You Can’t Read That! Banned Book Review: The 57 Bus

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post about book banning. YCRT! features news and opinion roundups, commentary, history, and banned book reviews.

the 57 busThe 57 Bus
by Dashka Slater

The 57 Bus is young adult non-fiction. The narrative, in true crime tradition, opens with a shocking and brutal act, the intentional burning of one teenager by another on a cross-town bus in Oakland, California. The crime, widely reported at the time, took place in 2013. Dashka Slater recounts the facts and consequences of the crime while also exploring the backgrounds and lives of both teens, Sasha and Richard. Because Sasha, the victim, was a white agender teen wearing nontraditional clothing (“a dude in a skirt,” per one of the friends who egged on the attacker) and Richard was a Black teen with a criminal history, the book takes a deep dive into race, gender, sexuality, and the criminal justice system.

How and why did The 57 Bus wind up in the crosshairs of book banners? The reasons are obvious: it deals with the aforementioned topics of race, gender, sexuality, and justice. In a 2022 interview, Dashka Slater said this:

As of this writing, The 57 Bus has been banned or challenged in more than nine states, including Idaho, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Kansas, and Tennessee. The reasons given vary, but usually the book is accused of being “obscene,” despite the fact that there isn’t any sex in it at all. So why is it being challenged? Well, it’s about a nonbinary kid and a Black kid, and it talks about race and gender and justice.

Organized groups of parents (and in many cases literal outside agitators, censorious adults with religious and political axes to grind but who neither reside nor have children in affected school districts) are besieging board meetings to demand books be stricken from the curriculum and removed from library shelves. Targeted books often have LGBTQ and racial themes, and many contain words and sentences that taken out of context seem obscene or pornographic … or, worded another way, can be made to seem obscene or pornographic. Book banners have taken to standing up at school board meetings to read passages from books they’re targeting, often resulting in shouting and chaos.

Everyone knows that protesters who disrupt school board meetings by shouting out the dirty parts of books they want to ban have not read the books they’re after. They’re quoting out-of-context lines and paragraphs shared on Facebook and email by book-banning groups like Moms for Liberty. One of the sources for such quotable material is an online organization called Book Looks, which invites visitors to “find out what objectionable content may be in your child’s book before they do.”

Here’s Book Looks on The 57 Bus:

It rates the book at 2/5 on its “teen guidance” scale (0/5 being unobjectionable, 5/5 being burn it). Book Looks’ summary of concerns states this:

The book contains references to sexuality, alternate gender ideologies, profanity and inflammatory political commentary.

This is followed by eleven printable PDF pages of quoted material from the book, indexed by page number, starting with the first line of the introduction, “The pronouns and names used for gender-nonconforming people were approved by the people in question,” to the closing sentence of the final appendix, which lists gender-neutrality milestones in American law and society: “[In 2015] The MTV Movie and TV Awards become the first major acting awards to eliminate gendered categories for performance. Emma Watson won the all-inclusive category Best Actor award, which was presented by nonbinary actor Asia Kate Dillon.”

Eleven full pages, virtually a Readers’ Digest condensed version of the book itself, with nearly every quoted sentence or paragraph touching on race, gender, sexuality, or justice. Here’s a sample page from Book Look’s summary:

Screenshot 2024-06-25 at 8.45.43?AM

And let us not forget the dirty word count at the end, which cites 8 uses of the word ass, 12 fucks, 8 shits, and 5 niggas.

In the minds of Book Looks’ intended audience, simply seeing words like “gay,” “transgender,” and “sex” in print will lead to pansexual orgies in the halls of middle and high schools, turn your kids queer or trans, and what’s worse, liberal. And who wants to hear about racial economic and social divides … why do you want to dredge up all those painful memories, which the Civil Rights Act fixed for all time anyway? And what’s this about bathrooms?

Okay, then. What did I think about The 57 Bus?

I was surprised by how much I learned. I harbored preconceptions going in, including reactionary thoughts about race and crime in Oakland, confused notions on the variety of sexual and gender identities people adopt, and discomfort with unconventional pronouns. Dashka Slater walked me through these minefields, patiently explaining how Sasha and their friends came to be the people they are, why Richard grew up the way he did and why Sasha and their parents didn’t want him tried and punished as an adult. I, as I suppose many readers did, went from reflexively hating and condemning Richard for lighting Sasha’s skirt on fire, to seeing both teens as sympathetic characters. As true crime reporting goes, Dashka Slater’s is first rate.

I read and review books targeted by the torch & pitchfork brigades, and have been doing it for some time. I read and reviewed Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, for example, good prep for The 57 Bus, and a number of other young adult books dealing with LGBTQ, gender, and racial injustice topics. I rate The 57 Bus as one of the better ones, a solid and educational read for young adult and adult readers alike.

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