A book list for teens who refuse to be told what they can't read
Are there books that contain ideas so crucial to understanding the world that it's actually dangerous not to read them? We reached out to Kansas City's biggest book-readers and change-makers to find out what titles they'd put on such a list. Here's what they said.
Toni Morrison once called the practice of banning books a "purist and yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children."
Morrison was objecting to a proposed ban "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain, shortly before she died in 2019. It's probably safe to assume she also would offer harsh words over the removal of her own novel, "The Bluest Eye," and a number of others from school libraries in Wentzville, Missouri.
That particular book ban, enacted in January, is now at the center of a lawsuit brought against the Wentzville School District by the ACLU of Missouri. Leading the charge is a group of high school students who argue they have the right to read those books — and that the school unconstitutionally targeted works by "racial or sexual minorities."
Efforts to stop students from reading certain books have escalated quickly in the name of "parents' rights," and despite national attention, the anti-reading movement shows no signs of slowing down. Just this past week in Missouri, Attorney General Eric Schmitt created an online platform to make it easier for parents to report to the state what they consider objectionable books and lessons.
Finding lists of challenged books is easy. But what about a list of books so good, so crucial to understanding the world and the diverse people and stories within it, that not reading them would be the real travesty?
Books so powerfully relatable that being unable to access them constitutes the real threat to students' wellbeing?
After all, once you immerse yourself in someone else's perspective, your world view doesn't shrink back to its previous size. And I consider that a good thing.
I reached out to some of the smartest Kansas Citians I know to help compile such a list for today's youth.
These are the books they recommended. It's far from a complete guide for self-education, but it's a pretty great place to start.
Sonia Warshawski: Holocaust survivor
At her longtime tailor shop in Metcalf South Mall, Sonia Warshawski got the nickname Big Sonia — for the size of her personality, and not her physical stature. Warshawski is a Holocaust survivor, and the subject of a documentary, "Big Sonia," made by her granddaughter.
In 1942, when Warshawski was 17, she was sent to a Polish ghetto and then later taken by train to a concentration camp. There, she saw her mother enter a gas chamber and never emerge.
When the Holocaust survival memoir "Maus," by Art Spiegelman, was banned in Tennessee schools, people expressed outrage. Educational settings seemed to be showing a preference for the sanitized Holocaust narratives of bystanders, rejecting outright the stories of those who experienced concentration camps first-hand.
Warshawski tells her own story at middle schools, prisons and film festivals. In fact, she gets so many requests for reading recommendations that her list was ready to go before I asked. Here are a few:
- "The Last Jew of Treblinka" by Chil Rajchman
- "Neighbors" by Jan T. Gross
- "The Girl in the Green Sweater" by Krystyna Chiger
- "Night" by Elie Wiesel
- "Life in a Jar" by Jack Mayer
- "The Nazis Next Door" by Eric Lichtblau
Vladimir Sainte: author, therapist, and social worker
Growing up in Queens, New York, Vladimir Sainte was a handful by his own admission. Unsure what to do with him, Sainte's Haitian-born parents sent him to live with an uncle in Kansas City. Now, he works at University Health (formerly Truman Medical Center), helping young people struggling with anxiety and behavior issues — like he once did.
One of his go-to methods is bibliotherapy — the use of literature to help a person externalize their own dilemmas, and hopefully see themselves differently. But Sainte started encountering clinical situations requiring books he couldn't find.
He told me about one child with brown skin who wanted to change that aspect of himself so desperately that he'd begun trying to remove it — using sandpaper. That kid's struggle to feel comfortable in his own skin prompted Sainte to start writing books himself.
"When I think of books that I would urgently want to get in the hands of young people in our community, I immediately think about books focusing on mental health and race," Sainte says.
- "The Teen Girl’s Anxiety Survival Guide: Ten Ways to Conquer Anxiety and Feel Your Best" by Lucie Hemmen
- "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas
- "You Are Your Best Thing" by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown
- "Little and Lion" by Brandy Colbert
- "The Only Black Girls in Town" by Brandy Colbert
Debbie Pettid: irreverent children's book purveyor
Known for her 30-year tenure as owner and operator of the Reading Reptile — a playfully iconoclastic children's bookstore first located in Westport, then in Brookside — Debbie Pettid is now building exhibits for The Rabbit hOle, her soon-to-be children's literature museum.
One of her recommendations — "Hole In My Life" by Jack Gantos — is a memoir about smuggling drugs and getting caught. Pettid acknowledges that this is an unconventional background for a children's book author. But she thinks it's important for young people to see someone make a mistake, be accountable for it, and then grow.
"One event should not define your entire life," she says.
