A children's book about gay penguins. A comic about an Iranian girl in the midst of political upheaval. Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. These are some of the ten most-challenged, most hand-wrung-over books of 2014. And what's the overarching theme this year? People want to ban books with diversity.
Every year the American Library Association, along with its "State of America's Libraries" report, releases a list of the ten most-challenged books. To quote the ALA, "A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that a book or other material be restricted or removed because of its content or appropriateness." These books aren't banned, but they're the most-oft formally complained about.
This year, eight of the ten books challenged feature diverse content, which they describe as "non-white main and/or secondary characters; LGBT main and/or secondary characters; disabled main and/or secondary characters; issues about race or racism; LGBT issues; issues about religion which encompass in this situation the Holocaust and terrorism; issues about disability and/or mental illness; non-Western settings…" This is a huge jump from the past few years, in which books containing diverse content averaged between four to five of the ten most-challenged.
For a visual, detailed breakdown of the ten most-challenged books, and reasons for their challenges, this infographic from the ALA is super-helpful:
To try and grapple with why all of these challenges were levelled against these books, and what libraries have to go through with regard to censorship, I spoke to Lynn Lobash, manager of the reader services department of the New York Public Library. As she explains, "The New York Public Library is a very unique place to be in that we're very much in support of the ALA's Library Bill of Rights, which is about access to everything without censorship. And also, for us, we have to serve a very diverse community in New York City. So we want things that people will be able to see themselves in."
I asked her if any of the ten most-challenged books surprised her with their inclusion on the list.
"I was surprised by Sherman Alexie's book [ The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (number-one challenged)] because it shows up time and time again from our staff, either as a staff pick, or as a recommendation for specific reader advisory questions. It's quite beloved among staff members here."
Lynn went on, "I personally was surprised by [Khaled Hosseini's] The Kite Runner (number-seven challenged) because I'd read that at least 15 years ago and I loved it. I mean, it was a hard book, it was very heart breaking, but the reasons that they gave were that there was too much violence in it. But for me, it was such an eye-opener to a culture that I didn't know about, it was sort of a life-changing book."
Lynn explained that she can see where the complaints are coming from, "I can see that they outline in this list why they're challenging these books. They have explicit content, sexual content, racism, violence. Poverty is something they didn't mention, but it seems to be an overarching theme in these books. I can see where some people would be shocked by the content in these books. But for other people who read them, it makes them feel quite understood and less alone in the world."
I asked her about the huge presence of diversity in these challenged books, and she explained, "Starting last year, there was a big article in the Times about the lack of diversity in children's fiction." The numbers, when you sit down and look at them, are astonishing. Out of 3,200 children's books published in 2013, only a paltry 93 were about black characters. "And everybody just went crazy because that is really not OK. So there was this big campaign for more diversity in children's books, and we're very sensitive to that kind of thing in the library because we serve a diverse community and we want everything to be fair and balanced and representative, so I'm not terribly surprised that these are books being looked at as well, because it's part of the zeitgeist."
So maybe the fact that there's a sharp uptick in challenged books that include diversity is a result of more people reading books that include diversity. Maybe more cool kids are reading Persepolis (number-two challenged) and more uptight parents are writing in to ban it. Is that too hopeful?
But what is the role of a library to censor? Lynn, and the ALA, and the NYPL, think the library shouldn't play any role in censoring. And Lynn describes how most readers, looking for a good book, censor themselves: "People will say to me, 'I want a mystery, but I don 't want it to be too gory, and I don't want it to be too crazy, and I don 't want a lot of sex in it.' It kind of gives you an idea right off the bat when they're looking for a book what they don 't like, so it's easy to steer them towards a thing that would be good for them… So we're not hearing a lot of negatives like 'Horrible!' and 'Oh, I can't believe you gave me this' sort of thing."
Americans are, of course, a nation of crybabies when it comes to censorship (especially as it relates to public spaces). So NYPL's model of self-censoring feels right to me. Before I recommend a book to you, tell me what offends you. And who knows, maybe making people flat-out say that they're offended by people of different cultures or orientations might inspire the kind of conversations we need to help chip away the irrational fears that landed some these books on this infamous list.
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