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Toni Morrison once called the practice of banning books a “purist, yet elementary type of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children”.
Morrison was opposing a proposed “Huckleberry Finn” ban by Mark Twain, shortly before his death in 2019. It’s probably safe to assume that she would also offer harsh words about the removal of his own novel, ” The Bluest Eye”, and a number of others from school libraries in Wentzville, Missouri.
That particular book ban, enacted in January, is now the focus of a lawsuit filed against the Wentzville School District by the ACLU of Missouri. Leading the charge is a group of high school students who argue they have a right to read these books – and that the school is unconstitutionally targeting works by “racial or sexual minorities”.
Efforts to prevent students from reading certain books have rapidly escalated in the name of “parents’ rights”, and despite national attention, the anti-reading movement shows no signs of abating. Last week in Missouri, Attorney General Eric Schmitt created an online platform to make it easier for parents to report to the state what they consider to be objectionable books and lessons.
It’s easy to find lists of disputed books. But what about a list of books so good, so crucial to understanding the world and the various people and stories in it, that do not reading them would be the real parody?
Books so powerfully relatable that the inability to access them is the real threat to student well-being?
After all, once you’ve immersed yourself in someone else’s perspective, your view of the world doesn’t shrink to its previous size. And I consider that to be a good thing.
I reached out to some of the smartest Kansas citizens I know to help compile such a list for today’s youth.
These are the books they recommended. It’s far from a complete guide for self-education, but it’s a great place to start.
Sonia Warshawski: Holocaust survivor
In her longtime tailoring shop in Metcalf South Mall, Sonia Warshawski has been given the nickname Big Sonia – for the size of her personality, not her physical stature. Warshawski is a Holocaust survivor and the subject of a documentary, “Big Sonia”, directed by her granddaughter.
In 1942, when Warshawski was 17, she was sent to a Polish ghetto, then later taken by train to a concentration camp. There she saw her mother go into a gas chamber and never come out.
When Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust survival memoir “Maus” was banned from Tennessee schools, people expressed outrage. Educational circles seemed to show a preference for sanitized accounts of the Holocaust from onlookers, outright rejecting the stories of those who experienced the concentration camps first-hand.
Warshawski tells his own story in colleges, prisons and film festivals. In fact, she gets so many requests for reading recommendations that her list was ready before I asked. Here are a few:
Vladimir Sainte: author, therapist and social worker
Growing up in Queens, New York, Vladimir Sainte was a handful by his own admission. Not knowing what to do with him, Sainte’s Haitian parents sent him to live with an uncle in Kansas City. Now he works at University Health (formerly Truman Medical Center), helping young people struggling with anxiety and behavioral issues — just as he once did.
One of his favorite methods is bibliotherapy – the use of literature to help a person to externalize their own dilemmas and hopefully see themselves differently. But Sainte began to encounter clinical situations requiring books that he could not find.
He told me about a brown-skinned child who wanted so desperately to change this aspect of himself that he started trying to remove it – using sandpaper. This child’s struggle to feel comfortable in his own skin prompted Sainte to start writing books himself.
“When I think of books that I would urgently want to get into the hands of young people in our community, I immediately think of books with a focus on mental health and race,” Sainte says.
Debbie Pettid: purveyor of irreverent children’s books
Known for her 30 years as owner and operator of the Reading Reptile – a playful and iconoclastic children’s bookstore first located in Westport, then in Brookside – Debbie Pettid now builds exhibits for The Rabbit hOle, her future literature museum for children. children.
One of his recommendations – “Hole In My Life” by Jack Gantos – is a memoir about dealing drugs and getting caught. Pettid acknowledges that this is an unconventional background for a children’s book author. But she thinks it’s important for young people to see someone make a mistake, be responsible for it, and then grow.
“One event shouldn’t define your whole life,” she says.
