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.