IT IS a sign of its elevated status and popularity that graphic novels have grown to own more shelving within your local library — and likewise, a more prominent place in national conversations about literature.
Running through Sunday is Banned Books Week, which highlights attempts to restrict the written word as it also celebrates “the freedom to read.” The week was launched in 1982 as a direct return-volley to “a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries,” with more than 11,000 books having been challenged since Banned Books Week began, according to the American Library Association.
Since 2001, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has also issued a Top 10 Most Frequently Challenged books list, with “challenges” being defined as “documented requests to remove materials from schools and libraries.” Most years, the ALA records between 300 and 500 challenges nationally.
For years, the list was dominated by such popular works as the Harry Potter books (with occultism often cited as reason for the challenge); classics like “Of Mice and Men,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Catcher in the Rye” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (often for “offensive language” in those cases); as well as such adapted-into-film ’70s works as “Bridge to Terabithia” and “The Chocolate War.”
What you didn’t find on the list for years was a true graphic novel. In 2002, the hybrid illustrated series “Captain Underpants” (“unsuited to age group”) began cracking the list, and in 2004, Maurice Sendak’s picture book “In the Night Kitchen” (“nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit”) entered the top 10.
In 2013, however, Jeff Smith’s acclaimed graphic-novel epic “Bone” (“political viewpoint, racism, violence”) made the list. Although the “offenses” may ring as absurd to fans, the challenges also reflected the massive presence of the book on reading lists and in libraries.
“Banned Books Week is about entering the conversation the right way,” Smith (“RASL,” “Tuki”) told The Post’s Comic Riffs the following year.
In terms of challenged books, ” ‘Bone’ is discussed alongside ‘(The Adventures of) Huckleberry Finn’ and Kurt Vonnegut — all my heroes,” continued Smith, whose Eisner-winning fantasy-adventure work has been challenged or pulled from school shelves in such states as Minnesota and Texas.
In 2014, such popular and praiseworthy works as Raina Telgemeier’s “Drama” (“sexually explicit”) and “Saga,” by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (“nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group”) arrived on the list just a few slots behind Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” (“gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint”).
Three spots on a large list of banned books may seem to be an odd barometer, but reflects that graphic novels had not only arrived, but were being requested and making an impact.
In April, the ALA office released its Top 10 list for 2015, and in an encouraging sign for the consistency of comics, both Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” (“violence,” “graphic images”) and Craig Thompson’s “Habibi” (“nudity, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group”) made their debuts in the Most Challenged Top 10, slotting in right behind the Holy Bible.
Comic Riffs hopes that graphic novels will continue to pop up on this list as a reflection of their huge fandoms, notably among students — as well as a symbol of textured comics literature that prompts, and even provokes, thought.
And to celebrate Banned Books Week and its spirit of reading freedom, Comic Riffs encourages you to pick up a graphic novel — perhaps even one that challenges your own views of the world.