Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Fastest Kid in the Fifth Grade - (Celebrating Banned Books Week)

This week in my 8th-Grade Literature class we’ve been recognizing Banned Books Week – a celebration of children’s freedom to read and a campaign against censorship in our schools and libraries. It’s been a fun project, prompting some passionate discussions when students found some of their favorite titles on the ALA's list of banned or challenged books from the past decade. For myself, I’m always floored, and rather heartbroken, to see these lists of much-treasured books, including titles, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, There Eyes Were Watching God, Beloved, Huckleberry Finn, and, well … the list is seemingly endless.

Although the week is nearly over, I’ve spent more than a few thoughtful moments in these recent days reflecting upon how some of these books have influenced me – how I might not be the same person if not for the experiences these books gave me. And so I thought I’d wave my banned books flag one last time on this, its last day.

Via Nathan Bransford's blog: Young Adult Fiction author T.H Mafi is writing a review of her favorite banned book, The Giver, and encouraging other writers to write their own “banned book” reviews. She’s compiled a list of all the reviews, and I’ve decided to join the ranks.

Following is my review of the banned book Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson.

I’ve always known that I loved Bridge to Terabithia, a children’s book about an unlikely friendship between a boy and a girl in rural Virginia. I can’t remember how old I was when my mom first read this story to me and my older sister, but I know I was too young to be capable of reading it myself. One reason I knew it was a good book is that it made my mother cry. I’d beg her to read it to me again and again. Although she indulged me often, she would also frequently steer me to other books because it was just too sad for her.

When I was finally old enough to read it myself, it became a book I returned to often, even once it was far below my reading level. The same hardcover copy still claims a space on my bookshelf – tattered cover, and sticker inside declaring “This Book Belongs to” and then my name, written carefully in an 8-year-old’s cursive.

As a kid, I probably couldn’t have told you why the story captivated me so much, but I had a few revelations about that during this week’s reflections. Looking back now, as an adult, I can only think of course this is the most treasured book from my childhood! It makes perfect sense.

Jesse Aarons is a shy 5th-grade boy who loves to run. His family is not well-off, and he spends most of his summer doing chores on their farm, and getting up early to run. He is determined to be the fastest kid in the fifth grade.

When he is beaten on the first day of school by the new kid, a girl, Jesse and Leslie soon become friends. Leslie is many of the things that Jesse is not – outgoing, enthusiastic, hopeful, and full of imagination and a longing for adventure. Together, she and Jesse create their own imaginary kingdom of Terabithia where they can rule and leave behind the troubles of school and parents.

Patterson does an incredible job of creating appealing characters with a great deal of depth. It was in thinking about the characters that I finally recognized the heartstrings that tie me to this book: Jesse and Leslie feel exactly like the two halves of my own self.

Jesse – the shy artist who craves more than his simple farm life has offered him so far, who has so much fear, who finds solace in his running and lets it fuel his dreams.

Leslie – the outgoing lover of learning who runs faster than all the boys, who has a vivid imagination and a passion for adventure.

Leslie feels like the exterior me, and Jesse more like the interior, but they’re both there. Always. Perhaps this is as much about the person I am as it is about the book, but certainly it is the sign of a talented writer when she can create characters with whom a reader so passionately identifies.

I find beauty in the innocent friendship between a boy and a girl – the kind of friendship that doesn’t often translate easily into the complexities of adulthood. I also find that the way the characters handle the tragedy that befalls them, although painful to read, is an incredible lesson about growing up and dealing with life’s deepest fears. For these reasons I think this book will continue to rise above the attempts at censorship and remain a classic love for many children and adults.


  1. Ah, yes, I remember this book. We read it in the 4th grade I think...or was it 3rd? Anywho, I remember really enjoying it, along with most of the books you listed at the beginning of your post. I can't believe they are banned books, I had no idea!

  2. When I was in grad school, the local bookstore ran specials on Bannd Books (loved that). I was absolutely shocked to find out that at that particular university, if you wanted to check out "Venus In Fur" from the library, you had to get prior consent from a member of the Psychology Dept.!

  3. Easily one of my childhood faves. I need to revisit it, fo' sho'. Thanks for the reminder!

  4. Paige - Keep a box of kleenex handy. Seriously. But it IS such good stuff!

    Steve - A note from the psych department? At a university? Wow. Even weirder, I wonder why it was okay just because the shrinks said so.

    Russ - You're welcome. :) And ditto what I said to Paige.

  5. Oddly, I never read this book. When I was a kid, I knew how it ended and didn't think I could take the sadness. But maybe I'm wrong. I'm thinking I should pull it out and read it with my kids now.

    My favorite was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I wore that book out!

  6. I went back through the list of books. What was objectionable about "Snow Falling On Cedars?" I wonder. The really objectionable stuff just isn't popular enough to make the list; Kathy Acker's "Blood and Guts in High School" for example.

    The names of the blogs that did reviews have me once again wanting to change my blog's name. "Three Dead Moths in My Mailbox" is perfect.

  7. I could never understand the concept of banning books. The effect is just opposite, it draws more attention. I would rather talk, discuss the issues than avoid them.

  8. This book was banned?? Unbelievable. This was one I didn't discover until adulthood (and shamefully, not until after seeing the movie), but it's absolutely a classic, and I loved everything about it. Except, you know, for that sad thing that happens. That pretty much sucked.

    P.S. your school year reading list inspired me to give The Outsiders to my son this year - I'll let you know how he likes it.

  9. Pam - It's a great read-aloud! If you do get around to reading it, let me know how you like it.

    Steve - You're right about the popularity of the books being such a factor. No one's going to try to ban something that the library isn't even stocking in the first place. And regarding the blog titles - yeah, writers sometimes have a good sense of humor.

    Ewa - That was definitely one of the points brought up by my students in discussion. I get frustrated knowing that people think they're protecting children by banning books, when really they're just hurting their education. Literature is the best place to experience, and discuss, some of the hardest things in life.

    Donald - The reasons I found for banning this book were language (Jess says "Oh Lord" and "Lordy." Pretty shameful, right?) and the imaginary world of Terabithia was too akin to whitchcraft. Um ... yeah. Shame on kids for using their imaginations! Please think only INside the box!

    Sweet, I inspired some reading choices! I'll forward you all my discussion questions for The Outsiders. (Kidding!) But do let me know how he likes it.

  10. banning books .. what a sad state of affairs that is.

  11. Chris - No kidding. I always think of it as something that happened back in the 50's. To realize it is still going on ... well, it's disheartening, for sure. That's why I think the whole "Banned Books Week" is pretty cool - it brings awareness.