This month, libraries, retailers, publishers, teachers and book lovers across the country celebrate the freedom to read with Banned Books Week. This annual event honors creative expression and reminds us that even in 2015, there will always be people that are afraid of new ideas. It generally takes place the last week of September, carrying into October.
It may seem difficult to believe that in this day and age anyone would bother challenging a book, but the regularity of public outrage is still compelling enough for organizations to unite with the goals of educating, informing and bringing awareness to the reasons behind these challenges. Banned Books Week provides intentional space to reflect upon the importance of free speech.
While books aren’t actually banned, they are often challenged for removal from public and school libraries. A challenge typically begins when someone takes issue with a particular title on a required reading list or availability in a local library and takes action to seek it’s removal. Most public libraries have policies in place for how to respond to a patron challenging a book, which include the steps librarians should take to make the patron feel heard while maintaining their commitment to free information.
Currently, the top ten most frequently challenged books according to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom are:
1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
2. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
3. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
4. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
5. It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
6. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
7. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseni
8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
9. A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard
10. Drama by Raina Telgemeier
It’s interesting to note that several of these titles are graphic novels, including Saga, which is challenged for being “anti-family” and “unsuited for age group.” Graphic novels are often senselessly targeted due to the graphic nature of comics, which can be arresting to unfamiliar readers, especially those who judge images out of context. Saga has won multiple Eisner Awards, Harvey Awards and is one of the top selling comics industry wide. It follows an unlikely couple from opposite sides of an intergalactic war who have fallen in love and given birth to a beautiful baby, Hazel, who serves as the story’s narrator. The cover of the first issue features Alana, Hazel’s mother, breast feeding her newborn and holding a gun. While the series explores themes of blended families and fractured relationships, it never undermines the importance of loved ones. However, someone could flip through it and see disjointed panels and make a snap judgement about the value of the book without seeking to understand the whole story.
Similarly, Drama has been challenged for being “sexually explicit.” This is especially laughable, as Drama is an all-ages comic by the supremely talented Telgemeier where a junior high school girl discovers her crush is gay. There is no explicit sexual contact in this, or any, of Telgemeier’s many successful comics. There are discussions about sexual orientation, but nothing that a reasonable person would find offensive. A book like Drama celebrates diversity, and gives parents an excellent resource to use when helping their kids understand orientation. By putting a gay character front and center, especially in a book for kids, Telgemeier creates a space for queer youth to see themselves in a story, surrounded by understanding and compassion.
Even though this year’s Banned Books Week has come to an end, take some time to visit your local library or comic book store and check out a few new titles. Remember—it’s up to all of us to continue to protect creative freedoms and support those that crusade tirelessly to educate and inspire expression of all forms.