A couple of weeks ago the entire world celebrated Banned Books Week. Okay maybe not the entire world, but a lot of librarians and English teachers did. Banned Books Week usually involves such activities as handing out bookmarks and challenging students to select and read a book from a list of commonly banned books. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. There are a lot of books on these lists that I have either bought for my children, read to them, or that I hope they will read one day. I have wonderful memories of crying, no sobbing, with my kids when we read Bridge to Terabithia and Charlott’s Web. In my English classes, I have taught Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and Lord of the Flies. The Giver and Harry Potter are among my children’s favorite books. And, while certainly not my favorite, my eldest daughter has read nearly all of John Green ‘s books.
The fact is, it’s hard to imagine why many of these books were ever banned. It’s just crazy. But the crazy thing about the Banned Books Week movement is that proponents of the movement would have us believe that school libraries should be allowed to provide young people with literally any book out there without having to justify the appropriateness of the book. Any attempt to use discernment or determine age appropriateness is decried as censorship. And those who call into question a librarian’s choices are considered a threat to intellectual freedom.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating government censorship or that books be banned from public libraries. But as a mother and a tax payer, I would like to think that when I send my children to school, they will not happen across books in the school library that include passages like this one from Cristina Garcia’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban (which is actually a Common Core recommended text for 10th graders).
“Hugo and Felicia stripped in their room, dissolving easily into one another, and made love against the whitewashed walls. Hugo bit Felicia’s breast and left purplish bands of bruises on her upper thighs. He knelt before her in the tub and massaged black Spanish soap between her legs. He entered her repeatedly from behind.
“Felicia learned what pleased him. She tied his arms above his head with their underclothing and slapping him sharply when he asked.
“‘You’re my bitch,’” Hugo said, groaning.
According to the good folks at the American Library Association, any attempt to restrict this novel, or anything libraries choose to make available to children, is a violation of the First Amendment. The ALA lists Fifty Shades of Grey as one of the most commonly challenged books of 2013, but according to the ALA, a child’s right to read this book should be protected. This is apparently more important than protecting children from pornography.
I realize that censorship is a slippery slope. At least that’s what the Banned Books people want us to fear. If we ban Fifty Shades of Grey, what’s to stop us from banning every book with any sexual content whatsoever? Censorship is such a loaded word. It implies a secret plot to restrict ideas or knowledge or a Big Brother-like control over information. But what we are really talking about is limits. And don’t schools limit kids already? Students are not allowed to curse in school. They cannot make racially insensitive statements. They aren’t allowed to watch sexually explicit films in class – even those based on a classic novel. When, where, and how they can pray is restricted. And most schools have some form of a dress code in place. All of these rules restrict (censor) students’ freedom of expression is some way. Can you imagine a high school or middle school where kids were allowed to express themselves absolutely any way they wanted too?
Still, the slippery slope concerns are valid. Obviously book banning can get out of hand. Many books that are now considered classroom and childhood staples have at one time been challenged. Yet, should we really advocate, indeed celebrate, the notion that our children can potentially have access to books with virtually any content with no adult discernment as to the appropriateness of those books?
Where things get tricky is when people challenge books based on their own personal beliefs. Just because some people don’t believe that children should read books about witches and wizards, doesn’t mean the library should ban all Harry Potter books. Some people might feel that children should not read books that encourage them to challenge authority. That does not mean we need to ban Animal Farm. I get it. Discerning books is a delicate matter because what seems like a harmless story to one family might be considered gravely sinful by another.
Still, even with all the challenges involved with book restrictions, can’t we at least strive for some standard of decency? That’s all I’m asking for. A standard of decency. Can’t we at least agree that there are some things a child or young teenager should not be exposed to? Even the film industry does that much. How about this? If the contents of a book would warrant an R rating as film, then maybe it should not be made available to 14 year olds. It’s radical, I know.
