“Something will be offensive to someone in every book, so you’ve got to fight it.” – Judy Blume

Judy Blume would know — she has 5 of the top 100 most challenged books from 1990-1999 — but when you peruse the lists of the most frequently challenged books, it is hard not to agree.  Below, I’ve highlighted the three challenged books that surprised me the most.

strega nonaStrega Nona by Tomie dePaola
Tomie dePaola’s classic picture book is often cited as one of the best picture books of all time — it was #34 on SLJ’s Top 100 Picture Books — so it might come as a surprise that it has been challenged.  The story of a magical old woman (“grandma witch”) who tells her assistant — Big Anthony — not to touch her magical pot of pasta.  Big Anthony ignores her and Strega Nona must save the day before the town is overrun in pasta.
Why was it challenged or banned? Witchcraft, of course.

wheres waldoWhere’s Waldo by Martin Hanford
I loved Where’s Waldo books as a kid.  My mom would bring a stack of them with us on long car rides and they would entertain my brother and me for hours.  Waldo books are a challenge of concentration and a fantastic way to get kids to pick up on pattern and color.  I looked at these books for hours and before reading about why the book was challenged and banned, I would have never guessed.
Why was it challenged or banned? Apparently in searching for Waldo, some people have been shocked to find topless sunbathers, gay couples, and people holding up the rocker hand sign (or as they called it “Hail Satan”).

charlotte's webCharlotte’s Web by E.B. White
I wept the first time I read this book.  This beautiful story about the friendship between Wilbur, a pig, and Charlotte, a barn spider, is a classic.  It is heartbreaking in the way many of the best children’s books are, and is beloved around the world.  When I think of stories to share with children, I’ve always thought that this is a safe (albeit sad)  book to recommend.  Apparently, I was wrong.
Why was it challenged or banned? It was banned in 2006 when a group of parents were upset that it included talking animals and inappropriate subject matter (death).

frankshowGrandpa Frank is just a grandpa and he doesn’t seem to like anything (except pickled onions), so how could his grandson possibly talk for a whole minute about him in front of his entire class?

In The Frank Show by David Mackintosh, Frank’s grandson is nervous about presenting about his curmudgeon grandfather during show and tell.  Especially since his friends have exciting people to introduce, like Fay’s cousin who “tells you if your bag is too heavy at the airport” and Hugo’s stepbrother who’s sports car has an eight-ball gearshift knob.

The Frank Show is the perfect example of a picture book that seems to have been written more for adults than for kids. I see the jokes flying right over younger kid’s heads, and not many children are going to spot Edgar Allen Poe and his raven in the illustrations. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t recommend this book — because it is fantastic.  Mackintosh’s illustrations are funny and child-like, filled with subtle references and jokes. This story is as much about the generational divide as it is about taking people for granted — both topics rarely explored in picture books. Grandpa Frank’s exaggerated stories and cranky advise are entertaining, and his grandson’s fears are completely understandable. Seriously, pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed, unless you’re Frank. I’m sure he’d say that they don’t make them like they used to or something as equally crotchety.

It may seem counter-intuitive to give new readers, students with disabilities, or ELL students books without words to help build vocabulary, but that is exactly what I’m going to suggest.  They can help all readers develop a more descriptive vocabulary, help teach visual decoding, assist readers in understand multiple viewpoints, and teach readers to interpret meaning from visual objects.  According to a 2011 Utah State University study, parents use more complex language when discussing wordless picture books than they do with books with text and pictures.  Not to mention the fact that they can be less intimidating than traditional books and they can be exceptionally entertaining. The last few years some fantastic wordless books have been added to the collection at the Davenport Public Library, so pick these books up for an emerging reader or for yourself!

floraandtheflamingoFlora and the Flamingo by Molly Schaar Idle

The newest wordless addition to the library collection, Flora and the Flamingo tells the story of a girl named Flora and a flamingo as they learn to dance together.  The beautiful illustrations are full of humor and call back to the mimicking game many played as children.

aballfordaisyA Ball for Daisy by Christopher Raschka

Daisy, a dog, has a great time with her ball, until it is lost.  Her story is told through bright, primary colored illustrations.  The story is perfect for toddlers and preschoolers, but would delight all children (and adults!) that love dogs.

unspokenUnspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole

The detailed pencil drawings set the scene in this story of a southern girl helping a runaway slave.  The format is perfect in setting the quiet, but intense mood of this story.

whereswalrusWhere’s Walrus by Stephen Savage

After escaping from the zoo, a clever Walrus disguises himself to outsmart the zookeeper that is pursuing him.  With vintage style illustrations, this humorous picture book will appeal to kids and adults.

waterloo&trafalgarWaterloo and Trafalgar by Oliver Tallec

This anti-war tale, with tri-colored die-cut illustrations is a perfect example of using a wordless book to facilitate conversation.  While the subject matter is somber, the book has expertly used humor throughout.

beardespairBear Despair by Gaëtan Dorémus

Never, ever, under any circumstance steal a bear’s teddy bear.  This humorous story follows the plight of a bear after his closest pal is snatched by a mischievous wolf.

