Banned Books Awareness: “Nightjohn” by Gary Paulsen


\"\"Gary Paulsen has written over 200 books in his career. Most of those novels are junior-high-level stories that center on the wilderness and the importance of nature, and use common “coming of age” themes where a character in isolation must use the art of survival as a rite of passage to maturity.

But complaints from overprotective parents have lead to Paulsen being one of the most challenged authors of the 21st century according to the American Library Association. He made the list in 2001 and again in 2004.

The parents of Bethel School District in Washington felt that Nightjohncontained graphic material that was too mature for young readers.

The novel is set in the South before the Civil War and based on actual events. A young slave girl, Sarny, is taught to read by another slave, Nightjohn. He had escaped to the north, where he himself was taught to read, but kept sneaking back into the south to further educate the plantation slaves.

Both knowing the consequences, each night he teaches Sarny how to read, telling her, “To know things, for us to know things, is bad for them. We get to wanting and when we get to wanting it’s bad for them. They thinks we want what they got… That’s why they don’t want us reading.”

She is eventually discovered, and when Sarny’s guardian is severely punished for it, Nightjohn courageously comes out of hiding. For his indignation, two of his toes are cut off and he is tortured. Education was more important to him than his own life.

We certainly don’t want our children learning how important the right to read is, or to think for themselves.

Hatchet is a three-time Newbery Honor-winning novel, written in 1987 by Gary Paulsen.

It tells the tale of 13-year-old Brian Robeson, who’s plane crashes in the wilderness of northern Canada when the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack. His only possession is a hatchet, which was a gift from his mother just before leaving on his journey to visit his father.

During a 54-day ordeal he creates a shelter from the underside of a rock overhang and learns how to make fire using the hatchet, living off of the land to survive. All the while he is haunted by memories of home, and the bittersweet thoughts of his mother, whom he caught cheating on his father.

A number of his other books have been regularly challenged around the country by parents who feel the depictions of trauma and injury are too well written and thus “too real.”

Harris and Me has been restricted at some schools for almost a decade. Parents challenged the book’s use because of the inclusion of two cuss words in the dialogue.

The Beet Field: Memories of a Sixteenth Summer made the 2006 list of books banned or challenged in Texas schools when it was officially pulled by the West Sabine High School due to concerns about sexual content.

In his novel, The Car, fourteen-year-old Terry Anders is abandoned by his parents for being gay and assembles pieces of a kit car from his father’s garage in order to move on. The book was challenged, but later retained, by the Red Oak Junior High School because the book mentions the killing of a three-year-old and for sexual content due to the main character’s homosexuality.

Zero to Sixty: The Motorcycle Journey of a Lifetime was removed from the West Brazoria Junior High because of sexual content and profanity. Other books on “sensitive topics such as death, suicide, physical or sexual abuse, and teenage dating” were moved to a restricted area and can only be lent out with written parental permission.

The Foxman is frequently challenged for being sexually explicit because it alludes to sexual acts between teenagers, but the reference is so buried in the context it makes no sense without fully understanding the story as a whole.

In 2005 the ACLU of Maryland took action to protect the First Amendment rights of the student body in Carroll County, who were petitioning to reverse the removal of several books from school libraries, including The Beet Field.

Staff attorney for the ACLU, David Rocah, said in a statement that, “The decision to ban these books from the school shelves is a clear violation of the First Amendment. We are greatly heartened by the campaign launched by students to defend their right to read, chosen by library professionals for its merit, free from misguided censorship by school administrators.”

Unfortunately for Nightjohn, these incidents time and again prove how little we’ve learned from history and how little we have grown as a society. No, we certainly haven’t come very far at all.


For a complete list of titles and more information about the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project, please visit

Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, American Library Association, National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, Texas ACLU
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions