Olive’s Ocean

by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow Books, 2003

217 pages

If you’ve visited your local library or bookstore this week, you may have seen a display commemorating Banned Books Week.

Sponsored by a variety of national organizations, Banned Books Week is an annual campaign to draw attention to literary censorship and other First Amendment issues and encourage open, reasoned discussion about them.

During this time, many libraries and bookstores erect displays of challenged or banned books, to encourage people both to read these books and to talk about why they may have been censored.

These displays always fascinate me, because they inevitably consist mostly (sometimes entirely) of books I’ve read and loved.  Books like The Grapes of Wrath, The Lord of the Rings, and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Now that I’m a parent, sharing books with my daughter, these displays are all the more intriguing to me.

They call up a lot of warring emotions: my desire to raise an educated, open-minded child vs. my instinct to protect her from things that might offend or harm her.  My desire to teach my daughter how to manage her own free will vs. my instinct to control her environment “for her own good.”

Which is why I thought it would be interesting to review a banned or challenged book for this blog.

After culling through the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books, I settled on Olive’s Ocean, a 2004 Newbery Honor book by Kevin Henkes.

Olive’s Ocean is the story of 12-year-old Martha Boyle, an aspiring writer who lives with her parents and siblings in Wisconsin.  Most of the action takes place in Rhode Island, where the family is vacationing at the home of Martha’s grandmother Godbee.  Martha is trying to enjoy the annual trip, but complications keep seeping in: shifting family dynamics, worries about her grandmother’s mortality, thoughts of her classmate Olive (who recently died in an accident), and a possible romance with boy-next-door Jimmy Manning.

Possibly because of Henkes’s experience as a stellar picture book writer, he communicates in a spare prose that reads almost like the script for a play; his treatment of Martha’s pubescent emotions is sympathetic and evocative without veering into angsty textual rococo.

The story spills over with beautiful moments, especially when Martha’s family is onstage.  There are sweet interludes with her beloved baby sister, big brother Vince’s rough but effective efforts to encourage her, and quiet beachside conversations with the wise and witty Godbee.

And there are inspiring messages galore, about the wisdom of older women, the enduring bonds of family, and the nature of true friendship.  We watch Martha working at all kinds of healthy behaviors: standing up for herself, finding help and guidance in safe places, puzzling out the importance of integrity and kindness.

So what’s wrong with this book?  Why is it one of the 100 most challenged books of the past decade?

Ultimately, I think, because it’s honest about the complications and little uglinesses of life.  About the fact that adolescents sometimes question (and reject) orthodox beliefs, use profanity, treat each other as disposable.

And about the fact that families don’t have to be perfect to be strong–that loving each other well doesn’t always mean agreeing with each other, getting along, or even liking each other.

For me as a parent, though, that kind of honest is precisely what makes a book worthwhile.  Life is messy.  I can’t get around that, and I do my daughter a disservice if I try to teach her otherwise.

Instead, I think my job is to teach her to ask, “What am I going to do about it?” and seek out books that point her toward a healthy, productive answer.

Which means that, 10 or 15 years from now, she’ll probably be looking at the banned books display in the local library and thinking, “Hey, I’ve read some of those . . .”

You can find more info about Banned Books Week here.

2 thoughts on “Banned Books Week: Olive’s Ocean

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