Since 1982, Banned Books Week has celebrated the right to read, a wonderful freedom that should not be taken for granted. In 1990, the ALA began an electronic compilation of challenges, and they estimate that there have been over 8,700 challenges during the past sixteen years . The ALA lists frequently challenged books on their web-site (www.ala.org), and included on the lists are The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
Also on the list is Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, a well-known and respected author of childrens and young adult literature. Fallen Angels is a captivating and gritty story about the Vietnam War, as told by Richie Perry, a seventeen year old from Harlem with a bright future. Perry, like many other youngsters, joins the Army in hopes of building a better life for himself and to set an example for his younger brother, Kenny. While in Vietnam, Perry develops friendships with his fellow soldiers in Alpha Company, especially with one “Peewee” Gates, a wise-guy from Chicago who is part joker and part philosopher. Both Perry and Peewee bond during an experience filled with violence, fear, and confusion.
Fallen Angels is not a romanticized depiction of war, instead it explores the futility of the situation where young men are thrown into a position where they must kill or be killed. “War appeals to boys and men. It's exciting and adventuresome” writes Myers in an interview for Erasing Clouds, who adds “What I did not want it to be was the usual one-sided idea which eliminates the pain and horror. I wanted this glimpse of violence for the young reader. I enlisted in the army after reading a lot of poetry about war and seeing a few war movies. I expected war to be one long romantic adventure.”
Myers' book is powerful and it is perhaps one of the best anti-war novels written, but it has been challenged and even banned due to profanity, racism, and graphic violence. When asked about the challenged status of Fallen Angels, Myers responded “One of the reasons the book is banned is because of the obscenities. This change of language is actually used by the army as one of the way to change the attitude of young people from the innocent high schooler to the young man or woman that can kill strangers. In my view the real obscenity is the depiction of war as consisting primarily of 'smart bombs' that destroy anonymous targets. War is the business of killing and the more we know about it - including the horrors, the mistakes that lead to hundreds of deaths, and the obscenity -the better we are equipped to make the decisions that affect whether we will negotiate or bomb.”
Depriving young adults the opportunity to read Fallen Angels is an injustice due to the fact that some people fail to look past profane language or violence and see the true message of Myers’ work. Challenging and banning will continue, but librarians and proactive citizens will ensure artistic expression is not restricted to anyone. Banned Books Week is a way for Americans to celebrate the freedom to read what we want and to have access to the books we want to read. Check with your local library to see what events they have planned for Banned Books Week.
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For more information on the life and works of Walter Dean Myers: