I somehow missed the memo that Banned Books Week was here until yesterday (oops), but today I’m taking a moment to appreciate what it represents. According to its website, “Banned Books Week is the annual celebration of the freedom to read.” I read a lot of banned books as a kid, but this is one that stands out in memory.
My reading was vey rarely censored when I was a kid; I was very free to read pretty much whatever I wanted. My parents supported my literary interests, purchasing more books than I needed even when money was tight. We moved several times and with each relocation, my parents’ tall bookshelves and the many boxes of books that filled them came with us. I grew accustomed to being surrounded by all kinds of reading material. And like so many other kids who had books on their shelves, it felt natural to read them. When other kids got cable and video game consoles, I got more books (and sketch pads and journals and crafting materials, but that’s neither here nor there).
The thing about learning to read as a kid and not wanting to ever stop is that sometimes you read things you might not fully understand or, dare I say, might not be ready for. My mom and I both distinctly remember when I read Robert Newton Peck’s A Day No Pigs Would Die. I was a vegetarian at the time and I adored pigs, so a book about a day when pigs wouldn’t die seemed like an obvious match. But wow, did I have no idea what was coming.
I don’t remember precisely how old I was when I read it, but I’d guess around nine. Apparently, the book was written for young readers (YA, I think), but I wouldn’t have guessed that in retrospect. From what I remember, which admittedly isn’t that much, a boy is gifted a piglet that he grows to love very much, then has to help his dad kill her because they can’t afford to keep her anymore. It was like Old Yeller on steroids.
It was tragic. I got to the graphic scene describing the pig’s death, started crying, finished the book, and did not stop crying for what seemed like (and possibly even was) hours. My mom didn’t seem to know what to do. I could not be consoled. I felt terrible. I had read something that truly shook me to my core and I felt life would never be the same.
I did, eventually, stop crying. The pain I felt from that story, eventually, ebbed. I did, eventually, move on.
The truth is I have no idea if A Day No Pigs Would Die was a good book, and I wouldn’t read it again, but it sure did leave an impact on my child self. Did it temporarily destroy me? Absolutely. But books that destroyed me also gave me was a wider world view. I deeply empathized with the boy in the novel; I felt as distraught as he was, and I cried tears that he did. Emotionally complex or mature books push young readers to think outside of themselves and their experiences. They ask readers to empathize with those they don’t know at first but grow to love, who experience things–both great and terrible–that they might never otherwise see firsthand. In this case, I learned a lot about loss. (And also Vermont farm life in the 1920s!)
A Day No Pigs Would Die was #80 on the list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000-2009. If my parents had listened to book-banners, I might never have read the sad story of a boy and his pig, or anything else tragic, complex, or emotionally mature. I’m thankful my parents didn’t see books as dangerous and let me read what my heart desired, even if it made me cry. I’m thankful that I experienced literary love and loss.
I’m thankful I was surrounded by books, every day of every year, when I was just starting to figure out what it meant to be human.