In Banned, we review books on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged young adult novels, banned books. The intended audience for all books is “young adult”, typically defined to include ages 12-18. We review them because challenging ideas are the heart of democracy and diversity, because even harmful perspectives should be discussed so that they may be challenged with understanding, and because we believe that reading can make us all more capable of compassion. These reviews are not endorsements, and whether you read the book addressed herein is your decision.
Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother begins with a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, a “second 9/11”, but that tragedy almost seems like a brief crossover from another book, another story. This story is about four teenagers’ lives in the wake of the attack, and Doctorow puts the reader in their shoes by giving us as little information about the wider story as they have.
The real story of Little Brother, the one they, and we, do live, is the way that the US government uses the attack as an excuse to suspend civil rights and implement an Orwellian government. Orwell’s 1984 is in fact the inspiration for the book’s title, Little Brother, the successor to Big Brother, as is the main character Marcus’s hacker name, W1n5t0n.
That clear lineage is Little Brother’s greatest strength, and its greatest weakness. The book is clearly Doctorow’s thought experiment in what Orwell might have written today: Little Brother instead of Big, pinhead cameras and hacked cell phones instead of the might of empire, and the insidious callings of xenophobia and hate that tempt people to welcome dictators instead of oppose them.
It is, in other words, an editorial masquerading as a YA novel, but it’s a very convincing editorial. That’s not to say it’s a perfect book, far from it. Doctorow lacks the nuance that I think would have been a part of Little Brother had it been written after the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In 2008, when Little Brother was written, Doctorow’s unreserved opposition of all government all the time simply lacked the context of vaccines and masks that I will always see in it now.
I will also admit that, upon rereading Little Brother for this review, I was quite shocked to find some pretty offensive language that I did not recognize for what it was when I first read the book a few years ago. That’s a personal struggle for me because, while it’s rare, there’s no excuse for it being there at all, and I certainly lost some of my respect for the author.
This is the perfect example of a banned book that’s important to read, not worship. I still have a lot of respect for what it has to say about modern America, ideas that seem even more immediate, although perhaps in a new and uncomfortable way, in the wake of the January 6th attacks on the capitol, but I also recognize the text’s flaws.
Doctorow’s ideas, as presented in Little Brother, are absolute, unqualified, making for a YA novel that reads like a modern teen’s version of Antigone. Those ideas aren’t wrong, but like most things in life the reality, especially after the pandemic, is far more a morass of “sort of” and “partially” than Doctorow’s grieving teenage revolutionary can articulate.
That’s not to say it should be banned. It is in fact a remarkably ironic book to ban, given that its core ideas include a fierce advocacy for free speech and opposition to the kind of authoritarians who would ban books. But that is, of course, why it’s banned in the first place, because it hits so close to the mark. It’s a portrait of perspective, an empathetic work and a cautionary tale about the frighteningly real ways democracy can fall apart. Little Brother is a complicated book, and an imperfect one, but I, for one, still think that’s all the more reason to read it.