This week, libraries across the nation recognize 37 years of Banned Books Week. This week originally launched in the 1980s at the American Booksellers Association (ABA) BookExpo America trade show in Anaheim, California.
According to the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, the entrance to the convention center featured towering, padlocked metal cages with 500 challenged books stacked inside and a large sign cautioning that some people considered the books dangerous.
The display grew into an initiative later that year, which featured institutions and stores hosting read-outs, window displays with literary graveyards, and more.
The week seeks to begin discussions across the nation about censorship, intellectual freedom, and challenging or banning materials. Freedom to read is an ideal that librarians, teachers, students and many community members do not take lightly.
There are many common reasons why books are challenged. For example, many children’s books will be challenged because it is deemed “unsuited/inappropriate for age group.” Authors such as Alvin Schwartz and Roald Dahl are listed frequently. Since the Office for Intellectual Freedom began collecting data about book challenges in the ’90s, top challenges have also included “sexually explicit” material and books with “offensive language.”
Books are usually challenged with the best intentions – to protect others, frequently children, from difficult ideas and information. However, as Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. said most eloquently in his Texas v. Johnson decision, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
In 2018, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 347 challenges to library, school and university materials and services. Of the books challenged, here are the top five with their publisher’s synopsis and reasons cited for challenges and bans.
1. “George” by Alex Gino. Knowing herself to be a girl despite her outwardly male appearance, George is denied a female role in the class play before teaming up with a friend to reveal her true self. Banned, challenged, and relocated because it was believed to encourage children to clear browser history and change their bodies using hormones, and for mentioning “dirty magazines,” describing male anatomy, “creating confusion,” and including a transgender character.
2. “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo” by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller. HBO’s Emmy-winning Last Week Tonight with John Oliver presents a children’s picture book about a Very Special boy bunny who falls in love with another boy bunny. Banned and challenged for including LGBTQIA+ content, and for political and religious viewpoints.
3. “Captain Underpants series” written and illustrated by Dav Pilkey. Fourth graders George Beard and Harold Hutchins are a couple of class clowns. The only thing they enjoy more than playing practical jokes is creating their own comic books. And together they’ve created the greatest superhero in the history of their elementary school: Captain Underpants! The series was challenged because it was perceived as encouraging disruptive behavior, while “Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot” was challenged for including a same-sex couple
4. “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Banned and challenged because it was deemed “anti-cop,” and for profanity, drug use, and sexual references.
5. “Drama” written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Designing sets for her middle school’s play, Callie tries to overcome limited carpentry skills, low ticket sales and squabbling crew members only to find her efforts further complicated by the arrival of two cute brothers. Banned and challenged for including LGBTQIA+ characters and themes.