Perhaps Fahrenheit 451 and Footloose — stories whose plots include censorship through the burning of books — are more realistic now than realized. Banned Books Week, an annual event that began in 1982, is held the last week of September and seeks to bring attention to novels that are banned by libraries, schools, and other institutions across the world. Ironically, Fahrenheit 451 has been banned, itself. Often, these books are banned for religious or political reasons, and, other times, for broaching difficult topics. Of the top 11 challenged books of 2018, a list compiled by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, six have been banned or even burned for containing LGBTQIA+ content.
Recently, the Associated Press reported on the banning of Harry Potter from Tennessee’s St. Edwards Catholic School after a Reverend consulted exorcists in regards to the text. Banned Books Week raises the question of who has the right to censor and control sources of available media, such as libraries and schools. Are there acceptable reasons and topics to control? Is it ever acceptable to censor novels within libraries?
These questions may never have a clear answer for some, but, to provide a better understanding of what materials are at stake, the OIF’s annual list of challenged (facing censorship) books explains the most common reasons for backlash.
At the top of this list is George by Alex Gino, a recipient of the Stonewall Book Award which honors stories that capture and portray LGBTQIA+ experiences. Every year since this novel was published in 2015, centered around a girl named Melissa, it has been challenged for “encouraging children to clear their browser histories . . . mentioning ‘dirty magazines’ . . . [and] including a transgender character.” While they have expressed regret for deadnaming Melissa within the title, Gino plans to continue writing novels that explore queer identities in a middle school environment in hopes to help LGBTQIA+ students despite this backlash.
Also on the list, at number three, is Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey. A reason provided is that Captain Underpants encourages generally disruptive behavior, or so those promoting its censorship say. More specifically, people challenge the book Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot for including a same-sex couple. This isn’t the first time Captain Underpants has been on this list. It was even at the top in 2012, beating out 50 Shades of Gray for the most challenged book of the year.
Just below Captain Underpants is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. People have sought to ban this book from classrooms, libraries, etc. due its use of profanity, mentions of drugs, and sexual references, which are common themes of many coming-of-age stories. This novel follows a teenage girl, Starr Carter, who was pushed to the front of a national movement against police brutality after she witnessed her friend get murdered in front of her by a uniformed officer — all because the officer confused a hairbrush for a gun. While this story is fictional, it bears similarities to many incidents of police-related violence against Black people, such as Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. Perhaps it is this scary-realistic portrayal of police brutality that has caused people to attempt to ban this book as “anti-cop.”
In contrast to these examples, Judy Schachner’s children series, Skippyjon Jones, is challenged for featuring caricatures of Mexican culture. This series uses what D. Ines Casillas calls “mock Spanish” in an article on the blog Sounding Out. It was also the subject of a dissertation by Kim Wilder analyzing the importance of accurate cultural representation in children’s literature.
While people challenge many novels and for a variety of reasons, the OIF has found that the majority of books that are banned or even burned feature the stories of LGBTQIA+ individuals, people of color, or other minorities. In 2015, nine out of the ten most challenged books contained diverse content. Since then, OIF has compiled a list of books that face controversy simply for containing diverse stories. The novels on this list range from the Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Hailey, to The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, to The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank.
Seeing as many banned or challenged books tell stories of minorities, these efforts are generally backed by people and organizations that believe the mere existence of these novels challenges the status quo of society. Sometimes books are banned for covering uncomfortable subjects, such as sexual assault and suicide. This raises the questions: who has the authority to ban these books from public spaces? Is it ever acceptable to encourage censorship of media?
During Banned Books Week, consider picking up a novel mentioned above or in any of the OIF’s compiled lists that you have not heard of before or are shocked to see challenged and see if you can personally answer these questions.