The Dayton Metro Library created this flag of the 100 most-challenged books from 1990-2000. Photo via Flickr.
On Monday of this week, the American Library Association released the list of 2013’s top ten most frequently challenged books. You’d expect it to be packed with racy titles, yes? In fact, seven out of the ten top titles are shelved in a bookstore’s young adult or children’s section.
While it’s tempting to blow off this list’s annual appearance (cue jokes about how 50 Shades of Grey doesn’t really seem to fit on a list along with anything by Toni Morrison), there’s good reason to care: The ALA’s list tells a tale of ongoing censorship and suppression of classic and modern literature in our schools and library systems. Don’t think that colleges are exempt, either—the South Carolina state legislature recently cut $70,000 in funding from two secondary schools for including LGBT-themed literature like Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home on required reading lists. While administrators at the targeted South Carolina schools have spoken up for their professors' right to set their own curriculums, hostile actions like that can impact individual teachers’ future decisions about what books to teach. A 1999 study showed that when teachers fear censorship or challenges to the texts they select for classrooms, they tend to rely more on anthologies and the (male-dominated) canon.
Over the past decade, “sexually explicit” has been the biggest reason given for nixing a book from a school or library, with “offensive language,” “unsuited to age group,” “violence,” and “homosexuality” all nipping at its lascivious heels. Most of these reasons bewilder librarian Jessamyn West, the founder of librarian.net and an advocate against censorship. “In most cases, interest indicates age-appropriateness,” says West, who noting that research finds that kids don’t usually like age-inappropriate subject matter anyway.
We also deprive them of an important opportunity, says Tanya Lee Stone, whose book A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl made its first leap onto the list this year. “A book is an incredibly safe place to walk in someone else's shoes without taking risks yourself,” says Stone. So how does she feel about seeing her book, which includes frank portrayals of drugs, nudity, and sex, on the ALA’s list? “Being on the list feels somewhat akin to earning a badge of courage or solidarity, which I will proudly wear,” she says.
2013’s Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books:
Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey: The ongoing saga of two fourth-grade antiheroes doesn’t sit well with some parents, who cited language, age-appropriateness, and violence during challenges across the country. Looks like the read-aloud potty humor that’s rocketed the series up the bestseller charts is also discomfiting to some parents.
The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison: Usually Morrison takes a proud place on this list due to her other frequently challenged book, Beloved. But Morrison’s 1970 novel The Bluest Eye, which follows a young black girl who desperately aspires to white beauty standards, has sparked complaints due to its language and graphic descriptions of rape and molestation… even though an estimated one in four girls will experience sexual abuse before she turns 18.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie: It’s not entirely clear who objects to this National Book Award for Young People’s Literature-winning book’s so-called racism—author Alexie draws upon his own experiences as a Native American in his story about a boy growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The book has also drawn ire for depictions of sex, drugs, and cussing.
Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James: It’s doubtful that James’s lite bondage sensation has found its way onto any school reading lists yet. Still, challengers cite its religious viewpoint, language, and depictions of sex and nudity when they try to remove it from library shelves.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins: The odds are usually in favor of this very popular YA series, but it apparently still incites some people to call for its removal. Collins’s books have been bashed for their non-religious viewpoint and their age-appropriateness, even though the movies based on the series have only earned a PG-13 rating.
A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl, by Tanya Lee Stone: This free-verse novel follows three friends who get mixed up with the same older boy and the consequences of their desire. Parents in school districts nationwide have accused the book of being “pornographic,” objecting to its sexual content, drug depictions, language, and depictions of nudity.
Looking for Alaska, by John Green: With a Printz Award and several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list under its belt, you’d think parents would go gaga for a book about complex teenage experiences. Not exactly: Green’s novel has been called “disgusting” by parents who object to its sex scene, profanity, and portrayal of drugs, alcohol, and smoking.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky: This book has been translated into 31 languages and spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list. But it has earned its place on the ALA list six times since being published due to objections over its discussion of homosexuality and depictions of sex and drug use.
Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya: It’s been 42 years since Anaya’s Chicano classic about spirituality and social change was published. But Anaya’s bruja has earned boos due to its depiction of religious viewpoints and occult/”Satanist” themes.
Bone (series), by Jeff Smith: This award-winning comic book series is known as much for its epic sweep as the epic fits it seems to give some parents. Though its most notable challenge was due to a Minnesota parent who felt it promoted drinking and smoking, the ALA reports it made its way onto this list due to accusations of racism and violence and objections to its political viewpoint.
Related Reading: New YA Book Great is a Gender-Swapped Reteliing of The Great Gatsby.
Erin Blakemore is a library school dropout, freelance writer, and author of the Colorado Book Award-winning The Heroine's Bookshelf.