Thursday October 4 2012 600 am
It’s the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, an annual, national observance that marks the freedom to read. It sounds so basic, doesn’t it? Yet every year, this fundamental freedom is challenged in schools and libraries across our nation. Someone tries to ban To Kill a Mockingbird on grounds it contains offensive language and racism. Someone tries to pull Harry Potter from the shelves, claiming it exposes children to satanism. Others try to restrict access to the children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, because it tells the true story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who partnered to care for a parentless baby penguin, while still other people attempt to ban Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax because it promotes a pro-tree message. And on and on. People don’t merely refuse to read these books themselves–a shame, in my opinion, but absolutely their choice–but they strive to remove the books from public shelves so as to restrict the ability of others to read them, too.
What’s more dangerous: the possibility that books might make us think, or the threat of ignorance imposed upon us by people who fear knowledge and ideas?
(Tell me you didn’t need to think very long before answering that one.)
This year, for Banned Books Week, I’m not only reviewing my own pick for the week, but I’m participating in Book Journey’s Banned Books Week party. Click on the link in this paragraph or at the bottom of this post to hop on over to her blog, where you’ll find a huge collection of reviews and giveaways of banned books throughout the week.
On to my pick for 2012: The Color of Earth, by Kim Dong Hwa.
When perusing the most challenged titles of 2011 to select my book for this year, the number two entry on the list, The Color of Earth, jumped out at me for several reasons. First, I’d never heard of it. Second, the cover sketch of a girl dressed in a hanbok intrigued me; I’m always looking for insights into Korean culture and wondered if this book might offer something unique. Finally, when I looked up the book online, I discovered it was a graphic novel–more specifically, manhwa, or the Korean equivalent of manga, which is something I almost never read.
If Banned Books Week doesn’t present the opportunity to open a reading door you would never think to open otherwise, I don’t know what does. Those challenging The Color of Earth have most frequently cited “nudity, sex education, sexual explicit[ness]” and termed it “inappropriate to age group.” Let’s dive in and see what all the fuss is about.
The first book in a trilogy, The Color of Earth is the coming-of-age story of a young girl, Ehwa, set in an unspecified time period (probably early twentieth century) in a rural Korean village, and her widowed mother, who owns the local tavern. Ehwa is seven years old as the book opens, and as she begins to ask questions about her body, she gets the kind of information one might expect from her peers. She seeks confirmation from her mother, who sets her straight, and an exploratory journey of life, love and the mother-daughter bond begins.
For the next 300 pages, delicate illustrations of Korean village life and symbolism accompany Ehwa’s questions and longings as she grows through adolescence. Ehwa isn’t the only character who discovers her heart; her mother finds a love interest, too, in the form of a traveling salesman who leaves behind a paintbrush each time he visits. Mother and daughter discuss the changes in their lives and their emotions in frank terms appropriate to Ehwa’s age and questions, solidifying the bond between them with each exchange.
There is explicit discussion of male and female bodies in the book, as well as honest examples of topics such as what happens during puberty, the strength and confusion of romantic emotions, the acknowledgement that a single–in this case, widowed–woman can have sexual desires and fulfill them, and the harassment of Ehwa’s mother by the men who patronize her tavern. There are also a few tasteful sexual illustrations.
All of these things happen in real life. Some of these topics probably aren’t ones I would explore with my elementary school child, but my middle school kid? We’re getting close, if we’re not there already. (See my last post.)
All of these elements play out in the context of the aforementioned tight bond between Ehwa and her mother. Left alone following the earlier, unspecified death of Ehwa’s father, the two become each other’s confidantes as Ehwa grows up. When Ehwa has questions, she may take in some information from her peers, but she goes to her mother for the truth. She trusts her mother, and the mother in turn trusts her daughter. The two characters share a closeness those of us who are parents can only hope to emulate as our own daughters become teenagers.
I can’t fathom why anyone would want to ban that.
I’m keeping The Color of Earth on my bookshelf for my kids. The frank discussion of certain topics might help open conversations with my kids. The illustrations are beautiful. The story is set in a time and place that is worthy of a cultural conversation* all its own. The book offers a positive example of a mother-daughter relationship, and it addresses universal, real-life topics in a specific cultural context without talking down to kids or pretending that their feelings don’t matter.
So what are you reading for Banned Books Week?
*The role of women in the book is an open question. It’s something I would discuss with my child in the context of the time and place in which the book is set, and I would be interested in seeing how the final two books in the trilogy–which I have not read–address the issue.