A review of The Year They Burned the Books, by Nancy Garden

READ JUNE 2013

ONLINE PLOT SUMMARY: “When Wilson High Telegraph editor Jamie Crawford writes an opinion piece in support of the new sex-ed curriculum, which includes making condoms available to high school students, she has no idea that a huge controversy is brewing. Lisa Buel, a school board member, is trying to get rid of the health program, which she considers morally flawed, from its textbooks to its recommendations for outside reading. The newspaper staff find themselves in the center of the storm, and things are complicated by the fact that Jamie is in the process of coming to terms with being gay, and her best friend, Terry, also gay, has fallen in love with a boy whose parents are anti-homosexual. As Jamie’s and Terry’s sexual orientation becomes more obvious to other studetns, it looks as if the paper they’re fighting to keep alive and honest is going to be taken away from them. Nancy Garden has depicted a contemporary battleground in a novel that probes deep into issues of censorship, prejudice, and ethics.”

MY REVIEW: There’s a scene in the superb baseball film Bull Durham where the players are meeting on the pitcher’s mound. The discussion shows no signs of ending, so the team’s manager sends a coach out to break it up. When he asks what’s going on, Kevin Costner replies “We’re dealing with a lot of shit.” He could’ve been talking about Nancy Garden’s fine YA novel, The Year They Burned the Books. Censorship, coming-of-age, am I or aren’t I (and is she or isn’t she), coming out, bullying, friendship, free speech, sex ed, homophobia, stealth politics, and a few more things are dealt with. Garden, though, skillfully blends them all into a comfortable mélange whose ultimate message is a hopeful one, where the disparate elements combine to support her conclusions.

Concerning topics with the potential to become preachy, Garden’s natural, easy-going style avoids the pitfalls of pedantry. Her point of view is clear, but it never feels forced upon us, as is so often the case with works from the opposing point of view. Our protagonist’s views are strongly held, but they are reasoned, as well. There’s conviction, but without shrillness.

The Year They Burned the Books is not nearly so well known as the author’s other, more relationship-oriented novels, and that’s really too bad. Its themes are not only important ones, but timely, as well. Not only are the dangers of which Garden’s cautionary tale warns us still in existence, they are, in an era of Tea Party demagoguery, thriving. That makes stories like this one all the more important. There are lessons here to be learned not just by young adults, but by adults, too. This is the sort of book which <i>needs</i> to be widely read.

This is an action- or perhaps, issue-driven novel. However, the action also serves as a means of character development. The major characters are considerably changed by the end of the story, thanks to their encounters with the events which impel the drama. Jamie is not stronger in the end so much as she is more able to recognize her strength.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the auctorial decision not to have Jamie and Tessa become a couple, which would have shifted focus from the points Garden is trying to make: Only when we have access to all the available information can we wisely make decisions which will affect the rest of our lives; it is possible to agree to disagree, and, though very difficult, it’s also possible for friends to remain friends despite holding diametrically opposing viewpoints; what begins as seemingly innocuous verbal taunting can easily escalate into violence, especially in a atmosphere of divisiveness fostered by ignorance; true family values are not moral judgments, but, rather, intelligent guidance, love, support, and the freedom to be who we are. The family values exemplified by Lisa Buel in this novel are stifling rather than nurturing.

The points Garden makes here are important ones, and The Year They Burned the Books deserves and demands a wider readership than I fear it is likely to get. It’s nearly fifteen years old, now, but the perils of which Garden warns are as real as today’s headlines. One need only turn on Fox News or open the paper to an Ann Coulter diatribe to realize how prevalent are the reactionary views which threaten to control our thoughts. That the author packages her message(s) in an extremely enjoyable and interesting narrative with a very likable and admirable lead character is an added bonus.

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