Teenagers like banned books

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.

book clubThey 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.

I think a Banned Books Club is a good idea for intelligent, thoughtful, rigorous teenagers.  In this blog, I will share the author background, pop culture connections  and discussion questions this group of high school readers found most interesting.

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Sacramento’s summertime literary slow-food events

tomatoes sacLast week’s New York Times paperback nonfiction bestsellers list, includes five books in the top twenty with titles referencing food or drink. Apparently, people who really like to read also really like to eat. One or two clicks of the mouse can lead to dozens of on-line book groups focusing on food in literature.

Bloggers there will rhapsodize on food in books, at least in part because reading and cooking and eating well all imply the pleasure of slowing down, the willingness to delay gratification for just a little while, knowing that the time spent building up to the ultimate thing makes the thing better ultimately.

Sacramento is a natural epicenter of slow food and reading. Sacramentans are surrounded by farms operated by sustainable food activists, many of whom deliver local produce to families in town in boxes, once a week.  Hungry workers can head out the door of the Downtown Public Library any summer Wednesday at lunchtime to buy a fragrant bag of peaches picked this morning, from the farmer who picked them, to slice and grill for dessert tonight. Restaurants all over downtown and the midtown grid express their devotion to local food products by naming on their menu the farmers and ranches and dairies that produce their ingredients.  All of this food activity tends to bring the authors who discuss slow food to town.

Last week, local food and book lovers joined slow food goddess Alice Waters in conversation with Craig McNamara, Winters’ sustainable food movement leader and farmer, in the third in a series of author’s gatherings at the Putah CreekCenter for Land Based LearningWaters spoke about her new book, Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea. There, in an intimate setting, on a local farm, sat and chatted the woman who brought California Cuisine to life.

That event has passed, but many other literary food events shimmer on the Sacramento summer horizon. Here are five possibilities:

1. June 10, California Lectures hosts Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and The Botany of Desire. Pollan has captured the spirit of the slow foods movement with his simple commandment: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The evening will begin at 6 p.m. with an earth to table reception featuring local, organic, slow food appetizers provided by chef Michael Tuohy of The Grange Restaurant and Bar. Guests will meet local organic farmers and organizations that support organic farming, sustainable agriculture, and land-based learning, before hearing Pollan in conversation with AG Kawamura, Secretary California Department of Food and Agriculture.

2. Throughout June, July and August, Pig in Provence memoirist Georgeanne Brennan will offer Provence in California culinary weekends at her small, scenic farm in Winters. Guests will join Brennan in shopping at the Davis farmer’s market, gathering herbs, vegetables, and fruits from her garden and orchard, taking French cooking instruction in Brennan’s farm-style kitchen and eating and drinking the fruits of their labor under a 100-year-old walnut tree. Read her book about cooking and living in the South of France before you sign up, to squeeze every drop of flavor from the experience.

3. July 11, Slow Food Sacramento hosts Common Table, a day of tours and workshops culminating in a 5:30 p.m. sit-down, three-course gourmet dinner, created by Magpie Caterers, at the Fremont Community Garden. The event will benefit the Sacramento Hunger Coalition and the Sacramento Area Community Garden Coalition. During dinner, nationally recognized Braham Ahmadi of People’s Grocery in Oakland will discuss innovative solutions for food justice. Avid Reader will sell a variety of books on gardening and the urban food movement. Cost for the dinner is $75 for Slow Food members and $100 for non-members. Dinner tickets are available at Brown Paper Tickets.

4. All day, any day this summer, read local food bloggers. The most-honored among them is Hank Shaw, whom the James Beard Foundation has nominated as one of 2009’s finest food writers for his blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. This is how Shaw introduces his self and his website: “I write. I fish. I dig earth, raise plants, live for food and kill wild animals. I drink bourbon, Barolo or Budweiser with equal relish and wish I owned a farm. But most of all I think daily about new ways to cook and eat anything that walks, flies, swims, crawls, skitters, jumps – or grows. I am the omnivore who has solved his dilemma. This is my story.” Other great Sacramento food bloggers are Garrett McCord, at Vanilla Garlic, and Kimberly Morales, at Poor Girl Eats Well.

5. August 7, Julia Child groupies everywhere will finally get to see the film adaption (Julie & Julia) of the book (Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen) and the blog (the Julie/Julia project). How to explain? The clever and charming Julie Powell has blogged obsessively about her ambitious attempt to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 in one year’s time. The blog became the book. And now, beloved chick-flick writer Nora Ephron has penned the movie’s screenplay, relying not only on Powell’s words but also on Child’s, through her memoir (co-written with her nephew, Alex Prud’homme), My Life in France. What else do bookie/foodies need to hear to get themselves to the multiplex? Meryl Streep plays Julia and Amy Adams plays Julie.

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Solo readers, book club readers, high school summer-reading-list readers…

Welcome to my bookshelf.  Now that Sacramento’s summer is here and school is out, it’s finally hammock-reading season.  I will post what I am reading, for pleasure, for my book groups, and for next fall’s classes.  Please let me know what you are reading, alone or in your book groups.

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