A Matter of Context: Challenged Books

ALA Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, Banned and Challenged Books

By Linsey Milillo

With the recent publication of ALA’s Top 10 Challenged Books list, we saw some recurring titles, as well as new entries. Returning to the list is, Looking for Alaska by John Green, often challenged for its offensive language, sexually explicit scenes, and claims that it is generally unsuited for the age group.  Since its publication in 2005, and despite its popularity with critics and readers, plus a laundry list of accolades (i.e. Winner, 2006 Michael L. Printz Award, 2005 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, A Kirkus Best Book of 2005, and many more), the novel continues its reign as one of the most popular banned books.

Looking for Alaska

Here is a brief history of its controversy:

  • First challenged in 2008 and 2009 in Depew, NY, the novel was retained but schools sent a letter to parents for permission to use the novel with only 3 students denied.
  • In 2012, Looking for Alaska was challenge as required reading in Knox County Tennessee high schools where it was subsequently removed from the required reading list.
  • In 2013, the book was also banned as required reading in Sumner County Tennessee, both instances due to inappropriate language.
  • Challenged as part of the Verona (NJ) High School curriculum due to a parent’s claim the sexual nature of the story was inappropriate.
  • In 2015, challenged but ultimately retained by the Waukesha (WI) South High School after claims that the book was “too racy to read.”
  • Most recently (April 2016), challenged in Marion County Kentucky for its use in a 12th grade classroom and ultimately retained.


Surprisingly absent from this year’s ALA list is Stephen Chbosky’s 1999 novel, Perks of Being a Wallflower.

The Perks of Being a WallflowerThis coming of age novel has made the list a whopping 7 times from ’04 to ’14 for references to drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit language/scenes, date rape, masturbation, and being unsuited for the age group. Like Looking for Alaska, Perks has faced its fair share of bans and challenges starting in Fairfax, VA in 2003 and most recently in 2016 at the Pasco Middle School in Florida (parents complained about the book’s sexual content). Ultimately, Perks was removed from the middle school, but retained at the high school level.

Journalist John Romano, for the Tampa Bay Times, brings up an interesting discussion based on the Pasco case, which is also relevant to Looking for Alaska and other titles on ALA’s list.  He comments that what he found ‘obscene’ wasn’t the content of Perks, but rather the ongoing instances of one parent making the decision of what is appropriate for any and all children. Romano doesn’t dispute that Chbosky’s novel might be for a more mature audience, but that considering to pull it from every school in the county wasn’t necessary and praised the superintendent’s decision to remove the book from the middle school but not elsewhere.

At the heart of the matter, and considering both Looking for Alaska and Perks of Being a Wallflower’s continued presence on the Top Ten List, we must still consider the principles of Intellectual Freedom and the uphill struggle to promote freedom for diverse texts. It all comes down to context, a fact that most individuals and groups with ruffled feathers disregard without considering each text as part of a larger and often essential conversation. Such diverse texts exploring abuse, sexuality and other coming of age topics can be life changing discoveries for teen readers whose needs might not be met elsewhere. True, there is a time and/or place more appropriate for certain texts; however, one person should not have the power to limit the access of many.



‘Banned #48: Perks of Being a Wallflower.’ Banned Library. Retrieved from http://www.bannedlibrary.com/podcast/2016/2/3/banned-48-perks-of-being-a-wallflower-by-stephen-chbosky

‘Looking for Alaska.’ (2015).  Marshall University. May 31, 2016. Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/j79ltwe

Barack, Lauren. (2016). ‘Looking for Alaska Stays in Curriculum in Kentucky. School Library Journal. Retrieved from http://www.slj.com/2016/05/censorship/looking-for-alaska-stays-in-curriculum-in-lebanon-kentucky

Romano, John. (2016).Banning a book is the real obscenity in this case. Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved from http://www.tampabay.com/news/education/k12/romano-banning-a-book-is-the-real-obscenity-in-this-case/2278971


Linsey Milillo works in teen and adult reference services for the Lane Libraries in Fairfield, Ohio. She’s an avid blogger with interest in reviews, programming and discussing timely issues at the center of library and information services.

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