My Favorite Banned Books: A Light in the Attic

The first poem I ever memorized was “The Sitter”:

Mrs. McTwitter the baby-sitter,
I think she’s a little bit crazy.
She thinks the baby-sitter’s supposed
To sit upon the baby.

One of many unforgettable poems in Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic.

This book won a whole slew of awards:

Notable Children’s Books of 1981 (ALA)
Best Books of 1981 (SLJ)
Children’s Books of 1981 (Library of Congress)
1981 Children’s Books (NY Public Library)
1981 USA Children’s Books of International Interest
Winner, 1983–84 William Allen White Award (Kansas)
Winner, 1983 Garden State Children’s Book Award (New Jersey Library Association)
1984 Garden State Children’s Book Award for Non-Fiction (New Jersey Library Association)
1984 George C. Stone Center for Children’s Books (Claremont, CA) “Recognition of Merit” Award

And yet, it’s on the ALA’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999.

When I discovered this, I had to go find out why. What I read showed me that, once again, my ultra-conservative parents were more liberal than I thought–I was allowed to read all of Silverstein’s work (with childish glee). And though my parents grouched a bit over the “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes” poem, they never thought of telling me I couldn’t read the book. Apparently many parents have wanted the book banned because “It teaches children to manipulate their parents” and “promotes disrespect, horror, and violence.”

Yes folks, here is a sinister and powerful manifesto that will incite your precious babies to mutiny and anarchy and all sorts of other scary things that end in “y”:

If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful, boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor–
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore.

(Also, if you think your little one hasn’t thought of this all by herself without any help from Mr. Silverstein . . . well. I hear sand is really hard to get out of your ears.)

But all snark aside, I love this book. It still cracks me up–which could mean that I am really immature, but which I choose to think means it’s delicious whatever your age. I mean:

Captain Blackbeard Did What?


The sea is a-roarin’, the sea gulls they screech
The bosun he rants and he raves.
And the whole scurvy crew
Says, “It’s true, yes it’s true,
Ol’ Captain Blackbeard’s shaved.”
We had buried some treasure (and bodies as well)
And was just sailin’ back from the cave,
When he calls fer boiled water
And stomps down below
An’ gor’ but he comes up shaved.
There’s a chickenish stubble, and fishbelly skin
On that face, once so blazin’ and brave,
And his ol’ faithful parrot
Can hardly bear it
Since ol’ Captain Blackbeard shaved.
When he shouts, “Board and sink her!”
It sounds like a clinker
And gets lots of laughs from the slaves.
And his loud bawdy songs
Seem a little bit wrong
Since ol’ Captain Blackbeard shaved.
Now no one is fearing his look or his lash
Or his threats of a watery grave.
And things ain’t the same
In the piratin’ game,
Since ol’ Captain Blackbeard shaved.

I remember loving Silverstein’s books as a kid, because they acknowledged the things that scared me or worried me, but they also made me laugh–and yes, poked fun at the adults who got to tell me what to do, even when they were being ridiculous. I try to be honest with my kids about the fact that adults are just people who make mistakes all the time, and that’s okay. Sure, they have to do what I tell them to, but I don’t expect them to think I’m perfect. Way too much pressure! So I’m comfortable with them reading books that challenge authority and point to the absurdities that adults are capable of. I figure it encourages them to think for themselves. I am, clearly, a very dangerous individual, and should be stopped.

Further reading:

Bookslut’s post on A Light in the Attic

Excellent article on censorship and education at The World and I online

Solonor’s Banned Books Project A Light in the Attic page

Wikipedia’s A Light in the Attic entry

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