The Boys by Jeff Newman

A book about being the shy new kid, Newman’s The Boys employs subtle humor and a sense of nostalgia that shapes this water colored wonder into an instant classic.

met nijinsky

When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky by Lauren Stringer: This is the story of how the famous composer, Stravinsky, and the famous dancer, Nijinsky, collaborated to create a performance of Stravinsky’s work that was so shockingly avant-garde that it caused a riot in the streets of Paris.* Can you imagine a ballet so shocking that it caused fistfights and screaming matches across the aisles of a sophisticated French theater in 1913? Astounding!

This book is to be read with “The Rite of Spring” playing in the background or not at all – the illustrations complement the music in a way that’s truly special. It’s so necessary to really enjoying the book that I’m a little mad it doesn’t include a CD, but of course you can always get the music independently from the library – whether you want it on CD or if you want to download it directly from Freegal!

when stravinsky“The Rite of Spring” is the music playing during the death-of-the-dinosaurs segment in Disney’s Fantasia, or as my childhood self knew it, “one of the scary parts!” This is powerful music, and accompanied by powerful, beautiful illustrations, this book is one to check out.

 *Please note: the library cannot be held responsible for any damage done to your home or car by riots this book/music may cause.

wonder

Wonder by R.J. Palacio: This book came into my life like a freight train of emotion and steamrolled over everything else I was doing. Auggie is starting fifth grade after being homeschooled for the previous five years: he has extreme facial deformities that make going out in public an almost unbearable trial. Everywhere he goes, people stare at him and whisper to each other. Auggie almost always notices, and wants so very much just to be normal. Inside, he’s as normal as any bright ten year old can be – he adores Star Wars, he likes to play Halo, he’s read all the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, and Halloween is his favorite holiday (since everyone is wearing a mask, he can too, and goes around just like a truly normal kid).

But Wonder isn’t just about Auggie, though he’s the main character. This is one of the few children’s novels I’ve seen that uses more than one narrator, and it’s surprisingly effective. Palacio doesn’t get carried away trying to make each narrator sound distinct (which would complicate matters for young readers): she uses a similar voice for each of the six viewpoint characters, letting their experiences and their emotions differentiate between them rather than her writing style.

This is a happy-sad book. Some moments will stab at you and make you weep, but overall you’ll feel rewarded and uplifted and most of all lucky: lucky to have met August, a character of such everyday bravery that you won’t soon forget him, lucky not to have the cascade of medical afflictions that have made him so remarkable, and lucky to have this beautiful book as a reminder to always be a little more kind than is necessary.

If you think children’s literature isn’t worthy of discussion, pick up one of these books and prepare to eat your words. These books are not just beautiful, simple, cute stories for children: they have big ideas, big hearts, and important messages to teach readers of all ages. Whether you have a little one to share them with or not, I highly recommend all of them.

oliverOliver by Birgitta Sif: gorgeous, rich, layered illustrations in muted earth tones and fluid character lines that suggest life and movement – brava. So beautifully done, and each page has so much going on; you can follow the unwritten story of the mouse on each page, and careful readers will see that many characters turn up over and over (besides Oliver, of course). Olivia is there all along, living her life parallel to Oliver’s; you can see that they will become best friends. So precious and wonderful.

 

anna the bookbinderAnna the Bookbinder, by Andrea Cheng and Ted Rand: A fantastic picture book! Anna’s father is a bookbinder; she’s helped him in the shop her whole life, and she knows the process very well. When her father is called away from work, Anna steps in to complete an important order. It’s odd to see these historical books where children and parents are coworkers as well as family members, since it’s so unusual now. Despite this book’s happy ending, I found myself wondering if Anna would be able to go to school, to travel, to marry for love – or if her father’s need of help in the bookshop would keep her tied to home forever. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much. 

miss mooreMiss Moore Thought Otherwise by Jan Pinborough and Debby Atwell: Oh Anne Carroll Moore! How I wish I were you. This book – the story of how Miss Moore created the Children’s Library space as we know it today – will make you thankful for children’s libraries. Miss Moore blazes her own trail, she has agency and verve and it’s just so satisfying reading about her successes! Since this is a children’s book, it is biased towards the positive, which made me wonder what Anne’s life was really like, and whether she ever wanted to give up, and what she dreamed of doing but couldn’t finish, and who were the intractable powers-that-be that she overthrew to make her dreams a reality for children everywhere? (It also really, really made me want to time-travel to the opening of the NYPL. Where’s my tardis?)

Rabbityness by Jo Empson: because neon paint splatters. And because of the word ‘rabbityness.’ And because this is a book that doesn’t pretend bad things don’t happen, it’s one that acknowledges that good & bad and old & new change in relation to each other all the time; and one person (or rabbit) can have a big impact.
Rabbityness

It’s been absolutely ages since the last time I read a picture book, but these excellent titles make me wish I’d picked them up more often. I have been missing a lot of awesome stuff! Like any great book, the appeal of these titles isn’t limited to one audience or one time or one interpretation: whether or not you have children in your life, these books are interesting and worth your time.

