Attack of the Black Rectangles

  • Review
By – September 29, 2022

At a time when book bans, par­tic­u­lar­ly against mar­gin­al­ized authors, are at an all-time high, Amy Sarig King’s book is a reminder of why sto­ries — and words — matter.

Inspired by an inci­dent of cen­sor­ship at King’s child’s own school, the nov­el takes place in the present day, in a small town in Penn­syl­va­nia. It fol­lows Mac, the young nar­ra­tor, and Mrs. Sett, a sixth-grade teacher at the local mid­dle school. Of their town, which has got­ten rid of things like junk food and Hal­loween, Mac says, Those adults join Mrs. Sett in let­ter writ­ing, sit­ting on the town coun­cil and com­mit­tees, and mak­ing rule after rule after rule. They seem to believe that rules equal safe­ty — by mak­ing more rules, they are keep­ing us all safe and keep­ing the town’s rep­u­ta­tion spotless.”

When Mac enters sixth grade, he’s pleas­ant­ly sur­prised by how Mrs. Sett treats them; they are shown respect and giv­en a cer­tain amount of free­dom. But then she dis­trib­utes the book they’re read­ing for lit cir­cle: Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arith­metic. His friend Mar­ci reads ahead and calls Mac with what she’s found: a blot­ted-out word. Lots of them, actu­al­ly. Their read­ing group decides to find out who cen­sored their books, and why. They slow­ly learn what dri­ves cen­sor­ship and why peo­ple are so afraid of the truth — and they stand up for their rights.

Oth­er play­ers include a con­ser­v­a­tive stu­dent whose father is, per­haps sur­pris­ing­ly, a staunch sup­port­er of non-cen­sored read­ing; a peer who reclaims her giv­en Asian name rather than con­tin­u­ing with her eas­i­er” Amer­i­can one; and Mac’s father, who suf­fers emo­tion­al dis­tur­bances and makes spo­radic vis­its. In the hands of anoth­er writer, these sub­plots may seem like a dis­trac­tion from the real” sto­ry, but King weaves them into the larg­er themes of the book, match­ing the over­all emo­tion­al tenor.

Though this is a mid­dle-grade nov­el, King doesn’t shy away from hard top­ics. She writes that peo­ple often think that chil­dren and teens can’t han­dle dif­fi­cult things, so they decide on their behalf what is off-lim­its — which is infan­tiliz­ing and wrong. But because life is often full of nuance, King avoids easy plat­i­tudes and clear-cut antag­o­nists. Mrs. Sett has her moments, and oth­er char­ac­ters are not as sim­ple as they first appear. It’s a good reminder — for every­one — to keep bias­es in check.

Attack of the Black Rec­tan­gles is a time­ly sto­ry. It’s about cen­sor­ship, yes, but it’s also about the impor­tance of telling the truth, of fac­ing hard things, of know­ing one’s own his­to­ry. It’s about how you’re nev­er too young to find your voice and use it for good.

Jaime Hern­don is a med­ical writer who also writes about par­ent­ing and pop cul­ture in her spare time. Her writ­ing can be seen on Kveller, Undark, Book Riot, and more. When she’s not work­ing or home­school­ing, she’s at work on an essay collection.

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