Dorothy and James McField: former owners of The Hub bookstore
More than 45 years ago, a bookstore called The Hub was the place to go in Kansas City if you wanted to get your hands on black literature and history — the kind not available at owned bookstores. to whites and which is not yet taught in schools.
Owners Dorothy and James McField — a married couple — told KCUR that the idea for The Hub grew out of a casual conversation between friends thinking about what their Kansas City, Kansas, community needed. The McFields suggested a bookstore.
“And they all laughed at us,” James recalled then. “‘Where are you going to put it?’ they wondered. ‘5th and Quindaro!’ And they laughed harder.
The couple sent out reading recommendations for young people looking to get informed today, but they struggled to narrow down their list. “It’s really hard to choose,” Dorothy wrote.
Natasha Ria El-Scari: poet, educator and gallery owner
Natasha Ria El-Scari is not afraid of taboos; she once wrote a manifesto about the importance of mothers talking to their sons about sex.
It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that all of the books recommended by El-Scari have been banned or challenged at some point. But that’s not why she wants young people to read them.
El-Scari describes Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” as “a triumph of the human spirit” and a representation of “what unconditional love looks like”. She calls “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin “probably one of the most beautiful and frustrating books of all time”.
Suzanne Hogan: podcaster, bike mechanic and bassist
You probably know Suzanne Hogan as the producer and host of KCUR Studios’ A People’s History of Kansas City. But she also has plenty of other claims to fame in town. Hogan was one of the original founders of the 816 Bike Collective, and she is a touring musician with a punk band.
Knowing that Hogan is building a personal library of Kansas City history books, I asked if there was anything in his treasure trove that should be required reading at local high schools. She immediately thought of a book: “Racism in Kansas City: A Short History” by GS Griffin.
“I’ve read a lot of Kansas City history books, and not all of them are — how to put it nicely — easy to digest? They can be quite difficult to skim,” Hogan says.
But she says Griffin’s book is an exception, adding that racism is an important part of our city’s history, one that she doesn’t think students have enough of a chance to explore.
Hogan’s other recommendation is a novel that stood out to her, back when she was in high school
Izzy Wasserstein: science fiction writer
“We live in an age of science fiction,” wrote Izzy Wasserstein in a 2020 op-ed in the Kansas Reflector.
The Kansas-based writer argued that science fiction can’t really help us predict the future, but it can help us overcome the surreal challenges of the present: climate change, a global pandemic, political upheavals.
“Science fiction is the literature of the human species in the face of change,” Wasserstein wrote. “It doesn’t tell us what tomorrow holds, but it does help us see how we might survive and even thrive in these dangerous times.”
In 2022, Wasserstein draws our attention to a handful of particularly useful titles, including “The Four Profound Weaves,” by RM Lemberg. A cover text calls this book “the anti-authoritarian, queer-mystical fairy tale we need right now.”
Adib Khorram: YA fiction writer
Adib Khorram has just published a book which he says will be challenged if not banned. His other books have already done so. And more? “It’s very gay,” he explains nonchalantly.
Khorram himself grew up queer and Iranian in the Midwest in the 1980s and 1990s. And he would have loved to see himself in the books he read in school, but he never did.
Khorram is part of a larger movement in YA fiction to correct this, for children of many backgrounds and identities. He also keeps abreast of new authors and books in the genre. For a recommended reading list, Khorram tells me about “Strange Grace,” by Tessa Gratton, another local author.
“It’s set in a kind of fantasy little town where nothing bad happens except that every seven years they literally sacrifice one of their children to a forest. It’s really a story about how young people are often responsible for fixing the mistakes of their elders,” says Khorram. “And if that’s not a perfect metaphor for what’s happening now.”
Khorram also commends Alex London’s “Proxy” as a reflection on the digital landscape, as well as what Khorram calls “death stage capitalism.”
This is, of course, a list that could go on forever. All the books people deserve to be able to read would require an entire library – and that’s the point.
But I know this list will have me reading for quite a while.