It might not be easy. Sometimes we might ere too much on the side of caution. But the alternative is no standard of decency. To me, that is a much more frightening prospect than the notion that my children’s freedom will somehow be violated because their public school denied them access to porn.
Disclaimer: This is in no way a condemnation of librarians. My own children’s schools are staffed by thinking, sensitive librarians who seek to provide our kids with the best possible age-appropriate literature. We are grateful to have them.
Image credits in order of appearance…
Note: I try to to give too much away in this review. In fact, since I am currently reading the second novel in the trilogy, The Mistress of Husaby, I wasn’t even able to finish some of the links posted below. If you don’t want to have any clue what will happen in the first novel, The Bridal Wreath, you better skip this post. But again, I tried to keep my spoilers to a minimum.
Recently I added the phrase “and what we wish they were reading” to my blog because I can no longer tolerate a full-time diet of YA literature. Yes, there is a great deal to entertain within this genre and even some literary gems. But a steady diet of YA books is much like a steady diet of junk food – pretty tasty, but not much substance. Lately, I have been starving for some nutritionally dense reading – mentally and spiritually. So when I read 10 Books You Must Read With Your Daughter (Or How to Keep Your Daughter From Turning Out Like That horrid Girl FromTwilight), I decided to dig out and dust off out my never-before-read copy of Kristen Lavransdatter and give it another try.
This novel and the two subsequent novels in the series are considered master works of historical fiction. That is why I am embarrassed to say that this was my second run at reading Kristen Lavransdatter, despite its stellar reputation and regardless of the fact that it was recommended by both my sister-in-law and one of my dearest and smartest friends, both of whom have impeccable taste. For some reason, the first time I tried to read this novel, I gave up quickly. Perhaps it was because I initially approached it as a beach read. This novel, set in medieval Norway, definitely lends itself more to a cozy fireside than a lawn chair. Maybe I lost interest because the second book in the Hunger Games Trilogy came out about the time I first started reading Kristen Lavransdatter. (Oh, how embarrassing!) Maybe it was because I was intimidated by the book’s reputation. I don’t really know, but I always intended to get back to it one day. Well, recently that day came! Within a few pages, I was hooked. I began to feel that every free moment that I wasn’t reading Kristen Lavransdatter was being wasted. I began to understand what all the hubbub is about.
The first book in the Kristen Lavransdatter trilogy, The Bridal Wreath, begins when Kristen is a young girl. She is the only child of pious Norwegian nobility. Her parents adore her – especially her father. Her mother who has suffered the loss of several other children is at times distant and sad. Her father, on the other hand delights in her. Both of her parents try to bring her up to be devout and virtuous and little Kristen is given nearly every spiritual advantage – example, education, and love.
While traveling with her father, Kristen meets Brother Edvin, a wise and kindly monk who is one of the novel’s most notable and lovable characters. He makes a great impression on Kristen (and on the reader) with his insights.
There is no man nor woman, Kristen who does not love and fear God, but tis because our hearts are divided twixt love of God and fear of the devil and fondness for the world and the flesh, that we are unhappy in this life and in death. For if man had no yearning after God and God’s being, then he should thrive in Hell…For there the fire would not burn him if he did not long for coolness, nor would he feel the torment of the serpents bite if he knew not the yearning for peace… T’was God’s loving-kindness toward us that seeing how our hearts are drawn asunder, He came down and dwelt among us that He might taste in the flesh the lures of the devil when he decoys us with power and splendor, as well as the menace of the world when if offers us blows and scorn and sharp nails in the hands and feet. In such wise did He show us the way and make manifest His love.
