A novel about a Native American teenager who attends an all-white public school. An Iranian artist’s memoir of her childhood during her country’s Islamic Revolution. A picture book chronicling the true story of two male penguins who raised a chick together at New York’s Central Park Zoo.
These are the three books Americans have tried hardest to keep people from reading.
On Monday, the American Library Association put out its annual “State of America’s Libraries” report, which details trends and challenges at U.S. libraries — chief among them, demands that certain books get taken off the shelves.
According to the report, there were 311 cases of books getting challenged at schools and public libraries around the country — though since most challenges go unreported, that number could be five or six times as high. A “challenge” is defined as any formal, written request that a book be removed from a library because of content or appropriateness. More than a third of this year’s 311 requests came from parents, although patrons also sparked a sizable chunk of challenges. (Notably, “students” is not one of the categories of challenge initiators listed in the report.)
The reasons for challenging books read like a laundry list of America’s cultural anxieties. More than a third of challenges were because of “sexually explicit” content and 23 percent because of “offensive language.” Eight percent of challenged books were criticized for offending a ethnic, racial or cultural group and 12 percent for having a religious or political viewpoint. Drugs, smoking, alcohol, gangs, abortion, sexuality, violence and occult satanism were also cited as reasons for challenges.
No. 4 on the Top 10 list, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” was banned because it “contains controversial issues,” the ALA reported. “And Tango Makes Three,” the story of the gay Central Park Zoo penguins, was said to “promote the homosexual agenda.” Sherman Alexie’s National Book Award-winning “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which has been on the list every year since 2010 and was this year’s most-challenged book, was criticized for being anti-family, discussing sex education and depicting use of drugs and alcohol, among other things.
Eight of the list’s 10 books were deemed “unsuited for age group,” a concern often cited by book challengers. It’s why Sandi Minard, a board member for Cape Henlopen High School in southern Delaware, voted to pull a coming-of-age novel about a lesbian teen from the recommended summer reading list last year.
“If it was geared towards an older student, I wouldn’t have been so adamant about it. But when we’re talking about incoming freshmen, you have to be more selective about the language and the sexual content,” she told the Atlantic in September.
But Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said that argument says less about kids than it does about their parents.
“The term ‘age-appropriate’ is widely used as a proxy for the values and beliefs I want to impart to my kids, and how much I want to control them,” Bertin told the Atlantic.
Alexie has long argued that his novels’ dark themes are exactly the kinds of issues young adult books should be discussing because they’re the issues young adults face — even if adults don’t want kids to read about them.
“When some cultural critics fret about the ‘ever-more-appalling’ YA books … they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be,” he wrote in a 2011 essay for the Wall Street Journal. “… I don’t write to protect [teenagers]. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons — in the form of words and ideas — that will help them fight their monsters.”
The ALA report also noted that books are more likely to come under fire when they talk about “diverse content” — race and racism, LGBT issues, disability and mental illness, anything happening outside North America and Europe. Eight of the books on this year’s most challenged list were categorized as diverse — a higher proportion than any year in the past 10.
The report cites an analysis of previous years’ challenged books by young adult author Malinda Lo. Last fall, Lo looked at the ALA’s most-challenged books from 2000 to 2009 and found that non-white authors make up about 20 percent of book challenges (even though writers of color account for only about 10 percent of children’s book authors). Just over half of the books challenged had “diverse content” of some kind.
“Diversity is slim throughout all genres of books and across all age groups — except when it comes to book challenges,” Lo wrote. “The message this sends is loud and clear: diversity is actually under attack. Minority perspectives are being silenced every year.”
But Alexie, who said in 2013 that getting banned tells him he wrote “a book that needs to be read,” reveled in his novel’s most-challenged status.
Here are the ALA’s “Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2014,” along with the reasons they were challenged:
- “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie.
Reasons: Anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying.”
- “Persepolis,” by Marjane Satrapi.
Reasons: Gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive” and “graphic depictions.”
- “And Tango Makes Three,” Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell.
Reasons: Anti-family, homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “promotes the homosexual agenda.”
- “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison.
Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “contains controversial issues.”
- “It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie Harris.
Reasons: Nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. Additional reasons: “alleges it [to be] child pornography.”
- “Saga,” by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.
Reasons: Anti-family, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group.
- “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini.
Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited to age group, violence.
- “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky.
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “date rape and masturbation.”
- “A Stolen Life: A Memoir,” Jaycee Dugard.
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group.
- “Drama,” by Raina Telgemeier.
Reasons: Sexually explicit.