The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

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“The truth is, if you want to be a Model Brewster Student, you have to dress a certain way (preppy/urban/chic) and look a certain way (white/skinny/flawless skin). Except, of course, when Brewster is taking pictures for their promotional books. Then the Model Brewster Student is black/Asian/Latino/Indian/biracial, but still skinny and without a zit in sight.”

Genre: Fiction, Bildungsroman

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Virginia Shreves has a larger-than-average body and a plus-size inferiority complex. She lives on the Web, snarfs junk food, and obeys the ‘Fat Girl Code of Conduct.’ Then there are the other Shreveses: Mom is an exercise fiend and adolescent psychologist; Dad, when not jet-setting, or golfing in Connecticut, ogles skinny women on TV; and older siblings Byron and Anais are slim, brilliant, and impossible to live up to. Delete Virginia, and the Shreveses are a picture-perfect family… until a phone call changes everything.”

Review: The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things ended up being a really pleasant surprise for me. I remember this book being quite popular when I was in middle school, but I didn’t got around to reading it until now. I thoroughly enjoyed following Virginia’s personal progression throughout the novel; Carolyn Mackler did an excellent job in creating a relatable heroine, one that you end up genuinely rooting for. Indeed, Virginia has such an endearing way of interacting with and processing the people and events in her life. Through Virginia, Mackler is able to tackle some tricky subjects (i.e., body image, self-harm, sexuality, date rape) in a tasteful and respectful manner. While the book does get off to bit of a slow start, Virginia’s journey from self-conscious misfit to confident, outgoing daughter and student makes this book a quick and enjoyable read. I’m not alone in my praise for this book either; in addition to other accolades, The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things was named the 2004 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, a 2004 American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults, and the International Reading Association’s 2005 Young Adults’ Choice.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: This book has been banned in multiple schools (particularly middle schools) for sexual content, profane language, and ‘anti-family’ content. In response to these bans, particularly to a superintendent’s decision to ban the book from an entire school district (a decision that was later reversed after over 350 students signed a petition to bring the book back), Carolyn Mackler had this to say:

“Virginia stands up to a family who really treat her badly. If that’s anti-family, I’m okay with that. A lot of teen novels have similar situations. I don’t think it’s more or less graphic than other teenage books.”

I would have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with her.

Rating:

Four_Star

Blubber by Judy Blume

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“You sometimes have to make the first move or else you might wind up like Linda – letting other people decide what’s going to happen to you.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis:Blubber is a good name for her, the note from Wendy says about Linda. Jill crumples it up and leaves it on the corner of her desk. She doesn’t want to think about Linda or her dumb report on whales just now. Jill wants to think about Halloween. But then Robby grabs the note, and before Linda is done talking, it has gone halfway around the room. That’s where it all starts. There’s something about Linda that makes a lot of kids in her fifth-grade class want to see how far they can go – but nobody, least of all Jill, expects the fun to end where it does.”

Review: I have never read Blubber before, but I did read other Judy Blume books when I was younger and enjoyed many of them. However, I think that Blubber falls short in a few different ways. While the book is marketed as an anti-bullying children’s novel, it fails to actually push an anti-bullying message. For example, when Jill Brenner (the main character) decides to cancel the trial against Linda/Blubber (who has been locked in a closet by her peers), she doesn’t do so because she realizes that what her and her classmates are doing is wrong. Instead, she cancels the trial because it isn’t formatted exactly how she wants it to be. Even when the class turns against Jill and starts bullying her, it doesn’t cause her to reflect on how unkindly she treated Linda. Jill is upset that her peers no longer like her, but ultimately the bullying stops and the book ends with everyone in the same position they started in: Jill has a few close friends, Wendy (the main antagonist) is still the leader of a small clique, and Linda/Blubber is isolated and friendless once again. Overall, I do not necessarily see a lot of merit in this book, as far as having a positive influence on young kids goes.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: Blubber has been banned and challenged in multiple classrooms for a variety of reasons, including ‘lack of moral tone’ (Montgomery County, Maryland) and for allowing ‘evil behavior’ to go unpunished (Canton, Ohio). It also contains some swear words and racial slurs.

