I came to the book Holes in my elementary school library. It was stuffed into a corner section, on a shelf just above the bean bag back and half covered by a Dr. Suess “Read” poster. The cover of Holes was wrapped in plastic like a small gift that you open by folding one end over into your palm and scanning the contents. I wasn’t looking for curse words just yet, that wouldn’t come until seventh grade when I was kicked out of the lunch table for being too much of something. Too much of a nerd, too much of a girl who didn’t feel like cheerleading. Too much into dissecting a frot and too much into laughing. Too much into not caring how much these things mattered.
I was looking for a book because the Scholastic Book Fair had passed and I spent all of my money on a cat poster. (Typical). The cat was small, poofy and orange, hiding in a pink flowered tree in spring. Her eyes were surprised and she came with a matching book mark. I didn’t even look at the books, I didn’t even pull one from a shelf. I went straight to the poster and poked my eye into the rolled up hole of it.
When I read Holes, I didn’t believe boys could be sent to “camps” or anyone with freckles could be humiliated. I didn’t know that digging was a punishment because my parents had always given me everything. I was anxious, and wanting. When children come to books, they come like full moons. I wasn’t expected to read it for homework, to answer focus questions or fill out a graphic organizer. I wasn’t expected to finish in a week and then take a test, or cheat and use spark notes because that’s what everyone does now-a-days. I was just expecting to let my eyes wander through a sentence, sprint through a paragraph, until I couldn’t stop moving and I was running in an open field of small Roman letters. I wasn’t scared because it was so much print and no pictures. I wasn’t unhappy because the librarian didn’t smile when she handed back the book after scanning it. I just took it calmly and sat down at a library table to begin. A beginning which I remember as a delicate opening into creation.
In eighth grade, I cut my hair short, too short for those girls at the lunch table who weren’t speaking to me anymore and had all signed a note saying that I was officially replaced. My mother had called their parents which made the whole thing worse. I decided to sit in the pull-out bleachers and read during lunch. I read Judy Blume, Sweet Valley High Books, Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein because he rhymed and I could feel the soft beat of alliteration in my head. I didn’t know what it was called then, but now I know it’s heart. It’s the soft putter, the beauty of a syllable that shares the same sound with another. How an author can put words together and somehow create magic. I forgot fairy Godmother’s because I had Judy Blume. I forgot what it was like to be a skinny white girl alone in a gym bleacher while everyone else was eating rectangular pizza in the lunch room because I had Laurie Halse Anderson.
When a book is titled Speak, it teaches you what you must do, Speak. Children are the most silent when they read. They scan a pointer finger over each word and mouth the letters. Their lips just a rustle. They are quiet and so is every other utterable thing in the world. Children enter books like they enter a cloak closet. Turn the handle, open the wooden chest, huddle underneath, listen to their own breath fog up the sound of shadow. They huddle, they nook-up, they cross their legs in a corner, they hold their knees against their chest and use only three fingers to hold a book up in front of their face. Before they can even write cursive, or ride a bicycle, they can hold a seventy page flick of thought in their hands and imagine.
But children who read are not quiet children. They do not always sit in the corner, they do not stay closed up. They yell because they’ve read it. They bloom because they overcome. They speak up because the words have taught them how. They give opinions because the pages have been turned so many times that they know it’s okay for children to make a difference. They are spokesman because they have been silent, they have read.
Books were the greatest thing that ever happened to me.
When I was kicked out of the lunch table, where was I expected to go but into Maycomb County, Alabama and try to keep the Mockingbird inside my small ribbed chest alive. It is a sin to kill a Mockingbird, Atticus said. In eighth grade, I would repeat this to myself whenever someone picked on the fingernail gap in my teeth. It’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird, Cass. Why don’t you try walking around in his skin? I met Miss Havisham and let go of the idea that my hair couldn’t be wild and unruly. It couldn’t frizz in the summer, it didn’t need the heat of a hair dryer to make me someone who was important. I went to islands, and London, and Sweet Valley High where the girls smiled because they had boyfriends and pink-starred jewelry. I met boys who had personalities that were more than sports and hormones. I moved and flew, and fell into a mason jar of dreams with The BFG. I was in the South, but there were giants, and giant peaches, and talking animals.
In school systems, there are parents who ban books for too many reasons. They are uneducated, they are too educated, they are religious, they aren’t religious, they believe in literal, they believe in actual, they believe in building walls, in age, in the innocence that fourteen brings. They don’t believe in language, or history. They believe that the Holocaust never happened. Their grandmother used the n-word. They are racist, they are in love with someone they shouldn’t be.
They are afraid.
I want to tell you that books open doors, they don’t close them.
They show a window to a world that may be impossibly filled with hope. The hope from that world leaks like a faucet into a world without hope, a house without electricity, or dry cupboards, or empty beds. They let dead store fronts come back to life. They let kids play Quiddich. They teach kids who have normal parents what it feels like to have a parent who drinks until they are sick and ugly. They teach kids who are alone, or sorry, or feeling unforgivable that there is something in the world that is still light, still somewhere in their small body, a flicker, a twinkle. If you rub the spot hard enough, it will shine. If you read enough words about worlds that aren’t your own, or that make you feel like you can open a window and yell out into the shift blue dress of sky, then you are not alone.
You are not afraid.
Before we burn another book in a pile of cinders, and we lose trees, and get angry over type and meaning, we need to remember that books are a place for all the things that are great and forgotten and secret. They hold small bulbs of light in their folds.
It is a sin to kill a mockingbird, Atticus said.
It is the white space on the page that makes one child feel like they are holding every piece of hurt in their hands, and stirring up the dust.
Those Who Ban Books
By: Maya Angelou
An original poem written exclusively for RHI Magazine
They were scared of sexes and hexes and multi-colored sheets.
And men and women doing even consensual things.
They banned a same-sex marriage room and Judy Blume
Charles Dickens Chicken-Lickin and Why the Caged Bird Sings.