For your banned book club: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive, racist language, disrespect for adult authority, and sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes, including a rape. As recently as 2002, it was challenged as required reading for Hamilton, Montana freshman English classes because of the author’s depiction of teen sexuality and homosexuality.

Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. But anger is like fire. It burns all clean.  – Maya Angelou

Who is this Maya Angelou?

  • Born April 4, 1928 in Saint Louis, Missouri as Marguerite Johnson.
  • Father, Bailey Johnson, naval dietician, Mother, Vivian Johnson and one sibling, brother Bailey.
  • Parents divorced when Angelou was three; children sent to live with grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.
  • Angelou claims grandmother, whom she called “momma, had a deep-brooding love that hung over everything she touched.”
  • After five years, children were sent to Saint Louis to be with mother. There, Angelou was raped by mother’s boyfriend, causing her to become silent for nearly five years.
  • Sent back to Stamps, where Mrs. Flowers helped her to recover.
  • In 1940, she and brother were sent to San Francisco to live with mother again. She ran away to join her father and his girlfriend.
  • Still unhappy, she moved to a graveyard of wrecked cars housing homeless children.
  • Angelou became pregnant; at sixteen gave birth to her son, Guy.
  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s first literary work, an autobiography.
  • Book challenged by Alabama State Textbook Committee in 1983 as “dangerous” because it “preaches bitterness and hatred against whites.”
  • Book’s title is taken from her own poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, whose title is taken from a line in Laurence Dunbar poem, “Sympathy”.

What do you think about I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?

  1. How does Ritie feel about her place in the world? Why?  Can the average teenager relate to this?  Why or why not?
  2. Seeing her mother for the first time after years of separation, Ritie describes her as “a hurricane in its perfect power.” What do you think about Ritie’s relationship with her mother? How does it compare to her relationship with her grandmother, “Momma”?
  3. Angelou writes, “If growing up is painful for the Southern Black Girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.” What does this mean?  Why?
  4. Throughout the book, Ritie struggles with feelings that she is “bad” and “sinful.” What does she conclude at the end of the memoir about right and wrong? What do you think about her ideas?
  5. How does the book’s title relate to Ritie’s self-imposed muteness?
  6. Who are positive role models for Maya?
  7. What makes Maya vulnerable to Mr. Freeman’s sexual advances? How does the rape and Mr. Freeman’s death influence her throughout the rest of the book?
  8. How was the experience of rural southern blacks different from that of black people in San Francisco?  Why?  What is the effect of that difference on Ritie?
  9. Is Angelou a reliable narrator? To what extent does her own memory seem to distort her story? Would the story seem different if it were fictional?
  10. How would you respond to adults who want to protect teens from reading this book?

For your banned book club: The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for political, religious and parental authority, sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes, including rape, violence, death and cruelty. Several members of our group said this was the most memorable and interesting book we read, though the 1990 film cut out far too many of our favorite parts.

“I’ve never understood why people consider youth a time of freedom and joy. It’s probably because they have forgotten their own.”– Margaret Atwood

Who is this Margaret Atwood?
• Born November 18, 1939, daughter of forest entomologist.
• Traveled much of childhood between Northern Ontario wilderness and capital, Ottawa.
• Attended high school in Toronto, majoring in home economics, but at sixteen determined to become a writer.
• Received undergraduate degree from University of Toronto, graduate degree from Radcliffe College.
• 1966, Atwood’s first published collection of poetry, The Circle Game, praised critically.
• 1969, first novel published, The Edible Woman. Made into film soon after, leading to sudden literary successes in Canada.
• 1986, The Handmaid’s Tale published and became bestseller. Written during anti-feminist backlash of 1980s.
• Received numerous awards and honorary degrees, author of over 23 books of fiction and nonfiction, published in more than 25 countries.
• Currently lives in Toronto with novelist Graeme Gibson and their daughter.

What do you think about The Handmaid’s Tale?
1. In fictional Gilead, women are Wives, Handmaids, Marthas, or Aunts. What do you think about characters who accept their assigned roles, without rebellion? Is there morality in simple survival? Is it more moral to rebel and risk death? Why or why not? How does this relate to your role in the real world?
2. What do the rulers of Gilead hope to achieve with their new social order? Could this sort of society be created outside of fiction? Why or why not?
3. Referring to his “cheating” the system in his affair with Offred, the Commander says “you can’t cheat nature”. How do characters in the novel find ways to follow their natural instinct? Do you see this happening in the real world?
4. Why is access to the Bible so guarded in Gilead? What might happen if it were not so guarded? Have you witnessed anything like this in the real world?
5. In the book, we are reminded that “There is more than one kind of freedom…Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.” What do you think about freedom to and from? Why?
6. Two disturbing scenes in the novel involve the handmaids turning against handmaid Janine and also whipping themselves into a frenzy at a “particicution”. Why would oppressed people lash out and attack others oppressed like them? What do they gain? What do they lose? Have you witnessed anything like this phenomenon in high school life?
7. What is the role of the historical notes at the book’s end? What does the book’s last line mean?
8. Do characters or themes of this book remind you of any other books or films you are familiar with? Any banned books or films?
9. Do you know of women in the real world who experience anything like the kinds of things described here?
10. The Handmaid’s Tale is frequently challenged; it is sexually explicit, including offensive language, disrespect for religious and political authority, emotionally disturbing scenes and themes, including rape, mob violence and the loss of a child. What do you think about teenagers reading this book? Why?

