‘Ban This Book’ by Alan Gratz is a Thought-provoking Middle Grade Novel

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Alan Gratz writes some gritty stories, like “Code of Honor” and “Prisoner B-3087.” With “Ban This Book,” Gratz takes the reader into a different kind of war — the war against censorship. The story comes right out of real life. Parents, because of their religious, political, or moral beliefs,  demand that certain books be removed from school library shelves.

J.K. Rowling, Louis Sachar, Jean Craighead George, Mary Downing Hahn, Peg Kehret, Mildred Taylor, Shel Silverstein, Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Dav Pilkey, and the list goes on and on. Esteemed, respected authors and wonderful literature, banned from schools and libraries because of narrow-minded thinking. Gratz exposes middle grade readers to the injustice inherent in this kind of thinking, and simultaneouly introduces them to the First Amendment of our Constitution in this beautifully written story.

The main character, Amy Anne Ollinger, has problems of her own. She wants nothing more than reading, but at home there is no quiet place for her to do that. She shares a bedroom with a sister, another younger sister uses the kitchen, and her parents watch television in the living room. Amy Anne sometimes ends up doing her homework in the bathroom — it’s the only quiet place in the house. Gratz deftly manages to share Amy Anne’s anger and hurt at being the child whose needs are overlooked daily.

Amy Anne’s favorite book in the whole world is “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” by E. L. Konigsburg. She reads it and rereads it constantly. Because of library rules, she must wait five days before checking it out after returning it, but she counts the days. When the book isn’t on the shelf after five days, Amy Anne is stunned. And when she finds out why — she is furious.

The mother of a classmate (president of the PTA) has decided that several of the books on the shelves at the elementary school library are unsuitable for young children to read. Books that the kids want to read are gone, hidden in the back. The school librarian is furious, too, but she can’t do anything about it when the school board approves the banning of the books without following the book review process they had set up.

Readers will love the librarian’s minor bit of revenge in inviting an author, Dav Pilkey, whose books were banned, to speak to students. And she uses PTA money to do it.

All the librarians I know would cheer the speech that the fictional librarian says to the board at the beginning of the book. She says,

“It’s our job as educators to expose our children to as many different kinds of books and as many different points of view as possible. That means letting them read books that are too easy for them, or too hard for them. That means letting them read books that challenge them, or do nothing but entertain them. And yes, it means letting students read books with things in them we might disagree with and letting them make up their own minds about things, which is downright scary sometimes. But that’s what good education is all about.”

The book displays plenty of humor. When Amy Anne and her friends are looking at books and reasons for banning them, they find that a book can be banned for almost any reason. One student says that a book has the word “scrotum” on the first page. Amy Anne looks at the cover of the book. It’s a Newbery award winner. She replies,

“Yeah, just about anything with one of these medals on it, you can find some reason to ban it.”

When one of the students says that “Frog and Toad” are a gay couple and the book should be banned because it’s the subversive promotion of a gay lifestyle (tongue in cheek), Amy Anne thinks,

“All the book challenges, the real ones, were because one person saw a book in a very different way than somebody else. Which was fine. Everybody had the right to interpret any book any way they wanted to. What they couldn’t do then was tell everybody else their interpretation was the only interpretation.”

Throughout the book it is made very clear that only parents should have the right to censor what their own children read. Some parents believe that their children should be allowed to read any book that they are interested in. I, personally, began reading adult books in middle school. Yet other parents decide that even though their third grade child wants to read “A Tale Dark and Grimm” by fabulous author Adam Gidwitz, it’s too scary and won’t allow them to. It’s a parent’s prerogative.

The way the students in the novel get the board to change its collective mind is brilliant. It’s funny and clever and leads to some fabulous story scenes. Amy Anne grows a lot as the plot unfolds. She learns that instead of thinking things and not saying them out loud, she needs to share her thoughts and stand up for herself.  She makes mistakes, and when she apologizes to the school librarian for getting her fired and for making trouble, the librarian replies with one of the best lines in the book:

“Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

(If you couldn’t tell, the librarian is kind of a super-hero in this book. Just like real-life librarians.)

This novel would make a fabulous read aloud for classes from third grade to sixth grade. There is much here to discuss, and the inclusion of titles of the banned books might just intrigue the students enough that they will want to read them.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Starscape Books (Tor-Forge), the publisher, for review purposes.

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