Rating:

Two_Star

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

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“A waiter takes our drink order – the same one who couldn’t locate the ice – and I find myself saying things, without listening to Jean, like ‘Protecting the ozone layer is a really cool idea’ and telling knock-knock jokes.”

Genre: Transgressive Fiction, Thriller

Book Jacket Synopsis: Patrick Bateman is handsome, well educated, intelligent. He works by day on Wall Street, earning a fortune to complement the one he was born with. His nights he spends in ways we cannot begin to fathom. He is twenty-six years old and living his own American dream.

Review: I hate this book. In fact, I hate this book more than any other book I have ever read. I had my own personal crisis on page 132 of 399, right after Patrick murders a homeless man and cripples a stray dog; at that point, I honestly didn’t know if I would be able to finish American Psycho. After a lengthy internal debate, however, I realized that the whole point of this blog is to give each book a fair shot and to step out of my literary comfort zone. The good news: I was able to finish this book (a big accomplishment for me). The bad news: I truly hated every minute of reading it. This is by far the most graphic novel I have ever read. If the way Patrick and his yuppie friends treat women, minorities, animals, and the homeless isn’t enough of a turn off, then the extremely graphic murder and rape scenes definitely are. AND on a side note, I know that Ellis’ lengthy descriptions of the outfits people wear and the music they listen to is supposed to “impress” me and signify the demise of important values, but is was honestly just boring. I would never recommend this book to anyone. Ever.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: The reasons that schools (and actually entire countries) typically ban American Pyscho are unsurprising to anyone who has read the book. In brief, this novel not only contains extremely graphic scenes of rape and murder, but is also rife with racist and bigoted remarks. Indeed, some countries deem American Psycho to be so disturbing that it can only be sold shrink-wrapped and cannot be purchased by anyone under the age of 18. American Psycho also gained bad press when it was revealed that real-life serial killer Paul Bernardo considered the book to be his “bible.” While I am glad that I live in a country where I have free access to this book through my local library, I have to reiterate that the content was extremely disturbing and I would caution any reader who is interested in this novel.

Rating:

One_Star

 

James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl

“‘But they are all of them loved?’ said James. ‘Yes,’ the Ladybug answered quietly. ‘They are all of them loved.'”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure

Synopsis: When James Henry Trotter’s parents are killed in a tragic rhinoceros attack, he is sent to live with his horrible aunts, Sponge and Spiker. After three years of abuse and mistreatment, his luck finally turns around when a mysterious old man bequeaths him with some crystals guaranteed to cause “magical, fabulous, unbelievable” things to happen. When James accidentally drops the magical crystals beneath an old peach tree in his yard, the first peach in decades begins to grow, only stopping when it is the size of a house. Inside, James meets a variety of new, over-sized insect friends. With a snip of the peach stem, James and his friends roll away from his lonely life and towards adventure.

Review: While I saw the movie version of James and the Giant Peach as a child, I’ve actually never read the book up until now. As a big fan of Roald Dahl (especially Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and Matilda), I was excited to finally get to this classic. I did enjoy watching James’ transformation  from miserable, lonely child to capable, beloved problem-solver. I also liked the different personalities of each of the insects, as well as the creativity and imagination that Dahl infused into the story. Overall, I think that kids will love the fantastical elements and sense of adventure, and that most of the semi-inappropriate character comments (see below) will go over their heads. I rated James and the Giant Peach three stars, however, because it is definitely not my favorite Dahl book. I did find some of the prose off-putting and mildly offensive. And I wish that Dahl had given a little more backstory on each of the insects, as they are perhaps the best part of the novel.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: Because James and the Giant Peach occasionally has grim and potentially frightening content (such as when Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker are killed or when the peach plummets towards New York City), it has often faced opposition from parents. From 1990 – 2000, James and the Giant Peach ranked 56th on the the American Library Association list of the 100 most frequently challenged books. Reasons for the ban have also included that the book references drugs and alcohol, contains inappropriate language (the word “ass” is used several times), encourages disobedience to parents, contains racially-charged remarks, and exhibits “magical elements.” In all fairness, I did cringe when the Old-Green-Grasshopper said, “I’d rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican!” But I would definitely like to challenge any book challenge that is based on the presence of “magical elements.” Fantasy is a genre, people! “Magical elements” are the whole point. Overall, I think that the pros of this book will far outweigh the very few cons.

