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Banned Books Week: Why are illustrated books being challenged more than ever?

A panel from “This One Summer,” by Mariko Tamaki and artist Jillian Tamaki. (First Second)

AS BANNED BOOKS WEEK begins, it bears asking: Why are graphic novels being challenged more than ever?

Last year, for the first time, the top two most challenged works were graphic novels for young adults, and half of the top 10 most challenged books were illustrated narratives. It also bears noting that of the 323 challenges filed against stocked books in 2016, many of them, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, were for reasons related to sex or gender.

Landing at the ALA’s top spot was “This One Summer,” written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki. A year earlier, the YA graphic novel received a Printz Honor, and became the first graphic novel to receive a Caldecott Honor. But last spring, the ALA reported that “This One Summer” was “restricted, relocated and banned because it includes LGBT characters, drug use, and profanity,” and that it was “considered sexually explicit with mature themes.”

The No. 2 title on last year’s list, Raina Telgemeier‘s bestseller “Drama,” was a Stonewall Book Award-winning graphic novel. But for the second time in three years, it cracked the top 10 “most challenged” list. The ALA said that school and library officials banned the book in some cases last year because “it includes LGBT characters, was deemed sexually explicit, and was considered to have an offensive political viewpoint.”

So part of the reason graphic novels are prompting challenges more than ever is clearly related to the increase in such popular works that tackle sexual orientation and gender identity.

“Of the top 10 books challenged in libraries, the top five were challenged for having LGBTQ content, which seems pretty significant,” Mariko Tamaki told The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “In the case of ‘This One Summer,’ it means the existence of queer characters is enough to label a book ‘inappropriate’ for young people, which further labels the feelings and lives of young queer people ‘inappropriate.’ And they are not.

“I stand by my assertion that any person who wants a book removed from a library for having queer content should have to make their case to a panel of LGBTQ readers as to why their lives shouldn’t be represented in the library.”

ALA’s top 10 list from 2016 also included: the children’s picture-book memoir “I Am Jazz,” written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas (reasons for challenges: “because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints”); the adult comic-book set “Big Hard Sex Criminals,” by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky (reason: deemed sexually explicit); and in an atypical case, the “Little Bill” children’s book series, which was challenged not because of its content, but because of “criminal sexual allegations” against its author, comedian Bill Cosby (the series artist is Varnette P. Honeywood).

(Non-illustrated books that cracked the 2016 ALA list included “George,” by Alex Gino, which was removed “because it includes a transgender child” and because the “sexuality was not appropriate at elementary levels,” and the acclaimed “Two Boys Kissing,” by David Levithan, which was challenged “because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content.”)

Since 2001, the ALA top 10 list has included such literary classics as “Beloved,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” But only since 2013 have graphic novels made regular appearances on the list. Beyond such “hybrid” prose-and-picture books as Dav Pilkey’s “Captain Underpants,” the most challenged graphic novels have recently included not just “Drama” but also Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home,” Jeff Smith’s “Bone” and “Saga” by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples.

Some industry observers say that the spike in challenges to illustrated books can be attributed to the recent rise in the literary form’s popularity and accessibility on bookshelves, as well as the subject matter.

“Graphic novels are more popular and widely read than ever,” said Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an advocacy organization. “Their authors are speaking directly to the real concerns of their audiences in an accessible way.”

Brownstein noted, too, that the illustrated form can attract challenges that other books might not.

“There are many other factors to weigh, including the medium’s reliance on the power of the static image,” he said. “Graphic novels are frequently reduced to a single image or sequence of images that can be removed from the larger context of the work, and used to justify censorship. Comics’ use of images and words give the stories added power that resonates with audiences, and makes works like ‘This One Summer’ and ‘Drama’ even more compelling. These works must be considered as a whole to be fully appreciated. When that happens, the complexity, nuance and sophistication of the stories can be fully appreciated.”

The CBLDF director pointed, as well, to how comics are perceived by many parents and officials. “In many cases, comics are still regarded as lesser reading,” he said. “Some people don’t expect comics to have the kind of complexity or depth that earned ‘This One Summer’ the Caldecott honor and ‘Drama’ a Stonewall honor. We’ve seen cases where comics are challenged because the conversations that they raise were unexpected.”

But Brownstein is among those on the front lines who fight for such books to remain in libraries.

“Comics are a powerful form of storytelling whose authors are discussing important, often uncomfortable issues,” he said. “These are the stories readers need and want, and in certain cases, they’re the stories that some members of a community may feel threatened by. Those people don’t need to read these books, and they don’t need to bring them into their house.

“However, they can’t take them away from the rest of the community. When that kind of censorship happens, when individuals and parents aren’t allowed to make up their own minds about books, we are all diminished.”

Read more:

Banned Books Week: How comics are fighting a hail of critical fire

Jillian Tamaki’s new ‘Boundless’ illustrates the perils of seeking transcendence in a wired world