And yet, even with passages like this, this novel in not overly religious in tone. It is not preaching to the choir. All the characters are painfully real – both in their virtue and their flaws. As a teenager, Kristen is innocent and devout, eager to honor her parents and to live up to the expectations of her culture. Yet when temptation presents itself, as the handsome and charming Ereland Nikulausson, Kristen is easily led astray. Readers find Kristen’s selfishness and foolishness frustrating (I remember thinking, “Wait. What? How could she be so stupid. No Kristin. Noooo!). And we yet can’t help but hope she will escape the bitter consequences of her actions
Many of Undset’s characters are complex in this way. We see in them both flaw and hope. We relate to them and root for them. Ereland’s pride and his constant excuses for his behavior are maddening, yet we want to believe that in the end he will prove honorable. We want to believe that he really is as great as Kristen believes him to be. Even Kristen’s parents, Lavrans and Ragnfrid are, for all their love and devotion, not perfect, and they bare their own secrets, griefs and struggles. We to ache for them.
In addition to providing complex characters, Undset portrays life in medieval Norway with richness, beauty, and accuracy. Life for these characters, and indeed for entire Western world in those days, centers around the Church and her traditions and around the conventions of their society. While some of these conventions might rub the modern reader the wrong way (like a father’s absolute power over his daughter), a life so fully centered on and entrenched in the Christian calendar seems not only orderly and disciplined but also festive and meaningful.
Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature no doubt by creating an epic saga that combines a stunning portrayal of life in medieval Norway with complex, sympathetic characters. And without being heavy-handed or overly-simple, she manages to communicate beauty and truth.
Again, these characters are not perfect. There are some pretty grown-up situations in this book and some complex issues. But this is exactly the kind of book I want my kids to read – impressive and engrossing from a literary standpoint and beautiful and inspiring in it’s portrayal of eternal truths.
So, to recap. Why should your teen (this is not a book for tweens) and you read Kristen Lavransdatter?
- It is great historical fiction – a rich and accurate portrayal of life in medieval Norway.
- It won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
- It illustrates how the rhythm and seasons of life used to be lived in accordance with the Christian calendar and how this brought both times of fasting and feasting, all in honor of Christ and the Saints.
- It shows the power of sin and deceit and there devastating effects.
- The novel contains sympathetic characters – not perfectly good nor purely evil. They are easy to relate to.
- Kristen Lavransdatter contains nuggets of spiritual truth, beauty, and wisdom without being simplistic or preachy.
- Reading Kristen Lavransdatter allows you to enter into a great conversation with your child and with others who have loved this trilogy.
Yes, but no descriptive or graphic passages. In fact, some younger readers (okay and me) might miss the initial sex scene all together and not realize what has happened until a few pages later.
Not in the creepy way that I’m usually looking out for in YA lit. Kristen Lavransdatter is steeped in Christianity. However, as was common in medieval times, superstitions are also influential in the lives of Undset’s characters.
- Why do you think Kristen falls so quickly and easily from what her faith and her parents have taught her? Were you surprised by this?
- Does she truly love Ereland? Does he love her?
- What do you think prevent Kristen from confessing her sins?
- In the end is Lavrans too unyielding? Why do you think he comes to the decision that he does about Kristen’s marriage to Ereland?
- What is Kristen’s greatest virtue? What is her greatest flaw? What about Ereland? Lavrans? Ragnfrid?
- In what way are the themes of love, sin, forgiveness, and despair played out in this novel?
“I’ve done many things that I thought I would never dare to do because they were sins. But I didn’t realize then that the consequence of sin is that you have to trample on other people.”
“No one and nothing can harm us, child, except what we fear and love.”
“It’s a good thing when you don’t dare do something if you don’t think it’s right. But it’s not good when you think something’s not right because you don’t dare do it.”
OTHER ARTICLES AND REVIEWS
Recently I came across this article by Anthony Esolen in Crisis magazine. I was impressed with the author’s impassioned explanation of why we read to children. He shares with us a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, in which Roosevelt thanks Grahame for his delightful book. And that is the point. The book is a delight to the Roosevelt children and even to the president himself – which is, of course, exactly what a book should be. When my children were small, I sought out books that would be a pleasure to read, not only for them, but for me as well. That weeded out a lot of what early 20th century educator, Charlotte Mason called twaddle. However, we were left with a treasury of wonderful works of beautiful literature. Fortunately, the list of Common Core Exemplar Texts contains some of these great works (for the paltry 30% of fictional reading the standard allows).
