Alan Gratz – Ban This Book

It all started the day Amy Anne Ollinger tried to check out her favorite book in the whole world, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, from the school library. That’s when Mrs. Jones, the librarian, told her the bad news: her favorite book was banned! All because a classmate’s mom thought the book wasn’t appropriate for kids to read. 

Amy Anne decides to fight back by starting a secret banned-books library out of her locker. As word spreads, Amy Anne’s locker stash quickly grows into a school-wide sensation. Soon, she and her friends find themselves on the front line of an unexpected battle over book banning, censorship, and who has the right to decide what kids can read. 

This past week has been Banned Books Week in US, so it seemed an appropriate time to review Alan Gratz’s latest middle grade novel, Ban This Book. When offered the book for review, I jumped at the chance as the whole banning books phenomenon has always been slightly baffling to me, as it doesn’t really happen in the same way here in the Netherlands. The idea of keeping kids from reading anything that isn’t catastrophically inappropriate is strange to me. In my opinion, no one tells my girls what they can and can’t read, but me and their dad. And of course as a librarian, the issue is near and dear to my heart, so I was curious to see how Gratz would approach the concept. 

He took it on rather head-on, by having his protagonist, the brilliant Amy Anne, just start her own locker library. He also portrayed the way these decisions are sometimes (often) taken more due to political shenanigans, rather than having read the materials and the way that school librarians have to advocate for their young readers’ access to a complete collection. The one thing that was somewhat missing in this aspect for me, is that Mrs Spencer’s remained somewhat vague and generic. But through Amy Anne and her squad’s clever tactics and smart arguments, Gratz is able to show how wrong and often random the banning of books, especially from school libraries, can be and why it should stop.

I adored Amy Anne. I loved that she was a little girl of colour and that this was conveyed not through referring to her own skin colour, but through her identifying other people as white and the way she sucks on the beads at the end of her braids. What I loved most about her — how could I not? — was her fierce and all-consuming passion for reading and books. And she is able to spread her love of reading to her friends. Amy Anne’s squad of friends was fabulous. Her best friend Rebecca was so funny and wicked smart, just the sort of best friend any girl would want: one who has your back at all times. Goofy, handsome Danny Purcell is an unlikely partner-in-crime for the girls, but he really balances out the trio.

The most unlikely friend Amy Anne makes through her adventures with the Banned Book Locker Library is Trey McBride, whose mum is the one actually causing all the books to be banned. I liked that through getting to know Trey, Amy Anne learns that children aren’t their parents and that they might not share their point of view and that people’s intentions might not be what you think. It helps that Trey really is a lovely kid, who seems mortified by his mum’s behaviour and rather impressed with Amy Anne. Of course, I also rather loved her bond with the school librarian, Mrs Jones. The school librarian was a strong advocate for her charges, but her students and her books and I really enjoyed the positive way she was portrayed.

If Amy Anne’s life at school is eventful, so is the situation at home. With two younger sisters, Alexis and Angelina, who are boisterous, loud and always underfoot, she is expected always to be the wisest and the one who gives way to avoid whining and arguments. As an oldest child myself, I felt for Amy Anne so much, because it was such a relatable situation. Still, her sisters were hilarious and they had me snigger at their antics more than once. Amy Anne’s parents were infuriating, because they seem to mean so well, yet they are so extremely oblivious to Amy Anne’s struggle with making herself heard and counted. But I sort of identified with them as well, as I can completely understand how overwhelming juggling jobs, a household, and three young children can be.

What stood out to me after finishing the book, was Amy Anne’s growth over the course of the narrative, learning to speak in front of groups and standing up for herself at school and at home.  I had a wonderful time with Ban This Book, though book banning still baffles me. But the book certainly was a great read to accompany Banned Book Week and I would imagine it would be a great one to read in class and discuss the phenomenon.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.