Of all the things in this hectic world to keep kids away from, why books? Leslie Pinney, a school board member from District 214 (located in suburban Chicago), wanted to have the following books removed from the high school reading list because of their “inappropriate themes”:The Awakening by Kate ChopinThe Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskySlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (It should be illegal for kids not to read this book.)Beloved by Toni Morrison (Take that New York Times best book of the last 25 years.)Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (More on this later)How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia AlvarezFallen Angels by Walter Dean MyersThe Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollen (What are we worried about here? Plant sex?)The Things They Carried by Tim O’BrienTo see just how twisted and depraved these people here, check out this entry at a Townhall site in support of Pinney, where someone has lifted the prurient parts from some of these books to prove that kids shouldn’t be reading them – labeling the books – in a blaring font – “pornographic.” What if the children find that site, though? Then they won’t even have to read the books to get to the juiciest parts! At any rate, I find it comical and depressing that people think we should keep books with foul language or “adult” themes out of the hands of high schoolers. Isn’t the classroom a better place for kids to learn the appropriate context for such things than other outlets?Thankfully this “controversy” turned out to be little more than a tempest in a teakettle as the six other board members voted against Pinney. In fact it was heartening to hear how many people were moved to discuss the banning of the books. From the Tribune: “Board President Bill Dussling said the meeting’s turnout was the largest the district had seen in 25 years but evidently the issue struck chord within the community.” A number of students rallied against the proposed ban as well.Meanwhile, at the Freakonomics blog, authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, followed the situation. Their book had made Pinney’s list because it proposes the theory that legalized abortion has reduced the nation’s crime rate. To mark the occasion, the Freakonomics guys are doing something pretty cool. They’re giving out 50 free copies of the book to the first 50 students from the district who respond to their offer, and in the end, it seems likely that more kids will read Freakonomics and the other books than if this closed-minded woman hadn’t proposed the ban.On a semi-related note, I talked to some people at BEA about what helps books and authors get mentioned by the blogosphere. One big thing is for the author or book to have a compelling Web presence, and the Freakonomics blog is a great example. It has kept readers interested in the book, while also letting readers interact with the authors and giving bloggers something to link to.Update: The fallout from the District 214 attempted book banning continues, as described in this morning’s Tribune. The pro-banning forces are vowing to press on with their efforts to get books removed from schools. Peter LaBarbera of the conservative Illinois Family Institute calls the 6-1 vote against the book banning “a Pyrrhic victory” (and presumably LaBarbera was able to learn about Pyrrhic victories because Plutarch’s Lives was not banned in his high school.) LaBarbera’s contention is that “thousands of parents, not just in Arlington Heights but statewide, have been alerted that there are some pretty racy books out there that are required reading,” and so now we can expect many more book-banning battles to arise. Luckily, though, this article also contains more accounts of students fighting for the right to have these books taught: “Some said it was unfair to judge a book on isolated passages. ‘You cannot ban an entire book if you take things out of context, if you’re not looking at a literary whole,’ said Christine Fish, a member of the Hersey High School debate team. The group passed out fliers reading ‘Fahrenheit 214,’ a play on the title of the Ray Bradbury novel about book burning.”The kids, as they say, are alright.
Brian sent me an email asking if we could recommend some books:I’ve been wanting to read some science books lately, anything from pop-science Oliver Sacks type stuff, to the more esoteric… from astronomy to geology to bird-watching to physics, etc… I just don’t know where to start. You have any suggestions?Oliver Sacks is a good author to start with, but there are a lot of other readable science books out there. One of my favorites is Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, which shows how the earth’s geography can explain why civilizations arose where they did. Diamond’s brand new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed is getting good reviews, too. John McPhee also has some books that might work for you. Annals of the Former World is a 700 page layman’s guide to the geology of the United States and The Control of Nature is a collection of essays about man’s attempts to tame and make use of natural resources. Brian Greene’s bestseller about string theory, The Elegant Universe rather painlessly delivers complex physics, and Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire explains how plants have evolved to use us as much as we use them creating a counter-intuitive symbiotic relationship. Beyond those you can’t go wrong with Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, and Edward O. Wilson. If please anyone else has suggestions, leave a comment.
I hope everyone had a good Halloween. Here in Southern California, it decided to rain for the first time in about six months, bad for outdoor costume parties (like the one I attended), but good for quelling forest fires. Now the rain is gone and the sun is back and I’m pleased to announce the return of Ask a Book Question. Ms. Frizzle has written in with a challenging and interesting question:I like reading popular science books like Genome by Matt Ridley, Best Science Writing of…, The Botany of Desire, Red-Tails in Love, etc. I teach middle school students who read on a much lower level than I do and have far less science background. I’d like to find books like the ones above, but written for 10-15 year olds. Suggestions? I already know about science picture books by Seymour Simon,Gail Gibbons, and others… I’m looking for something in between.After reading Ms. Frizzle’s question, I stepped into my wayback machine to see if I was reading anything interesting about science when I was eleven. Aside from reminding me how dorky my glasses looked, my eleven-year-old self, while very interested in science, appeared to read only Hardy Boys books and would turn to his set of Golden Books encyclopedias when looking to read about something scientific. Not very helpful. Sadly, it appears that things haven’t changed much since I was in middle school, and there remains a huge void somewhere in the middle of the wealth of popular science books for adults, the wealth of science-related picture books, and the wealth of science textbooks of which I’m sure Ms. Frizzle is well acquainted. Nonetheless, I did my best to come up with some makeshift recommendations (in three parts). First: As I scanned through various titles, I noticed that there are tons of picture books about science for little kids, but I also noticed that some of them are complex enough and advanced enough to hold the interest of older kids. By far the best one that I came across is a brand new book called The Tree of Life: Charles Darwin by author and illustrator Peter Sis. Sis uses Darwin’s copious journals as a jumping off point for a multi layered narrative full of exquisitely rendered maps and charts and illustrations. Sis does a good job of keeping the text at a challenging but not impossible level, and the book is so densely packed with informative eye-candy that it probably would keep an eleven or twelve year old interested. Second: I thought that maybe some of those really good, really engaging science books for adults might work for younger teenagers. They probably couldn’t handle the books on their own, but perhaps taking some excerpts from these books would be useful. My pick in this category would be Longitude by Dava Sobel because it has a good narrative that sticks to solving a single problem (how to calculate longitude) and it includes a fair amount of drama on the high seas. I also thought that the books of Gerald Malcolm Durrell might also serve this purpose well. Both My Family and Other Animals and A Zoo in My Luggage are about growing up fascinated by the flora and fauna around him. Maybe some of these kids will see themselves in the young Durrell. Third: Sadly, I was only able to find one measly book written for this age group about a scientific subject, but at least it’s a pretty good one. I think kids will always be fascinated by Jane Goodall and the idea of living with chimps. Luckily she wrote a book for all those kids called My Life with the Chimpanzees. Finally, I should also mention the really cool Way Things Work series by David Macaulay. There are lots of entertaining illustrations that show the inner-workings of household objects from can openers to computers, a must for future inventors. The most recent installment is called The New Way Things Work.Ms. Frizzle: I hope this helped. Everyone else: hurry up and write some good science books for kids; they need them, and also, make sure you check out Ms. Frizzle’s blog about being a middle-school teacher in the Bronx.More GrossmanBrian, who loves getting mentioned on The Millions, sent me a link to the New York Times’ glowing review of Edith Grossman’s translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote.