A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this book remains one of the best books about adolescence ever written. Any language used -- and it is chock full of mild to moderate swearing, and "f--k" is used several times -- is in the service of being true to the nature of a rebellious teen. There are also lots of sexual references, and everyone smokes and drinks -- including the underage protagonist. Holden refers to homosexuals as "flits." People have used these instances in an effort to have the book banned. But those who would do so miss the point of the book, which is a compassionate tale of a child adrift in the world. It's an American classic that everyone should read.
What's the story?
Holden Caulfield, about to be kicked out of yet another boarding school for flunking most of his courses, decides not to wait until the end of term and takes off for his hometown, Manhattan, a few days early. He figures he'll hole up in a cheap hotel, look up a few friends, then arrive home on time. But Holden is deeply troubled by the death of his beloved younger brother from leukemia, as well as a classmate's suicide. Alone in an uncaring city, his already fragile psyche begins to unravel.
Is it any good?
Holden Caulfield holds a place in the American psyche akin to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer: an exquisitely rendered character with whom nearly anyone can identify. There are three true things that can be said about J.D. Salinger's masterpiece: It is one of the great works of American literature, it is one of the most frequently challenged by would-be book-banners, and, therefore, it is one of the most misunderstood books of the 20th century. It has been challenged and banned for all of the reasons mentioned above in the content advisories. But those who challenge it fail to see the forest for the little swearword trees. They have called Holden a cynical teenager, when in fact he's such a compassionate innocent abroad that he can hardly cope with the cynical world at all: He's so innocent and so alone that he tries to get a prostitute to just chat and keep him company (alas, no heart of gold here). Desperately lonely, adrift in what seems to him an uncaring world, he has been through some terrible experiences, and no one at all seems to have noticed that he's crumbling.
It's true that much of it is somewhat dated now. Yet there's a reason this book has stayed in print, is stocked in nearly every bookstore, and has been assigned in nearly every high school for the past 60-plus years: Its emotional power and poignancy are still as strong as ever, and Holden's inner self is just as recognizable to teens today as it has ever been. This is one of those books that everyone should read as a teen. At a time (1951) when "teen" and "adolescent" were barely concepts in the American mind, Salinger captured the adolescent voice and way of thinking more perfectly -- and more poignantly -- than just about anyone before or since.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the ways in which the content of the book, which is set in New York City in the early 1950s, might be considered dated by today's standards. How are Holden's experiences different from those of a modern teenager? If there are differences, are there also things in Holden's world that have largely stayed the same in terms of teenage life?
Do you relate to Holden in any way? Do you admire him, or do you pity him? Or is it a little of both?
Why do you think this book is considered so important -- and why do you think it's been one of the most frequently challenged books when it comes to censorship?
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