Challenging Books Throughout the Decades

Photo Credit: National Book Critics Circle

In the early-2000s, I wouldn’t have been that surprised to look on the American Library Association’s (ALA) website and see that once again, a number of people attempted to ban J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series for “occult/Satanism.” Yet in ALA’s Top Ten Challenged Books List for 2016, the occult wasn’t a reason that any of those books were challenged. Last year, half of the books made the list for one of two reasons: the depiction of LGBTQ+ sexuality or of transgender children. What’s changed?

First of all, how do you ban a book? Libraries, schools, and the media from all over the country send reports of challenged books to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. The ALA defines a challenge as “an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group.” The ALA collects the challenges, noting what books were challenged, why, and how often. A successful challenge (of which there are few, thanks to librarians, schools, parents, and many others) results in a ban.

In 2001, the three main reasons why books like “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969) and “The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951) made the list were that they were unsuited to the age group, contained offensive language, and were sexually explicit. Librarians don’t sort books according to what’s suitable for everyone. First of all, they can’t discriminate when distributing information or checking out books, and they trust parents to keep on eye on what their children are reading. The Library Bill of Rights, adopted by the ALA Council in 1939, has a section that reads, “a person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” Out of the 448 challenges in 2001, the “Harry Potter series (1997-2008) was the most challenged. What also isn’t surprising is that there are only two other books on the list that could be considered “recent:” the “Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (which ran from 1985 to 2013), and 1997’s “Blood and Chocolate by Annette Curtis Klause. The other seven books ranged anywhere from the 1930s to the 80s.

Last year, the ALA collected 323 challenges from across the U.S. The 15 years of difference definitely show from the 2001 list. The majority of the books were written within the last decade. One exception is the “Little Bill series by Bill Cosby (1997-99), which was challenged not because of the books’ content, but because of sexual allegations against the author. It also features the fourth appearance of John Green’s “Looking for Alaska (2005) for a sexually explicit scene that “may lead a student to ‘sexual experimentation’.” The most common reasons cited for challenging a book in the 2016 list included the presence of LBGTQ+ characters and content and of transgender characters. Alex Gino’s middle-grade novel “George” (2015) joined the ranks with picture book “I am Jazz (2014) by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings for both featuring transgender children. The top two books were graphic novels, challenged for LGBT characters and sexually explicit content: “This One Summer”, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki (2014) and “Drama”, written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier (2012). The last book on the list, Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor and Park” (2013), was challenged for profanity.

Professor Molly McCloskey, BU creative writing professor and author, says, “more generally, we should not try to cleanse our children’s or our students’ lives of material that might in some way offend them. The important question students need to be able to ask and to answer is: what is the intent of the text? Why is this offensive language (racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc) being used? If you don’t allow your students to read something like “To Kill a Mockingbird“, which was recently banned in a Biloxi school, then you’re depriving them of the chance to learn how to differentiate between the intents of various kinds of writing, and thus to understand what threatens them and what doesn’t. A work of literature that is either of its time, or is in fact a critique of the prevailing attitudes of its time, has a very different intent than a political tract or a blog or a novel from 2017 that advocates for the use of racist, sexist, or xenophobic language or practices. Should I avoid assigning Ralph Ellison to my students because the n-word is used frequently in his stories? No. Might it make my students – and me – uncomfortable? Yes.”

From a 2017 standpoint, it’s not that surprising that the reasons changed. As the LGBT and transgender communities became more accepted and established, so to speak, and diversity in books became a priority, it’s not shocking that challenging books for those reasons became more mainstream. This also explains why the 2016 listed books are much more recent. It is interesting to note that teachers may be turning away from assigning classics in schools, as one way book challenges begin is when parents think the book their child has been assigned isn’t appropriate.

Rachel Bennetts (CAS, ’19), a member of the Center for Gender, Sexuality, and Activism, says, “LGBTQ+ books are the ones that you have to seek out; they’re not the most popular…I’d like to see diversity more in the mainstream, but I definitely think we’re heading in the right direction. Book banning just brings negative attention to the books, and it’s a roadblock to integrating LGBTQ+ [lifestyles] into media. I think if the country moves in the right direction, to being more accepting, it’ll happen.”

Looking to the future, what can we do to ensure that freedom of speech and representation of minority groups, like the LGBTQ+ community, are not being suppressed? Spread the word. Join the Australian #OwnVoices community, centered on making sure minority readers see themselves in novels. Keep reading diverse books. Keep reading banned or challenged books. Don’t let Netflix use up all of your free time. Keep reading!

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