banned books week – personal edition

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Growing up, I was a weirdo of mediocre proportions.

This, believe it or not, is worse than being a freak.

Freaks are tossed out of society. They are, at best, ignored until their freakish behavior gives us something to ogle, point and laugh at. The dude with the green Mohawk and facial piercings, the one with safety pins in his forearms and an emaciated girlfriend perennially at his side, serves, so we think, no societal purpose other than the exception proving the rule.

The weirdos, though…society tries to pull them in, straighten them out, give them the benefit of the doubt and a fighting chance. ‘You could still be useful,’ they say. ‘You could be productive,’ they say. They hand you values and ideals and beliefs on a platter and say that it’s fine dining, that it’s delectable.

I didn’t believe most of the things the people around me believed. I didn’t think the way that they thought and I didn’t value what they valued.

And I also wasn’t sure if it was okay to be different.

The first person I remember truly identifying with was a guy I met when I was in the third grade. He was a rotund kid, like me. He was smart, too, smarter than I was. And he got nervous around other people. Just like me.Bigger kids picked on him and sometimes he bested them with his intellect, sometimes they made him look like a fop. He was confident when allowed to use his brain, but reticent in most other aspects of his life.

And he used big words. We were like peas and carrots.

We hung out quite frequently, going for ice cream together, riding the bus to school together, staying up late at night together, and I got to know him very well. For two years, we were inseparable.

He wasn’t real, of course. I found him in a book, which was blessedly one of a series of books.(1) And there I was at the beginning of my adolescence and my best friend was imaginary.

It wouldn’t be until much later in life that I would realize the implications of that fact, and even later than that when I figured out how I felt about it.

And the truth is that I wouldn’t have it differently. By coming into contact with these characters, I learned about myself not against the backdrop of differences I felt with every real person I knew, but through the similarities I found between me and the characters on the page.

Granted, I’m not the best person in the world. Not the most honest, not the kindest, not the gentlest, not the smartest. Not any of those superlatives. But I wouldn’t even know that if I hadn’t had books to help me figure these things out.

And every time we ban a book, for whatever the reason, I worry that we’re robbing some child – or adult – the chance to learn a little more about herself.

That makes me sad. For the child, yes. But also for the child that was me.

It was in some of these books that some people don’t want us to read that I found a few of my lifelong friends. Had I missed them….

  1. The book was The Secret of Terror Castle, the first in the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series.

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