Appalachia and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Banned Books
Banned Book Display courtesy of Forsyth County Public Library,  Cumming, GA

In the U.S., banned book history began when the Southern states banned Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Most post-Civil War challenges were over books that were considered “indecent,” even though no one could agree on what was indecent and what was not. In 1982, however, there was a renewal in efforts to ban books in schools and public libraries across the United States. Thus, Banned Book Week was created in response to the increasing number of challenges to books.

In honor of Banned Books Week, I want to address one my favorite books, which is set on one of my favorite geographical locations.

Appalachia is a part of the United States many know little about. The center of Appalachia is in Eastern Kentucky, specifically the coal mining region. This is one of the most dichotomous regions of the U.S. Those who own the mines hold the wealth; those doing the hard, manual labor often live below the poverty line. I grew up on the fringes of this area and I learned a great deal about people.

My family moved to Boyd County, Kentucky, when I was in 2nd grade. During the six years I lived there, I learned people live differently in Appalachia. They have different goals and dreams and place value on different things. While I was worried about homework and which doll I wanted for Christmas, my classmates were worried about if they were going to have heat in their home that winter. I learned that I took many things for granted—a constantly warm or cool house, a solid roof, a variety of plentiful food in our kitchen.

Glass Castle Book Cover

When I read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, I was instantly transported to my childhood in Boyd County. I knew people like Walls. I’d seen where and how they lived. I’d experienced having lunch with a friend one day, her being gone the next, then returning months later without an explanation. I knew people whose father was “gone for a long time”, which usually meant a stay in jail or an attempt to dry out. This was the life of many people I went to school with every day.

I was intrigued to find The Glass Castle on a Banned Book List from 2012. (See page eight here.) It was banned in several school districts due to strong sexual situations, alcoholism, and abuse—both physical and sexual.

I connected with the important story Walls told about her family. I read about a family that struggled, yet persevered. A young girl that learned how to cope and survive. An adult woman, who succeeded through her own will and determination. Aren’t these all traits we want children to learn about and find in themselves?

Walls herself even said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News, “My book has ugly elements to it, but it’s about hope and resilience, and I don’t know why that wouldn’t be an important message. Sometimes you have to walk through the muck to get to the message.”

Challenging a book, especially a memoir, because you don’t like or agree with the life events depicted limits that book’s opportunities to have an impact on people. Life can often be ugly; to ban books containing stories of hope during the worst of times limits role models for others, especially young adults, struggling to navigate their own difficult life situations. We all have students going through their own issues and problems, many not of their own creation. To deny these students exposure to a story of someone who walked in their shoes, persevered and succeeded is heartbreaking.

Walls’ book is also important to understanding the Appalachia region of the United States. The stereotypes often associated with the region are broken down in The Glass Castle. The idea of the never-ending cycle of abuse and poverty so prevalent in Appalachia is dispelled by the successes of Walls as an author. Many of my former classmates have gone on to become successful lawyers, teachers, accountants and even  NFL players. This attempt to challenge stereotypes, to me, is the most important part of The Glass Castle.

Stephen Chbosky, author of The Perks of Being a Wildflower, said “Banning books gives us silence when we need speech.  It closes our ears when we need to listen.  It makes us blind when we need sight.”

Books have power and denying access to that power, makes our world a more difficult place. We need stories like Jeanette Walls’s The Glass Castle to challenge our stereotypes and perceptions, to expose readers to positives that can come from bad times. To provide inspiration to overcome times of hardship.

National Geographic Education is recognizing Banned Books Week with resources, news, and shared experiences of educators.

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