Five years ago I met a girl just a month shy of her 13th birthday. I call her Pickle.
I have her mother to thank for the big sister/little sister relationship we’ve forged. It was her idea to bring us together. We had some similarities: biracial, music lovers, curly hair, avid book readers. But the thing about mentoring is that bonding isn’t always instantaneous. You work at the connection. Ours started with playlists and books. This little girl sent me music and asked me to read her favorite books.
One of the first: “Looking for Alaska,” by John Green. That is the book that opened the door to meaningful conversations that have taught me just as much, if not more, than they’ve taught her.
Last year, it was one of the most challenged books in America. Why would anyone want to ban this award-winning literary gem? Because it illustrates real life hurdles teens face: drugs, alcohol, sex. This week, the American Library Association and readers everywhere celebrate Banned Books Week to support the freedom to read.
You may know John Green as the author behind the brilliance of “The Fault in Our Stars,” but it was his debut novel, the captivating story of Miles “Pudge” Halter, Alaska Young and Chip, that made me love him. It never occurred to me that the book I read with my little sister would be called inappropriate by some. Her mama read it. I read it.
Its exploration of friendship and death gave me a real insight into the kid I was lucky enough to have in my life. It was written with no hard filters — like I said, it talks about the hard stuff teens go through. So it let us talk to each other about those same things. She lost a loved one. She was turning 13. Questions of identity, relationships and more stormed into her life. And she let me in.
Now she’s almost 18. A senior in high school, she is about to make her own path. Conversations come easy when we hang out. But it started with that book. When I told her “Looking for Alaska” was a recurring member of the banned books list, she was bummed.
“It just means that conservative administrations are afraid of their students,” she says. “What those kids did in that book was nothing new. Teenagers have and always will partake in shenanigans; banning a book can’t stop that. But going beyond that, the book has more substance to it than it’s credited for. I used it to cope with a death of a close family friend.”
Censorship can hinder us from exploring literary adventures that help us forge friendships and gain a greater understanding of ourselves. It reminds me of a passage in “Looking for Alaska”:
When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old.
We grow up and we get scared of everything — so much so that we try to censor and restrict real life. But that kind of fear keeps us from evolving. Channel your inner teen, that wild abandon that leads to mistakes and important lessons. Read a banned book. It might just change your life.
TOP BANNED BOOKS OF 2013
From the American Library Association:
1. “Captain Underpants” series, by Dav Pilkey
2. “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison
3. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie
4. “Fifty Shades of Grey,” by E.L. James
5. “The Hunger Games,” by Suzanne Collins
6. “A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl,” by Tanya Lee Stone
7. “Looking for Alaska,” by John Green
8. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky
9. “Bless Me Ultima,” by Rudolfo Anaya
10. “Bone” series, by Jeff Smith