Stuck (words and pictures by Oliver Jeffers): “Stuck is a book about trying to solve a growing problem by throwing things at it,” Oliver Jeffers says in this video, where he reads most of the book. I could not stop giggling when I read it! Compulsively, obnoxiously, making-the-other-people-in-the-room-give-me-weird-looks giggling. When Floyd’s kite gets stuck in a tree, he chucks up his shoe to knock it down. When the shoe gets stuck too, he hurls up another shoe. Pretty soon, he’s lobbed everything he can think of at the tree and he has to think outside the box to solve the problem. Oliver Jeffers is a big name in picture books for good reason – the tidy blend of humor, art, and lessons learned make this a no-brainer for reading to kids.

A Sick Day For Amos McGee (words by Philip C. Stead, pictures by Erin E. Stead): animals acting like humans is standard fare in children’s literature, but this book improves on the concept with a subtly playful story and illustrations that are just plain jaw-dropping. A zookeeper called Amos has a daily routine: chess with the Elephant, footraces with the Tortoise, quiet time with the shy Penguin, etc. When he takes a sick day, his friends at the zoo brighten his day in return. The pictures are warm and wonderful, with thoughtful expressions on all of the characters’ faces (animal and human alike). Picture-only subplots add yet another layer of story to this 2011 Caldecott winner.

I Want My Hat Back (words and pictures by Jon Klassen): I can’t believe I’m about to write this about such a simple book, but I actually don’t want to reveal too much about it for fear of spoiling the ending! Imagine: spoiler alerts for a picture book. But here we are. I truly do not know how Jon Klassen gets so much deadpan humor and plain-as-day emotion into the faces of such simply drawn characters, but he manages it on every page. The ending has a refreshingly pithy, humorous, unapologetic taste to it. I’m eagerly anticipating getting my hands on a copy of his second book, This Is Not My Hat.

Extra Yarn (words by Mac Barnett and pictures by Jon Klassen): For an extra helping of Jon Klassen’s art, this book fits the bill beautifully. If you are a knitter or crocheter, you’ll be totally enamored of his illustrations here. A little girl discovers a box of infinitely replenishing color-changing yarn, and proceeds to knit sweaters for all of the animate and inanimate denizens of her town. The white space and gradual introduction of color, along with the touching story, make this a really special book.

This classic children’s novel has been weathering the storm of censorship and controversy for 4 decades now. Jean Craighead George won the 1973 Newbery Medal for her novel, Julie of the Wolves, which tells the story of a Yupik Eskimo girl called Miyax (Julie to her pen pal in San Francisco) who survives alone on the Arctic tundra by communicating with a wolf pack. The outside world has wrought changes on Julie’s culture, and when she is forced to choose between an arranged marriage and a harsh, desperate flight across the wild tundra, she runs away. She eventually learns the language of the wolves and becomes a member of the pack, a process that’s terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure.

Julie’s journey of survival and self discovery has resonated with young and old readers since its publication in the seventies, despite being challenged for including violence and being “unsuited to age group.” To learn more about this book, censorship, and Banned Books Week, check out the ALA Banned Books Week website.

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is the first in a trilogy of fantasy novels, but don’t worry: since they’re written for a YA/mature child audience, it’s not nearly the kind of time commitment that most fantasy series are. The first novel follows Lyra Belacqua, a precocious 12 year old girl who lives in a universe parallel to our own: in her world, each human is accompanied at all times by an animal daemon – a physical manifestation of their soul and a lifelong companion. For children like Lyra, the form of the daemon is in flux, taking the shapes of different animals depending on the person’s mood or circumstances. Lyra is a wonderful fantasy heroine: she’s tough and smart and relatable, and her journey isn’t just an adventure but a moving tale of growing up. She sets out to rescue a friend who’s been kidnapped by the mysterious, possibly malevolent Magisterium; on the way, she meets gypsies and witches and powerful Magisterium officials, and learns how to use a device called an Alethiometer that can answer any question with absolute truth.

The next two novels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, follow Lyra’s further journey to fulfill her destiny. The trilogy has been banned or challenged on the grounds of Political Viewpoint, Religious Viewpoint, and Violence. To learn more about this book, censorship, and Banned Books Week, check out the ALA Banned Books Week website.

If you ever need a DVD for all generations – say, around the holidays…,  Miss Potter is perfect for this situation – it is whimsical without being overly saccharine.

This is a peek into Victorian society – in which Beatrix is encouraged from childhood on to exploit her talent as an artist, yet her parents are bound by rigid class lines when it comes to marriage.

The cast is filled with great British character actors, including  Barbara Flynn and Bill Paterson as Beatrix’ parents. And the wonderfully weird chaperone, Miss Wiggin, is played by Matyelok Gibbs. Emily Watson plays the sister of Beatrix’ fiance, who immediately adopts Beatrix as a soulmate and friend.

As a bonus, it is  beautifully produced with a wonderful soundtrack by Katie Melua.  Even though this isn’t technically a holiday movie, it will add a bit of magic to this festive season.

Don’t forget to check out the actual books (The Tailor of Gloucester was Beatrix’ favorite and perfect for the Christmas season).