For your banned book club: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson

By the way: This book has been challenged or banned by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for religious, political and legal authority, and sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes, including rampant drug and alcohol use and violence. Johnny Depp plays the drug-addled author in the 2005 film. Reading the front page made me feel a lot better. Against that heinous background, my crimes were pale and meaningless. I was a relatively respectable citizen — a multiple felon, perhaps, but certainly not dangerous. And when the Great Scorer came to write against my name, that would surely make a difference. Or would it? I turned to the sports page and saw a small item about Muhammad Ali; his case was before the Supreme Court, the final appeal. He’d been sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to kill “slopes.” “I ain’t got nothin’ against them Viet Congs,” he said. Five years. Suddenly I felt guilty again. — Hunter S. Thompson

Who is this Hunter S. Thompson?

• Hunter Stockton Thompson (1937-2005), literary and political cult figure and leading practitioner of “Gonzo journalism,” a term he created.

• His political/cultural criticism of United States in 1970s flowed from series of stories about his own outsider adventures.

• Son of Jack and Virginia (Ray) Thompson, Louisville, Kentucky.

• After attending public schools, joined Air Force, receiving dishonorable discharge in 1958 for disregard of military dress and authority.

• Spent 1965 riding and living with Hell’s Angels, leading to first published book, Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (1966).

• Late 1960s, wrote story on Kentucky Derby, transforming career. Drunken Thompson submitted only disorganized notes, rather than conventional article, focusing more on self than race, which was published intact and widely-acclaimed, creating what he called “Gonzo” journalism.

• Assigned by Rolling Stone to cover motorcycle race and national drug law enforcement convention in Las Vegas, wrote two-part story as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), immediately seen as masterpiece of New Journalism – a genre he shares with Truman Capote.

• Bizarre persona, featuring Hawaiian shirt, cigarette holder, and mirrored sunglasses, inspired Garry Trudeau’s Raoul Duke in comic strip “Doonesbury.”

• 1985 to 1989, Thompson wrote syndicated column for San Francisco Examiner.

• Lived on 100-acre farm in Woody Creek, Colorado, near Aspen, as compulsive hermit, drinking, riding motorcycles, playing loud music, and target shooting Chinese gongs with Magnum .44.

• By age 50, charged with five felony counts of possessing drugs and possessing and storing explosives illegally.

• 1997 Terry Gilliam (formerly of Monty Python) directed movie with Johnny Depp as Thompson.

• At age of 67, Thompson died of self-inflicted gunshot wound at his Colorado home Feb. 20, 2005.

What do you think about Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas?

1. Many current and historical artists and writers have claimed a heightening of their artistic perception through drugs. As a reader, how do you see Duke’s drug-induced perception? How do you balance this against his paranoia? What does this tell you about the perception and credibility of other writers, artists, musicians or opinion makers?

2. What do you think of Duke’s rebellion and preference for immediate gratification? Does he appeal to the American reader or offend us? Can you think of other characters in art or literature or film that attract/repel us in the same way?

3. Thompson’s attorney, Dr. Gonzo, remains drugged throughout the story, behaving far more impulsively and criminally than thoughtfully. What does this character tell us about Thompson’s view of law and order? How about other law related characters in the book?

4. After the hitchhiker, a typical middle-American kid, is picked up by Thompson and his attorney, he jumps out of their car in terror. How does Thompson want us to see the Hitchhiker? How does he want us to see himself through the Hitchhiker’s eyes?

5. Thompson calls Circus-Circus the “vortex of the American Dream”. Why? What does Thompson think the American Dream is and what do you think?

6. Thompson and his attorney drive cars they call the Great Red Shark and the White Whale. What does the author think they represent for his characters? What do you think? What does a car mean to you? What does a car mean in American culture?

7. Where is the “fear and loathing” in this novel? Who is fearful? Who loathes? Why? Should they? What is the root of this fear and loathing? What real world experiences seem connected to these feelings? Is this fear and loathing unreasonable?

8. In the beginning of his book, Thompson cites Samuel Johnson: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” What does that mean to Thompson? To you? To current bloggers?

