For your banned book club: Ordinary People

Ordinary People, by Judith Guest

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for adult authority, sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes, including a suicide attempt, death and divorce.  The kids in the group who liked this book best were the ones who also liked The Catcher in the Rye.  We also loved the 1980 Robert Redford film version.

It’s always obvious to me when someone is looking at me with an idea of who I am and hoping that that’s the person I’m going to be. No matter how subtle it is, it’s there, and you want to give them who they really want. But it ain’t me. — Judith Guest 

Who is this Judith Guest?

  • Born 1936, in Detroit, Michigan, grew up and was educated there.
  • Great-niece of Edgar A. Guest, former Poet Laureate of Michigan who wrote a poem a day for the Detroit Free Press for forty years.
  • Studied English and psychology at University of Michigan, graduating with BA in Education in 1958.
  • Married college boyfriend, taught first grade, and had a baby boy all within fourteen months.
  • Sent Ordinary People to several publishers before finding one who saw potential in the novel.
  • Ordinary People became one of the great bestsellers of the late 20th century.
  • Adapted into a Robert Redford film winning several Oscars, including Best Picture award,1980.
  • Currently married with three sons and seven grandchildren in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

What do you think about Ordinary People?

  1. Why is this novel called Ordinary People?  Are the parents and teenagers and teachers like the people you know in real life?  Why or why not?
  2. Why is Conrad so sensitive to Stillman’s teasing?  What do you think about Stillman’s personality?  Why does Conrad fight him?  Is it wrong to fight him?  Does he have any options?  What do adults think teenagers should do in circumstances like this?  Are they right?
  3. The psychologists Erik Erikson and Abraham Maslow say that the teenage years are all about the desire to belong, and that through the attempt to belong, teenagers discover who they really are.  Do you agree?  Why or why not?
  4. How are teachers portrayed in this novel?
  5. What behaviors in the book tell you something relevant about Beth?  About Cal? What is the main thing we need to know about them?
  6. How do Conrad, Cal and Beth feel about Buck?  What role does he play in this novel?
  7. Why can’t this family talk to each other?  Does this difficulty ring true in your experience?  Why or why not?
  8. Why does Cal decide to see Dr. Berger?  What does Dr. Berger do for Conrad?
  9. What is the relationship between chance and choice in Ordinary People?
  10. This book has been challenged and banned in school districts.  What about it is challenge-worthy?  Why are some adults troubled by this content?  Would you feel uncomfortable discussing this book in school?  Why or why not?

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