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Attack of the Black Rectangles : A Librarian’s Perspective Review

On one hand, Attack of the Black Rectangles is timely and important. On the other hand, it’s preachy and addresses way too many woke issues at once. I enjoyed the audiobook narration and pacing, but I got annoyed with the inauthentic main characters. Regardless, this book is fabulous for teaching censorship to middle graders.

AUTHOR: A.S. King
SERIES: no
PUBLISHER: Scholastic
PUBLICATION DATE: Sep 6, 2022
PAGES: 272
GENRE: realistic fiction
SETTING: conservative small town in Pennsylvania
GIVE IT TO: MS

SUMMARY

Mac is shocked when he and his friends find black rectangles over certain words in their classroom copy of The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. After investigating an unaltered copy at the local public library, Mac and his two friends decide to fight back against censorship.

THE SHORT VERSION

This book has value as a whole-class read-aloud for middle graders. As far as the story itself, I’m kind of neutral.

WHAT I LIKED ABOUT ATTACK OF THE BLACK RECTANGLES

It’s a teaching tool. Censorship, colonialism, dress codes, and protesting are not topics easily-addressed with middle graders. This book tackles lots of “woke” issues in a kid-friendly way. While I didn’t love the book personally, I can see it being a great option for ELA reading groups or whole-class read-alouds. These are important topics for middle grade students to begin to discuss, and there is definitely value here for that.

Intriguing side-story about Mac’s parents’ separation and Mac’s father’s anger and mental illness. Mac’s father truly believes he is an alien from outer space. He tells his 12-year old son that he “can’t love” like other people love. He and his son are working on a “spaceship” in the garage (Mac’s grandfather’s old car). I found this side storyline interesting and unique and honestly enjoyed those scenes just as much as the censorship storyline.

The adults’ behavior feels authentic. Attack of the Black Rectangles is interspersed with letters to the editor of the local newspaper. Mac’s sixth grade teacher, Ms. Sett, writes many of these letters and also responds to other people’s letters. Her condescending words show how she thinks her beliefs should be the only beliefs, and she never once questions whether her own values might not be right for everyone else.

As a librarian, I’ve seen this attitude many times from certain people. I’ve dealt with attempts at censorship, also. It never ceases to amaze me how many people think they are entitled to dictate what other people read, wear, say, do, etc. Ms. Sett is a bit of a busybody (what teacher has time to write that many letters to the editor?), and her letters really highlight her inability to accept that there are multiple views on these issues.

The principal’s handling of Mac and his friends also feels authentic. Sigh. In 18 years in education, 5 schools, and two countries, I have worked with many different school principals. More often than not, the principal in the story sounds exactly like how principals would talk to 6th grade students coming to them with a concern.

Principal McKenney’s voice is authentic in my experience. Principals are great at trying to sweep hot-button issues under the rug. In their defense, can you blame them? They answer to the parents, the school board, and the community more than anyone.

The audiobook kept my attention. I’m getting so much better at focusing on audiobooks! The more audiobooks I read, the more my focus improves. But the audiobook also has to hold my attention. Amazon lists four narrators, including author AS King and author Jane Yolen, but it’s mostly narrated by Pete Cross. He does a fantastic job with different voices in the story. I could tell when different characters were speaking, and I could hear the tension in the voices of Ms. Sett and the principal. Well done!

Mac’s relationship with his grandfather is refreshing and sweet. The grandfather lives with Mac and Mac’s mother, which really helps stabilize Mac after his dad leaves.

The book has fewer than 300 pages. This will help it to be a great classroom read-aloud or book group selection. I never felt bored with the story.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT ATTACK OF THE BLACK RECTANGLES

Preachy and didactic. Yes, I 100% agree with the “woke” ideas in this book. I am a big fan of minding one’s own business and that everyone is allowed to have and express an opinion that is different from mine. But I must admit that I started rolling my eyes with every issue that is piled on in the story. It’s all just too much.

