adult I understood it, but I thought kids reading the book might be confused. I also just didn't like the characters all that much (and I started to wonder if I just wasn't liking books for this age group, not just this one).

So I decided to also pick up Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky. I know this didn't fit the challenge, but it was a similar topic with the main character Grayson coming to terms that he has been a girl all along, and how to move forward with that information. This book also uses the school play as the way to bring Grayson's identity out in the open, and again deal with bullies, non-understanding family and more accepting fellow students. This book I loved. Even though it is labeled as a children's book, it is set in a high school and I don't know if that made the difference or if the writing style and character development was just more advanced or what. I cried at multiple times, and really cared about these characters.

Picking a banned book was actually harder than I thought it would be. I was a middle school librarian for twelve years, and each year put together a whole book talk and unit about banned books and censorship. I've actually read a fair number of the books on the most frequently challenged books list that the American Library Association puts together. I settled on Gennifer Choldenko's Al Capone Does My Shirts. I know you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but I have definitely judged this book by it's title—I just had zero interest and thought it was going to be a goofy waste of time. Lesson learned once again - don't judge a book by it's title either!

The story is set in the 1930's when Moose's father takes a job as a guard on Alcatraz so Moose's sister can attend a special school nearby. The author did a lot of research (resources listed at the end of the story) to show what life really was like for the kids living on Alcatraz. Moose's sister needs to go to a special school because she is on the autism spectrum as we would call it today. But there wasn't a term for it at that time, and Moose and his family and the other kids on the island need to figure out how to help Natalie navigate through her day to minimize the breakdowns and outbursts she has. This book was surprisingly thoughtful and thought provoking. And yes, Al Capone does have an important role to play in this story—just read the book to discover it!

Betsy - I also read a book that’s been challenged or banned in the past – Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale. I have to admit I’ve never read it before. It is timeless and haunting and incredibly thought-provoking and well-written. I’ve read a few of Atwood’s other novels, but this is without question her masterpiece. The new television show—while slightly different in that it takes place in 2017 and goes into more of the characters' past and future—is gorgeously successful at capturing the deep sense of terror embedded in the book. The work is a tour de force in its own right. The novel set the stage for powerful imagery, however, making it the most engaging and moving work I’ve read this year.   

As I looked for a book with a central immigration narrative, I stumbled upon We Crossed A Bridge and It Trembled - a devastating, heart-wrenching account of the lead-up to Syrian displacement. It is based on interviews and broken down into different historical segments, along with an overview of what was going on during each time period.

First person accounts begin with Hafez al-Assad’s authoritarian rule from 1970-2000. He set up a single party security state, a foreboding military establishment referred to as “the regime” – a real-life version of the terror found in The Handmaid’s Tale. Elections were a fraud, “schools and state-controlled media taught people what they could and could not say…Networks of covert informants policed society and encouraged it to police itself.” Children were taught to whisper because the “walls have ears.” When al-Assad died in 2000, his 34-year-old son Bashar took over. As power and wealth became concentrated in a narrow elite, inflation, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure and service cutbacks contributed to rising rates of poverty and sparked the Syrian revolution in 2010. Protests lead to mass imprisonment and torture for those who spoke out. By 2013, the government was dropping chemical weapons on its own people, 80 percent were living in poverty, and most children had stopped attending school.

Fleeing was the only option and yet migrants faced new atrocities in refugee camps as more and more countries refused to take them in. “As of the end of 2016, more than half of Syria’s prewar population of 22 million had been forced from their homes…The decision to flee was often a painful one. Refugees’ first stop outside Syria was usually one of the countries on its borders. There life was defined by precariousness, temporariness.” This book is a powerful account that gives voice to those who have been silenced for so long and humanizes the faces the world has turned away.

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Here are some handy links to help you follow this challenge all year long.

Find out about the Read Harder Challenge and print out your own form to keep track of your reading:

Get reading ideas for each of the challenges from library staff and the Tucson reading community:

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