Attack of the Black Rectangles (Scholastic Press)
Written by Amy Sarig King
In America today there is a growing problem with far right-wing reactionary behavior. A small but loud subset of the population is creating a lot of difficulties in public education by making wild accusations about what happens inside schools. I’m sure you’ve seen the nonsense claims of CRT (a law school theory) being taught in schools, that “furries” are allowed to use litter boxes in schools, and that teachers are grooming children to become transgender. It’s absolute psychopathy used by fascistic political forces to gain power in the country. As educators, we have an obligation to aggressively push back in any way we can against this rhetoric. We must educate our students on media literacy and critical thinking, so they do not get swallowed up in this frenzy.
Author Amy Sarig King agrees and has penned Attack of the Black Rectangles to talk to children about this problem. Sixth grader Mac Delaney is nervous about the new school year mainly because his teacher, a known town crank responsible for getting many things banned, including trick-or-treating and pizza delivery. Mac’s friends Denis & Marci are on the same page and find their worries are warranted when they get their copies of The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen for Reading Circles. Specific passages describing the bodies of Holocaust victims are blacked out despite the book being an entirely appropriate middle-grade novel. Mac begins a mission to liberate himself and his classmates so that they can learn the truth and not have it censored for them.
King has delivered one of the best books of the year, a very nuanced and brilliant takedown of the real Cancel Culture, mob censorship. Of course, folded into this story are differing points of view. Still, King never concedes any of her points to the reactionary-minded people. Instead, she finds humanity in them while still making it clear they are very wrong in their thinking. I was particularly moved by Mac’s grandfather, a Vietnam vet who delivers one of the best speeches in the book. It occurs later in the book when Mac has reached a low point, and his grandfather realizes the way to lift him out of this is, to be honest about the difficulties of being an adult. It was such a beautifully refreshing take on how hard it is to know what is right but go with what does the least harm to the most vulnerable.
It won’t surprise me if I find out soon that this book has been banned by the same crazies filling up school board meetings every week. It’s as ironic as burning copies of Fahrenheit 451. So much more is happening in Attack of the Black Rectangles, and it can feel as if the story is getting off-topic at specific points. But King is such a deft writer; by the end of the book, you see all these plot points converging to help Mac learn a difficult but necessary lesson in growing up.