Inauthentic 6th grader dialogue. Attack of the Black Rectangles is more like “Attack of the Woke 6th Graders.” Barely any issue is off the table. These sixth graders have ironclad opinions about Columbus, Thanksgiving, colonialism, partiarchy, misogyny, feminism, the First Amendment, Holocaust-deniers, flat-earthers…

In my review of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, I complained that the two main characters sounded like 60-year old English professors rather than teens in high school. I have the same issue with the sixth grade characters in Attack of the Black Rectangles. There were times in the audio where the kids sounded more like the adult author than they did like 12-year old students.

I’ve worked with 6th graders for 13 of my 18 years as a teacher and school librarian. Sixth graders just don’t talk like this. They certainly don’t stand up to teachers and principals this way. They don’t lecture their parents about correct words for body parts. They are just beginning to learn about these issues, and the vast majority do not have fully-formed opinions about these things. They are honestly just trying to get through the day without being too awkward, without encountering bullies or friend drama, without getting into trouble for whatever reason.

The teacher is the bad guy. Ms. Sett is Mac’s 6th grade teacher. She is very outspoken in the local letters to the editor. She is the one who marked out the words in the classroom texts. Despite that, she also seems like a good, involved, caring teacher. She praises Mac for standing up for what he believes in, even though he went over her head in the school and publicly. She helps Mac when he is bullied in class. She chose to teach The Devil’s Arithmetic, even though she didn’t like a few words. She could easily have chosen a different book (she’s in a US public school, so she probably bought the class sets herself anyway).

Ms. Sett is NOT the bad guy here.

The letters to the editor make it sound like Ms. Sett’s verbal support for the town’s ultra-conservative rules makes her responsible for those rules. That cannot possibly be true. They have a school board. They have elected town officials. The townspeople have a voice. Where is their responsibility for these rules? Teachers already get such a bad rap; it’s unfair to make her shoulder the blame.

She’s allowed to be outspoken about her beliefs, too. She may have drawn the black rectangles in the books (as definitely happens in real life), but she has no role in dictating or enforcing house paint colors or curfews or whether the town celebrates Halloween.

She’s just a normal teacher, and at the end of the day, this is HER classroom to run as she sees fit. I don’t agree with censoring books, so in my library, I don’t do that. But it isn’t my place to judge her (or any other teacher) for doing it, especially in a town as conservative as this one is.

Teachers are all human beings. We do our best, even if we may get it wrong sometimes. Teaching is HARD – really and truly hard – and Ms. Sett has the right to feel comfortable teaching the books she chooses to teach. Teaching is very public, and we will never please every parent, student, and community member. In this book, Mac learns to “live with grace.” Ms. Sett deserves some grace, too.

DIVERSITY IN ABOUT ATTACK OF THE BLACK RECTANGLES

Most characters cue as white. One minor character classmate is Asian American. One sixth grade boy identifies as asexual/aromantic.

ARTWORK/ILLUSTRATIONS

Cover art is perfect for this book!

LIBRARIANS WILL WANT TO KNOW

Themes: censorship, dress codes, colonialism, conservative towns, parental separation/divorce, grandparents, horrors of war, Vietnam War, living with grace, whitewashed history

Would adults like this book? This could go either way – I think some will like it better than I did. Others will agree with me.

Would I buy this for my high school library? NO – It’s too young.

Would I buy this for my middle school library? YES, no reservations

TRIGGER WARNINGS

Language: none

Sexuality: none, except for this odd and random scene where Mac’s grandfather alludes to having sex in the car with Mac’s grandmother (the same car Mac works on with his father on the weekends). It’s obvious what he refers to, even to young readers, and it feels unnecessary and misplaced.

Violence: Mac’s father has anger issues, and Mac is a little afraid of him as a result.

Drugs/Alcohol: No drugs; I don’t remember any alcohol.

Other: disdain for flat-earthers and more conservative beliefs

 

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