We know that writers threaten the social order because censorship is as old as the printing press. Every culture has a problem with censorship, even in the West where democracy has supposedly given citizens the inalienable right to free speech. But although people can write what they like (providing that privacy and libel laws aren’t broken), are they as free to read what they like?
According to the American Libraries Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), there are plenty of people who wish to curtail our freedom to read by attempting to ban materials from public, school, and university libraries. During Banned Books Week (launched 1982) each September, the OIF releases a list of the books/materials that were the most “challenged” in the previous year to raise awareness of what is bothering people and why, and highlight the importance of free and open access to information.
In 2018, the theme of Banned Books Week (www.bannedbooksweek.org) was “Banning Books Silence Stories,” and the aim was to remind everyone that they need to speak out against the growing problem of censorship: our very way of life depends on it. According to the ALA, calls for books to be banned came from many quarters, including teachers, religious and special interest groups, and even librarians themselves!
So, what was on the ALA OIF’s list for 2017? In total, there were 416 books that were challenged or banned last year, but here’s the run down of the top 10, complete with the reasons why the books were so frequently challenged.
Top 10 Challenged Books of 2017
1. Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher. New York Times-bestselling YA fiction. Published in 2007, but recently serialized by Netflix, hence its appearance at number one in this list. Challenged and banned in multiple school districts because it addresses the issue of suicide.
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie. YA nonfiction. National Book Award winner. Challenged constantly since its publication in 2007 because of profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.
3. Drama, Raina Telgemeier. Graphic novel from an acclaimed cartoonist. Stonewall Honor Award winner. Published in 2012. Challenged and banned in school libraries for featuring LGBT characters and for being “confusing.”
4. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini. Challenged and banned for featuring sexual violence. Complainants also claimed it “lead to terrorism” and “promotes Islam.”
5. George, Alex Gino. A book written for elementary school kids. Challenged and banned for featuring a transgender child.
6. Sex is a Funny Word, Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth. Written by a certified sex educator, this children’s book, published in 2015, was challenged for “encouraging” children to “want to have sex or ask questions about sex.”
7. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee. Incredibly, this widely acknowledged American classic was challenged and banned for depicting violence and using the N-word.
8. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas. “Pervasively vulgar” and featuring drug use and offensive language, this enormously popular YA novel (now a film) was challenged and banned in school libraries and curriculums.
9. And Tango Makes Three, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole. Another children’s book! This 2005 title returned to the Top Ten Most Challenged list after a short absence to be, once again, challenged for featuring a same-sex relationship.
10. I Am Jazz, Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. An autobiographical picture book, co-written by the 13-year-old protagonist, was challenged for addressing gender identity.
What’s clear from this list is that plenty of people think that children and young people are at special risk. Too many people, it seems want to restrict children’s democratic right to read under the pretence of “protecting” them from . . . what? Moral "corruption" mostly. But as we all know, society’s definition of what is morally wrong is ever-changing. Only 100 years ago, it was considered entirely unacceptable for women to vote. Therefore, I hope that in significantly fewer than 100 more years, everyone will wonder why the hell, in 2018, everyone was so bothered about people’s sexual preference or gender identity.
Thankfully, the ongoing ethically bankrupt crusade by an anti-democratic minority does not appear to have dampened authors’ desire to address the important emotional, sexual, and social issues of our time by writing books with spine. And seeing the 2017 list makes me proud that literature continues to lead the way for social progress. So, tyrants and bigots be afraid: the pen is—and forever will be—mightier than the sword!
(And in the spirit of this post, any comments you make below will not require my approval before publishing!)
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith