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The Better Book Club

Rather than ban books, let’s find alternatives

Marjorie Ingall
April 19, 2010
(Photo collage by Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)
(Photo collage by Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine)

Last week, I talked about the tsuris over the book The Shepherd’s Granddaughter; which some Canadian Jewish organizations want to ban from school libraries and remove from the Ontario Library Association’s recommended reading list. The dozens of fiery comments and letters the story generated proved that there’s plenty more to be said on this subject.

What should we do when faced with a literary work that makes us want to scream like a mandrake in a Harry Potter novel (No. 1 on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently banned books of the last decade, by the way)?

First, read the book. Screaming about the content and dangers of something you haven’t read is lunacy. My reaction to The Shepherd’s Granddaughter: The story is so broad and the characters so simplistic and nuance-free, it’s more like a Balinese puppet play than a fully realized novel. It’s also written in a sonorous, self-important tone that would have annoyed me as a 7th grader. I liked books with strong characterization, ethical shading, and humor—qualities this book lacks completely. As an adult, I found this book infuriating and distressing, but it’s worth considering that a kid unfamiliar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may simply be bored and irked.

OK, you say, but what if my kid does read it? Take a deep breath. When we get shrill and hyperbolic and demonize any book—just as when we go all Reefer Madness about drug education or insist that every act of premarital sex leads to AIDS, pregnancy, warts, and demon babies with gills—we’re missing an opportunity for education. If the kid reads a book like The Shepherd’s Granddaughter and doesn’t become a suicide bomber, we’ve proven ourselves to be clueless and untrustworthy as authority figures. We’ve closed the door to open, honest discussion.

And remember, we parents do have influence over our kids. If Josie, my 8-year-old, brought The Shepherd’s Granddaughter home from the library, I’d have a conversation with her about its bias. It’s part of my job as a parent. How do novels differ from history? Does fiction have an obligation to tell everyone’s story? Josie and I had a tough talk about Little House on the Prairie, which features some mighty racist words about Indians. We had it about Dr. Dolittle, which treats Africans like buffoons. Great swaths of classic children’s literature come from a place of bias or privilege. It doesn’t mean we don’t read those books. It means we talk about them.

I hear you saying, “Stupid naïve mother! Your child is 8! Get back to me when she’s a teenager!” I do know we can’t police all the culture—music, movies, books—our children will ever consume. But by the time they’re in junior high or high school, they should know our values on controversial subjects. That too is part of the parental job assignment. If our kids don’t know what we believe, that’s our fault. No book can trump years of parenting.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of course, is a particularly complicated subject for any parent to tackle. So, I asked a dozen or so Jewish librarians for their recommendations of middle-grade and young adult books that offer perspective without inducing narcolepsy. Here goes:

Samir and Yonatan, by Daniella Carmi. This book is perfectly appropriate for 7th and 8th graders. It’s told from the perspective of a Palestinian boy who befriends an Israeli boy while both are in the hospital. The writing is lyrical but also readable, with a lot of engaging dialogue.

Running on Eggs, by Anna Levine. This book, unfortunately out of print but available at many libraries and from used booksellers, is also fine for middle-schoolers. An Israeli and an Arab girl in Galilee become friends thanks to their shared love of running. As an American, I’m not sure how realistic the book is, so I asked my Israeli editor. He said, “The portrayal of an Israel with a track team of Arabs and Jews sounds like West Side Story’s version of New York City gang life: It’s technically possible that some thugs move in perfect choreography and resolve their differences in song and finger-snapping, but the reality is likely darker.” Duly noted.

Real Time, by Pnina Moed Kass. This frenetic, lightning-paced, scary, cinematic story made me feel like an old person. In other words, teenagers will love it. Several characters with different backgrounds, on different emotional journeys, board a bus that is subsequently bombed by a terrorist. Each entry has a time-stamp, like on 24. The narrative shifts rapidly among the German teenager descended from Nazis, the young kibbutznik, the Holocaust survivor, the Palestinian suicide bomber, the kind Palestinian doctor. (Just like The Breakfast Club, but with explosives!) In 2004, Real Time won the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Sydney Taylor Award for the best Jewish book for older readers.

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, by Valerie Zenatti. I adored this epistolary novel, which won a Sydney Taylor Honor in the older readers category as well as a host of other awards from secular librarians and booksellers. It’s my favorite title on this list. A Jewish girl asks her brother, a soldier, to throw a bottle with a letter in it into the Gaza sea. She’s hoping for a Palestinian girl pen-pal, but winds up with a sarcastic, angry Palestinian boy. The story consists of emails and instant messages between the two beautifully drawn characters. There’s humor, sadness, fear. The two characters have wildly different voices and views of the world. I think the book does justice to a complex conflict while completely holding its own from a literary perspective. “With strong, likable characters, a quick pace, suspense where there are bombings, and a good sense of place, this book is an excellent way for teens to learn about the challenges of living in Israel and Gaza, as well as the cultures,” Kathe Pinchuk, chair of the Sydney Taylor Committee the year the book won the award, said. “The hopefulness, the anger, and the fear and curiosity of the unknown are developed well.” The book’s author, Valerie Zenatti, is a French Jew whose family made aliya when she was a teenager.

If your middle-school- or high-school-aged child is drawn to lyrical writing, he or she will enjoy Tasting the Sky by Ibtisam Barakat, a memoir by a Palestinian woman who grew up during the Six Day War. The chapters are short and easy to read. The book focuses on Ibtisam’s daily life, not just politics or war. Kids will be fascinated by her stories of her father killing her beloved goat and of her brothers’ circumcisions. Israelis aren’t demonized—the perspective is that of a real child. It just feels immediate, and it’s gorgeously written.

The Flag of Childhood: Poems From the Middle East, compiled by Naomi Shihab Nye (first published as Space Between Our Footsteps, which garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal) offers 60 poems for kids written by adult poets from throughout the Middle East. Here’s one I’d share with kids of all backgrounds:

“I Do Not Blame You”
By Samih al-Qasim

Your wings are small for this storm –
I do not blame you.
You’re good, and frightened, and
I am the hurricane. I used to be a wing
Struggling in the storm
But then I became the storm,
Lacking light, shade, or a wise language.
And now I confess
To be a lost planet circling a lost world
And I do not blame you:
What has tender mint to do with the storm?

Translated by Sharif S. Elmusa and Naomi Shihab Nye

There’s also an Oscar- and Emmy-winning documentary called Promises, in which seven Israeli and Palestinian kids aged 9 to 12 get to know each other. The version aimed at schools, libraries, and other institutions comes with a study guide created by educators and the filmmakers—it has classroom activities, worksheets, poems, readings, lesson plans, and recommendations for further reading. Sadly, that one is expensive. The version intended for home use is only $29 but doesn’t come with the extras.

In an amusing bit of irony, the American Library Association just published its list of the 100 most frequently banned or challenged books of the last decade. The list includes two Jewish classics: Summer of My German Soldier (No. 55 on the ALA list), challenged or banned for profanity, offensive racial stereotypes, and “subject matter that sets bad examples and gives students negative views of life,” and the Newbery Honor book The Upstairs Room (No. 79), challenged or banned on the basis of profanity. (I guess when the German Army’s advancing and you have to go hide in an attic, you’re supposed to say “darn” instead of the s-word.)

Jews can’t preach censorship without expecting our own books to get swept up in the tide. Shouldn’t that teach us that book-banning is a bad idea? We’re the people of the book, for crying out loud. Do we want to become China, trying to shut down all access to any media we disapprove of? The answer to hateful speech is more speech. It isn’t silence, or the slamming of doors.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.