Author Recalls Role as Banned Books Guinea Pig

As we wrap up 2014, we noticed a rerun post at BookRiot that we missed when it originally appeared during a particularly hectic Banned Books Week back in September. In the meditation on the importance of allowing young readers to explore books that inspire them, novelist and short story author David Abrams tells the story of how he became a banned books guinea pig for his Wyoming school district in 1976.

The book in question was Robert Cormier’s frequently challenged The Chocolate War and Abrams was a 7th grader, “the perpetually skinny, stuttering, anxiety-ridden, least-popular boy in Jackson Hole Junior High.” The book had been published two years before and was already quite controversial among adults, who kept it on ALA’s lists of the top ten banned and challenged books as recently as 2009. The challenges were largely due to a few passing references to Playboy and masturbation, and the Teton County School Board was debating whether to allow Abrams’ English class to read it. His mother, who worked at the school, handed it over to her bookish son for his opinion.

As so often happens, Abrams barely noticed the passages that made adults cringe, and instead caught on to the book’s overarching theme about standing up for what one believes in. He was captivated by The Chocolate War and passed on an enthusiastic recommendation:

I wrote a positively glowing endorsement and gave it to my mother to deliver to the school board. But even as I wrote my Chocolate War book report, I swallowed a realistic dose of despair. I knew my words would end up like poor Jerry at the end of the novel: battered, bloodied, bruised and on the way to the hospital in the back of an ambulance. Goliath would win, David would whimper.

In fact, Abrams never received any feedback on his review or heard that the book was even discussed at a board meeting. Even though “the Teton County School Board’s efforts to ban teenage boys from thinking of [sex] was about as effective as telling the wind to stop blowing,” they had already set a precedent that same year by halting a sex ed curriculum after Abrams’ class had covered five of the seven weeks. Apparently the fleeting references to sexuality in The Chocolate War were just too much, no matter how life-changing an actual reader from the target age group found the book to be.

Abrams, who now lives in Montana, was invited along with other local authors to participate in a Banned Books Week Read-Out this year. He took the opportunity to publicly tell this story for the first time and to read from The Chocolate War. He concluded with a message for adults — particularly school board members — who try to restrict students’ reading:

‘Let our children read and decide for themselves. Let them run free through pages where everything seems beautiful, everything is in its proper orbit, nothing is impossible, and the entire world is attainable.’

The room burst into applause as I walked back to my chair and sat next to my mother who was clapping the loudest of all.

We’ll join in with another round of applause for Abrams and his mother, as well as all the other adults — teachers, librarians, and parents — who respect young readers enough to allow them to make their own reading choices!

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.