Rating:

Three_Star

 

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

“Everyone’s daemon instantly became warlike: each child was accompanied by fangs, or claws, or bristling fur, and Pantalaimon, contemptuous of the limited imaginations of these gyptian daemons, became a dragon the size of a deer hound.”

Genre: Fantasy, Adventure

Book Jacket Synopsis: Lyra Belacqua is content to run wild among the scholars of Jordan College, with her daemon familiar, Pantalaimon, always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle – a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. And as she hurtles toward danger in the cold far North, Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she alone is destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle.

Review: Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I am a lover of fantasy fiction. I think it takes immense skill as a writer to create entire worlds and universes from scratch. For that reason, I have a lot of respect and admiration for Pullman because the parallel universe he creates in The Golden Compass is incredibly intricate. I really loved the different subcultures his readers were introduced to, from the comradery of the gyptian families to the solitary lives of the panserbjørne (sentient, armored, polar bear-like creatures). And Lyra Belacqua certainly makes for a complex, lovable, intriguing heroine. I also have to commend Pullman on his idea of the human-daemon bond; indeed, I finished The Golden Compass wishing that I had my own daemon and contemplating what form it would likely take. That being said, my rating is somewhat lower than I would have expected given my affinity for the fantasy genre. Oddly enough, I finished this book without any immediate desire to read the rest of the series. While Lyra and her companions undertook many different adventures, I felt like The Golden Compass definitely suffered from a disjointed feeling when it moved from one adventure to the next. While I definitely won’t rule out finishing the series eventually, I feel no pressing need to get the next book.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: Since its first publication in 1995, The Golden Compass has faced plenty of opposition. In this book, one of the main entities that directly opposes Lyra is the Church (which shares many structural similarities with the Catholic Church); the unfavorable depiction of this Church has led many religious organizations to call for bans of the book. The vendetta against The Golden Compass reached new levels of animosity in 2007, when the movie version first hit theaters. Primary opposer, the Catholic League (an anti-defamation group), declared that both the book and the movie promoted atheism and attacked Christianity. And Pullman certainly didn’t assuage those feelings when he gave his own opinion on religion:

“I think my position would be that throughout human history, the greatest moral advances have been made by religious leaders such as Jesus and the Buddha. And the greatest moral wickedness has been perpetrated by their followers. How many millions of people have been killed in the name of this religion or that one? Burnt, hanged, tortured. It’s just extraordinary.”

However, critics are missing the point of The Golden Compass when they focus solely on its portrayal of religion. Indeed, Lyra and her companions have no shortage of faith, courage, or kindness: admirable qualities by any standards. Altogether, I see The Golden Compass as being more a depiction of the depravity and oppression that can result from religion gone wrong, as opposed to a direct attack on any specific religion.

Rating:

Three_Star

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

“She wasn’t bitter. She was sad, though. But it was a hopeful kind of sad. The kind of sad that just takes time.”

Genre: Fiction, Bildungsroman

Synopsis: Told through a series of letters to an anonymous pen pal, The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows introverted narrator Charlie through his freshman year of high school. Set in Pittsburgh (my hometown, woot woot!) during the early 1990s, the novel explores many different themes of adolescence (friendship, sexuality, drug usage, introversion) through the eyes of the shy, unpopular, intelligent narrator.