Unfortunately, the CC approach to reading will likely make reading these great literary works a soul-sucking drudgery. Take for example the 3rd grade standards. They seem fairly simple and age-appropriate. Children are expected to recount stories and key detail of stories from a variety of genres and cultures. Among other things, they are expected to articulate the central idea or moral of a work and to describe characters and their actions. All of this sounds like it could be achieved by an engaging reading followed by a lively discussion and maybe some fun activities. But nooooooo. Here’s an exerpt from the website Achieve the Core. This is the objective for a 3rd grade (3rd grade!!!) lesson on Grimm’s The Fisherman and his Wife.
Learning Objective: The goal of this five-day exemplar is to explicitly model the process of searching for and interpreting intra-textual connections. In this lesson sequence, the teacher poses an analytic focusing question and then guides students in gathering and interpreting evidence from the text in order to come to a deeper understanding of the story. Simple word play and art activities give students practice in closely attending to language and word choice, and in visualizing and recording their interpretations. Discussion and a short writing exercise help students to synthesize what they have learned.
How’s that for psuedo-sophisticated language! But wait! There’s more! After five days of reading and re-reading the story and picking it apart to make intra-textual connections, students are asked to complete a writing assignment.
Writing Task: As a culminating activity, students synthesize their findings in an opinion paragraph, using specific references to the text. In this lesson, writing helps the children to organize and make sense of their thinking. For most third graders, writing is a relatively new tool for processing thought and one they will need to learn to use. Therefore, this task is highly guided and instructional, providing a model that can be used more independently on subsequent writing tasks.
Fun huh? I’m not suggesting that school children not be held in some way accountable for what they’ve read. But since 70% of their reading is what the CC calls “informational texts,” one would hope that what little fiction they are allowed not be ruined over-intellectualization and joy-killing assignments.
As Esolen so brilliantly points out, the whole point of reading should be for pleasure. When we rob children of that pleasure, we kill their love of reading. And when we kill their love of reading, any further attempts to encourage what Common Core calls a “close reading” will be fruitless. By high school, their eyes will glaze over, and they will see very little point in Shakespeare, Austen, Keats, or any of it. I know this because I see it now. Of course the current group of high school students wasn’t raised on Common Core, but they were No Child Left Behind kids. And where NCLB perhaps watered down their readings, the CCS hyper-intelleculizes them. Different standards, different vocabulary, different texts, but in the end, both NCLB and the CCS have the same goal – to create good test takers. The best way to insure children will score well on the test is to train them to get the right answer. Sadly, this training often comes at the expense of a greater outcome – a love of stories.
So in a perfect, untested, non data-driven world, what would else could children gain from stories besides pleasure? Well, nothing if pleasure is lost, but children, and people in general, who love books are graced with a world of gifts.
A LOVE OF LANGUAGE
Children who read The Jabberwocky or hear a heartfelt reading of it might not be able to tell you what a stanza is or identify the rhyme scheme, but they know that it is fun to say jubjub bird. They will shout, “Calhooh Callay Frabjous the day!” They will experience the joy of nonsense and the fun of things that mean nothing but sound funny. In time, when they write they will naturally want to use language that captures the imagination and delights the senses. And they will know how.
On the other hand children who study The Jabberwocky are apt to say things like, “This is stupid.” “This doesn’t even make sense.” “What’s the point of this, anyway?” How sad.
I never set out to teach my children about bull fighting in Madrid or about the life on the Yangtze River, but thanks to Ferdinand and Ping, they not only learned about these things, they wanted to know more about them. Johnny Tremain introduced them to our founding fathers, and Laura and Mary showed them what it was like to live off the land. Funny, we never did a single worksheet or critiqued a single passage.