- "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie
- "Speak," by Laurie Halse Anderson
- "Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
- "The First Part Last" by Angela Johnson
- "After Tupac and D Foster" by Jacqueline Woodson
- "Hole in My Life" by Jack Gantos
- "Weetzie Bat" by Francesca Lia Block
- "Stitches," by David Small
Dorothy and James McField: former owners of The Hub bookstore
More than 45 years ago, a bookstore called The Hub was the place to go in Kansas City if you wanted to get your hands on Black literature and history — the kind not available in white-owned bookstores, and not yet taught in schools.
Owners Dorothy and James McField — a married couple — told KCUR that the idea for The Hub came from a casual conversation among friends brainstorming about what their Kansas City, Kansas, community needed. The McFields suggested a bookstore.
“And they all laughed at us,” James then recalled. "‘Where you going to put it?’ they wondered. '5th and Quindaro!' And they laughed louder.”
The couple sent along reading recommendations for young people seeking to inform themselves today, but they had trouble narrowing down their list. "It's really hard to choose," Dorothy wrote.
- "The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein
- "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander
- "Between the World and Me," by Ta-Nehisi Coates
- "Born a Crime," by Trevor Noah
Natasha Ria El-Scari: poet, educator, and gallerist
Natasha Ria El-Scari doesn't shy away from taboo; she once wrote a manifesto on the importance of mothers talking to sons about sex.
So maybe it's not surprising that all of the books El-Scari recommends have been banned or challenged at some point. But that's not why she wants young people to read them.
El-Scari decribes "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker as "a triumph of the human spirit" and a portrayal of "what unconditional love looks like." She calls "If Beale Street Could Talk" by James Baldwin "probably one of the most beautiful and frustrating books ever."
- "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker
- "If Beale Street Could Talk" by James Baldwin
- "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison
- "The House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros
Suzanne Hogan: podcaster, bike mechanic, and bassist
You probably know Suzanne Hogan as the producer and host of A People's History of Kansas City from KCUR Studios. But she's got a lot of other claims to fame in town, too. Hogan was an original founder of the 816 Bike Collective, and she's a touring musician with a punk band.
Knowing that Hogan is building a personal library of Kansas City history books, I asked if there was anything in her treasure trove that should be required reading in local high schools. She thought of one book immediately: "Racism in Kansas City: A Short History" by G. S. Griffin.
"I've read a lot of history books about Kansas City, and they're not all — how do I say this a nice way — easy to digest? They can be pretty hard to sift through," Hogan says.
But she says Griffin's book is an exception, adding that racism is an important part of our city's history, one she doesn't think students get enough of a chance to explore.
Hogan's other recommendation is a novel that made an impression on her, back when she was in high school
- "Racism in Kansas City: A Short History" by G.S. Griffin
- "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Izzy Wasserstein: science fiction writer
"We are living in science fictional times," wrote Izzy Wasserstein in a 2020 op-ed in the Kansas Reflector.
The Kansas-based writer argued that science fiction can't really help us predict the future, but it can help guide us through the surreally bizarre challenges of the present: climate change, a global pandemic, political upheaval.
"Science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change," Wasserstein wrote. "It doesn’t tell us what tomorrow holds, but it helps us see how we might survive and even thrive in these dangerous times."
In 2022, Wasserstein draws our attention to a handful of particularly helpful titles, including "The Four Profound Weaves," by R.M Lemberg. One cover blurb calls this book "the anti-authoritarian, queer-mystical fairy tale we need right now."
- "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K Le Guinn
- "The Four Profound Weaves" by R.M. Lemberg
- "Dawn" by Octavia Butler
Adib Khorram: author of YA fiction
Adib Khorram has just published a book he expects will get challenged if not banned. His other books already have. And plus? "It's very gay," he explains nonchalantly.
Khorram himself grew up queer and Iranian in the Midwest in the 1980s and 1990s. And he would have loved to see himself in the books he read in school — but he never did.
Khorram is part of a larger movement in YA fiction to correct that, for kids of many backgrounds and identities. He also keeps up with the genre's newest authors and books. For a recommended reading list, Khorram tells me about "Strange Grace," by Tessa Gratton, another local author.
"It takes place in a kind of small fantastical town where nothing bad ever happens, except every seven years they literally sacrifice one of their children to a forest. It's really a story about how young people are often responsible for fixing the mistakes of their elders," Khorram says. "And if that's not a perfect metaphor for what's going on now."
Khorram also recommends "Proxy" by Alex London as a reflection on the digital landscape, as well as what Khorram calls "death-stage capitalism."
- "Strange Grace" by Tessa Gratton
- "Proxy" by Alex London
- "How To Be Remy Cameron" by Julian Winters
- "Dear Justyce" by Nic Stone
This is, of course, a list that could go on indefinitely. All the books people deserve to be able to read would require a whole library — and that's the point.
But I know this list will keep me reading for quite a while.