Review: I have actually been meaning to get to The Perks of Being a Wallflower for quite some time now, so I was really excited when I saw that it had made it onto the  banned/challenged book list. And I have to say, this book did not disappoint. Personally, I can usually gauge the success of a book based on how many pages I have dog-eared by the end. These pages contain quotes and passages that, for one reason or another, struck a chord with me. The Perks of Being a Wallflower had many, many pages dog-eared by the time I finished it. While some of these pages held the quotes that this book is well known for (“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”), there were also quite a few pages that stood out to me simply because Chbosky summarized his character’s feelings in such genuine and relatable ways. For example, one of the last things that Charlie writes to his mysterious pen pal is the following:

“I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won’t tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because it wouldn’t change the fact that they were upset. And even if somebody else has it much worse, that doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have.”

I TOTALLY agree with Charlie on this one. I’ve even tried to put this exact feeling into words before and failed spectacularly. While I do believe that we should try to be thoughtful, altruistic people as much as possible, I also know that one of the most frustrating things to be told when you’re really upset is that others have it worse. Overall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower had many moments where I thought, “Yes! Exactly.” Which, in my book (pun intended) sums up to a great read. The evolving relationships Charlie has with his family and new friends make for some very heartwarming and heartbreaking moments (that feel all too real at times). And there’s a twist! I love a book with a good plot twist.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: From 2001-2014, The Perks of Being a Wallflower appeared on the American Library Association’s “Top Ten Frequently Challenged Book List” for seven different years. The reasoning was pretty predictable: book content includes drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit scenes, date rape, masturbation, religious viewpoints, suicide, nudity (SERIOUSLY? I don’t know how a book completely devoid of pictures can be challenged on the basis of nudity), and is unsuited for the age group. Overall, it’s a load of horseshit. I think the majority of teenagers would be positively impacted by this book, because of (not in spite of) the content and the way it is conveyed.

Rating:

Four_Star

Bonus: I found a Buzzfeed article titled “19 Banned Books if They Were Made Appropriate” (http://www.buzzfeed.com/juliapugachevsky/banned-books-if-they-were-g-rated#.oh3oNwL0b). It’s definitely worth a look if you want a good laugh. And the author’s treatment of The Perks of Being a Wallflower was excellent:

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Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes

“The sparklers were as white as diamonds. They were like white hot chrysanthemums dripping onto the sand.”

Genre: Fiction

Book Jacket Synopsis: “Olive Barstow was dead. She’d been hit by a car on Monroe Street while riding her bicycle weeks ago. That was about all Martha knew.” Martha Boyle and Olive Barstow could have been friends. But they weren’t – and now all that is left are eerie connections between two girls who were in the same grade at school and who both kept the same secret without knowing it. Now Martha can’t stop thinking about Olive. A family summer on Cape Cod should help banish those thoughts; instead, they seep in everywhere. And this year Martha’s routine at her beloved grandmother’s beachside house is complicated by the Manning boys. Jimmy, Tate, Todd, Luke, and Leo. But especially Jimmy. What if, what if, what if, what if? The world can change in a minute.

Review: I’ll preface this review by saying that I have read this book before, albeit a decade ago, when I was roughly the same age as the novel’s 12-year-old heroine, Martha Boyle. I loved Olive’s Ocean then and I love it now. While the jacket synopsis overemphasizes the relevance of Olive and Martha’s “eerie connections,” it also under-emphasizes the real charm of this book: the relationships Martha shares with her family, particularly with her grandmother and two-year-old sister. Those relationships make for many perfectly nuanced moments, aided by Henkes’ captivating writing style and ability to capture the confusion and tumult that is synonymous with pre-teen years. And the subtle ways in which Olive Barstow is woven into the story make for a very powerful read.

Reason for Ban/Challenge: Olive’s Ocean was ranked 59th on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most challenged books from 2000 to 2009 for having “sexually explicit content and offensive language.” Aside from an extremely brief mention of “morning sex” by Martha’s teenage brother, the most “sexually explicit” thing that happens in this book is a kiss. The details of said kiss do not extend beyond, “Now. He. Kissed. Her.” Truly traumatizing stuff. To be honest, I expected the challenge reasoning to be that the death of the young, titular character was inappropriate for the target audience. However, Henkes handles Olive’s death in a manner that is both respectful and approachable even to young demographics.

Rating:

Four_Star