9. What is this novel’s take on morality? Is anything here either moral or immoral? Is everything amoral?

10. Does a book like this, so full of illegal behavior, make those behaviors more attractive to teen readers? Why or why not? Would you recommend this book to other teens? Why or why not?

Banned books for teens: The Catcher In The Rye

The summer before starting high school, my son and two of his friends, let’s call them Theo, Grace and Maggie, got a little self-conscious about sitting in on their library’s adult book group, trying to talk with adults, in an adult way, about adult books. They decided to start a reading group of their own, for kids their age. So they met at the local Borders and wandered the aisles of young adult fiction, finally choosing The Catcher in the Rye, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Of Mice and Men for their first summer’s book line-up.

They made a flier and distributed it at school and at swim team. Theo and I researched the authors and came up with questions for each meeting. Grace and her mother, Carey, handled meeting logistics, communication and food. That first summer, 6-10 kids joined them every month to discuss a book. At the end of the summer, it occurred to them that they had chosen only books that had been challenged or banned in school districts or libraries.

There had to be a reason for that coincidental choice. There was. These books were all interesting, edgy and a little bit intellectually dangerous. Just like the group. Theo and Grace decided to make themselves over into the Banned Book Club.

For the next three summers, Theo and Grace and a good corps of reading friends (Curt, Kayla, Alycia, Donny, Allie and Rudi were the regulars) and their mom-members (Carey and me) read a banned book every month, talking about the authors, the books’ literary merits, their connection to real life and to other banned books, why the group thought each book had been banned or challenged, and to what degree they agreed or disagreed with the challengers’ complaints.

Some of the challenges they laughed at; had The Scarlet Letter been banned just to make it more appealing to teenagers who would never choose it otherwise? Other challenges they debated seriously; really, would any of them allow their future children to read Lolita?

After their fourth summer of the Banned Books Club, together they had read twelve great books, twelve banned books, twelve books that made a difference in their thinking. Not only did they all get pretty good SAT scores, but they also got a lot more of the inside jokes on The Simpsons.

Here is the background information and questions we used for our very first talk.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger.

By the way:  According to FBI profilers, this book is often found in the possession of serial killers. This book has been banned or challenged by people who object to its offensive language, disrespect for adult authority, sexually explicit and emotionally disturbing scenes, including molestation and mental illness. I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect. – J.D. Salinger

Who is this J. D. Salinger?

• Jerome David Salinger, born New York City, Jan. 1, 1919; parents were successful importers of Kosher cheese; lived in beautiful apartment on Park Avenue.

• Attended many prep schools, as well as Valley Forge Military Academy (1934-36) (not unlike Holden Caulfield’s school history).

• 1937 to 1938, studied at Ursinus College and New York University, graduating from neither.

• Fell in love with Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene O’Neill, writing each other daily letters; was shocked when she married much older actor, Charlie Chaplin.

• Drafted into the infantry in WWII and involved in Normandy invasion; fellow soldiers called him brave, a hero.

• In war-time Europe, wrote stories, met Ernest Hemingway, was hospitalized for stress.

• 1945, married French doctor Sylvia; later divorced.

• 1951 published Catcher in the Rye.

• 1955 married Claire Douglas, Radcliffe student and daughter of British art critic Robert Langston Douglas, insisting she drop out of college. Couple had children, Margaret and Mathew.

•Divorced again in 1967, retreating further into isolated world.

• 1972, age 53, had a year-long affair with 18-year old writer Joyce Maynard, asking her to drop out of Yale.

• Twenty five years later, Maynard put Salinger’s letters to her up for auction, publicizing tell-all book, At Home in the World, about relationship with what she sees as an abusive older author.

• Salinger’s third wife, Colleen O’Neill, is a nurse and quiltmaker.

• Catcher sells approximately 250,000 copies annually, with no author publicity, not even a photograph, in connection with book.

• To director Elia Kazan’s request to produce The Catcher in the Rye on Broadway, Salinger answered: “I cannot give my permission. I fear Holden wouldn’t like it.”

• Sean Connery’s character, Forrester, in the 2000 film Finding Forrester, was loosely based on Salinger.

What do you think about The Catcher in the Rye?

1. What seems normal about Holden Caulfield? Why would that seem normal for a high school boy? What seems abnormal about Holden? Why do we see that as abnormal?

2. What do you think about Holden’s view of adults? Does it match your view? Why or why not?

3. Holden has a hard time “fitting in.” Does this make him a good narrator? Why/why not? How does it affect you that your narrator remains outside his world? Does someone like Holden choose to be alienated, or does the world choose that for him?

4. How does Holden feel about girls and about his relationship to them? Do you know anything about that?

5. Why does Holden have a breakdown?

6. At the end of the novel, Holden recognizes that you have to let the kids on the carousel reach for the gold ring. What does this mean?