Fairies. Knights. Dragon. Talking pigs. Little boys who never grow up. Little girls who grow to be the size of a house. Flying monkeys. Giants. Castles. Worlds of Ice. Wicked queens. Christmas Ghosts. Is there really anything Common Core could or should add to these wonders to make books any sweeter? Of course not.
I haven’t gathered any data to prove it, but I think I could walk into any 1st grade classroom at story time, and tell you, with a startling degree of accuracy, which children have been read to since birth and which have not. I could do it again in 10th grade.
Anyone who has ever been sucked into a story knows what it is to cheer with our heroes’ victories and cry at their defeats. I earnestly hope our school children aren’t so busy picking apart the “texts” that they don’t have time to make friends with the characters.
I have always read to my children and will continue to do so as long as they’ll let me. I won’t test them or require them to defend their opinions of a story in writing (although there is certainly a place for that in the upper grades). I will simply laugh with them and cry with them and wonder with them and pray that all children are given this same great pleasure in life – the pleasure of reading for the sheer joy of it.
I know this is a book review blog, but I cannot resist plugging this movie. Ok, so I haven’t actually seen it yet, but I know the story. I’ve seen the live stage play, and I show the Les Mis 25th Anniversary Concert to my drama classes every semester. Les Miserables is a beautiful story of love, sacrifice, and most of all redemption. It is theologically spot on while being artistically stunning. From what I have read, this latest film adaptation is no exception.
When I show Les Mis to my drama students, there are always a few who merely tolerate it – who roll their eyes and seem to make a concerted effort to avoid enjoying this movie. But then there are those who fall in love with it, as I have. These students, many of whom have never seen a real musical and who consider The Hangover a great cinematic achievement, become totally engrossed in the story. Many go home and buy their own copy of the video. It thrills me to get to introduce my students to this story and to these songs.
Set in 19th century Paris, Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who is released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. With the help of a kindly bishop, Valjean sets out to start a new life. He breaks parole, and within a few years, becomes a wealthy factory owner and the mayor of small town.
When Fantine (Anne Hathaway) a worker in his factory is unjustly fired, by a cruel foreman, she is forced into a life of prostitution. Upon discovering her on her deathbed, Valjean agrees to raise her young daughter, Cosette, who has been in the custody of a the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), a couple of cruel inn keepers. But first, Valjean must face his past and Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) who has been tracking Valjean for years. Eventually Valjean is able to raise Cosette and the two live for several years in quiet contentment. But when a worker’s revolution breaks out in Paris, they find themselves caught in the middle, and their lives and the lives of nearly everyone they encounter are changed forever.
I’m not sure how violent the movie is, but the story is set against the backdrop of a violent revolution. I’m just going to make my kids close their eyes during that part.
The Thenardiers are very bawdy. Some of the songs, which are meant to provide comic relief, contain foul language and sexual content.
Well, there’s Fantine’s prostitution. The song’s about that are pretty sexual. And again, there’s the Thenardiers.
As I said before, this story is theologically spot on. It is only because Valjean’s soul is “purchased for God” by the bishop that Valjean is able to start a new life. Throughout the story, the character’s reference God, forgiveness, and salvation.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
How does the bishop’s kindness change Jean Valjean’s life forever?
Javert is not purely evil. Rather he is obsessed with only one aspect of God’s nature – justice. How does this over emphasis on justice, distort Javert’s view of Valjean? How does this ultimately affect Javert?
How does Valjean’s kindness to Fantine, redeem her life? And Cosettes?
What other sacrifices does Jean Valjean make? Whose lives are effected by these?
This is not necessarily the kind of movie that is better because of the “surprises.” Rather, familiarity with the plot, might help some viewers follow the film version. I highly recommend The 25th Anniversary Concert, featuring, believe it or not, a brilliant performance by Nick Jonas. Also, a quick Google search for a synopsis might be very helpful.