7. Why does Holden get the title poem (by Robert Burns) wrong –“If a body meet a body,” not “If a body catch a body.” Why does Salinger put that in the title?

8. What other books, songs, films or characters do you know that seem somehow connected with Catcher in the Rye, or with Holden Caulfield?

9. Why is it that FBI profilers have identified carrying a copy of this book as part of a pattern that suggests a man is capable of serial crimes? Does Holden himself seem like someone on the brink of criminality? How do you interpret this?

10. Why do you think this book ranks so high on the banned books list? What are some people worried will happen when teenagers read it?

Verbing: a great way to corporate your sentences

I love a little twitter I read today, in which Debra Huron cites Richard Nordquist’s “What is verbing?”. Nordquist explains that in contemporary speech and writing, we constantly turn nouns into verbs.

Here is an example of verbing: “I coached a team of energy economists all day yesterday on an annual report they are teaming-up on.”  In that sentence, I convert a noun, coach, into a verb, coached. I also convert the noun, team, into the verb, team-up.” Pretty typical stuff.

We all do this, every day. Especially if we work in the corporate world, spawning ground for verbing. This seems familiar and a little fun. Except when it turns into a problem.

Prepping to meet energy writers yesterday, I turned up many samples of this habit. Here is one:

“Management suggests we one-time downsize the window, rather than try to pre-Cluster 5 continuing downsizing design features that must converge with processes for Cluster 5 and subsequent clusters.”

In that example, I think you can see why verbing can create trouble. Often, corporate writers turn longish noun phrases into verb phrases, within sentences that are already full of very-long noun phrases. This makes it very hard to know what they mean.  I get a little tempted to circular-file the thing, in fact:)

We talk a lot about avoiding jargon in corporate writing. One way to do that is to use real and familiar verbs, rather than to engage in endless verbing.

Do you have any good examples? I would love to see them.

On the path and in the weeds: find a writing balance


In a charming little piece, Upside of Distraction, Benjamin Nugent describes how he became ironically less productive when he focused solely on his writing, editing out television, internet and non-writing friendships. When he reintroduced normal, modern-day distractions, his writing became more lively and interesting.

But most of us never achieve the pristine (flat) focus he describes in the “before” section of his essay.  We spend most of our writing hours desperately training our eyes away from the blinking, beeping and pinging reminders of other things to do.

To combat this distraction, try using state dependent memory. Find a place and time that help you focus. Write in that space and time over and over, until your body and mind remember it. Make it ritual. Coffee first. Smoothie second. Shutters open. Music on. Sunlight shining on desktop. Go.

But then, after you have completed that ritual work time, open yourself up to unpredictable, spontaneous discovery by moving outside, to new places, around new people, to prevent your thinking from going flat.

As Nugent suggests, in writing, you need to balance narrow focus and open receptiveness. A walker can get where she’s going efficiently by minding the already-worn path. She will be less likely to trip on stones and twist her ankle. But if she only ever stays on the path, never steps into even a little bit of the unpredictable, she will rarely find that interesting nest or that strange blue bug that live in the weeds.


Shiny little bits and pieces: Plain Language Twittery

Take a look at this elegant little collection of recent  posts about writing, gathered and designed by plain language goddess Cheryl Stephens.  Lots of good thoughts in here.

I was especially interested in the Language Lab’s “Profanity and the Power of Language: When Words Offend,” given the many squeamish years I spent moderating a teenagers’ Banned Books Club.  Turns out that even 16 year olds can conclude that when you overuse profanity, it loses its rhetorical value.

If, even so, you are interested in facilitating your own Banned Books Club, here is a link to a three-month series that really worked for one group of sophomores.

Writers, listen to readers

This week, the beginning of my new semester at Sacramento State magically aligned with a plain language workshop I was giving and a library book club I was leading.  At first, alignment was the last thing I expected. I was meeting with three very different groups.

At Sac State, I had five sections of twenty-something students dreading a semester spent focused on essay writing.

At a big energy company, I had fifteen economist PhDs, struggling to make their complicated ideas understood by others outside their domain.

And at Arden-Dimick library, I had fifteen mystery-loving library-fans.

In all three places, though, the participants circled back to the same idea. If you write well, you can thrive in most any workplace. If you do not, you spend too much time and energy hiding that weakness. You fail to persuade your customers to buy your product or idea. You struggle to clarify your thinking for your colleagues or supervisors or teachers. You find yourself dreading writing days, almost as much as you dread the days when you hear back from your readers. Your organization probably suffers as a result.

The library group reminded me what happens when a writer is unclear. The reader puts down the book. Or the memo. Or the essay.


It was good to get such a timely, explicit reminder why we work so hard to tell complicated stories plainly.