By: Pat Peters
ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom released its list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2016, and as usual, the majority of them are books for children and teens.
Six of the eight youth books on the list were challenged based on sexuality and gender issues, two specifically about transgender children. I Am Jazz by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel is an autobiographical picture book about Jazz, who had “a girl brain but a boy body” at birth. Among the reasons for its challenges is the fact that it “portrays a transgender child.” That very portrayal is what makes I Am Jazz such a boon for those children who are confused about their own brain/body disconnect or have a friend who is trying to understand their gender identity.
George by Alex Gino is a middle-grade novel about a child who finally shares her secret: even though everyone treats her as a boy (her gender assigned at birth), she is a girl inside and wants to be recognized as such. Again, as with I Am Jazz, the basic fact of the presence of a transgender child is enough to bring out the censors. George’s courage in speaking out about who she really is makes this book inspiring for any reader.
In addition to books about transgender children, three teen books and one middle grade book were targeted for being “sexually explicit.” The middle grade title is Drama by Raina Telgemeier. This graphic novel about middle schoolers in a theater production has been “deemed sexually explicit,” apparently due to the on-stage kiss between two male characters, when a boy has to fill in at the last minute for the lead actress. Of course, tweens & teens will immediately identify with at least one of the characters in this “slice-of-life” of middle school drama, angst and young love.
For older readers, Looking for Alaska by John Green, Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, and This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki made the list. Green’s Alaska was challenged again this year for “a sexually explicit scene that may lead a student to ‘sexual experimentation.’” Protagonist Miles’s search for meaning and friendship is poignant and meaningful to teens who are all about that; the tragedy that changes him and his friends leads readers to an exploration of what it means to carry on.
David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing was challenged, ironically enough, for having a cover image depicting two boys kissing. The Greek Chorus of gay men who died of AIDS lends a bittersweet tone to this exploration of relationship: Harry and Craig (the two boys kissing) formerly a couple, now good friends; Peter and Neil a couple dealing with obstacles; Avery and Ryan embarking on a new relationship; and Cooper, who is depressed and suicidal after his family’s reaction to his coming out.
Third, This One Summer by the Tamaki cousins was challenged for being sexually explicit and for the drug use and profanity of its characters. Honest portrayals of adolescence make adults uncomfortable because it is uncomfortable to find your way from childhood into that transition period known as the teen years.
One more teen book was challenged multiple times for offensive language: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. This is a beautiful story of a budding relationship as each of the main characters learns a little more about themselves and about the other. Interestingly, Eleanor comments at one point that she never used swear words until her stepfather moved in and she heard it from him all the time. Park’s mother calls attention to the “dirty mouth” of Park, his brother or his father any time they curse. The main characters, Eleanor and Park, seldom use offensive language; it’s often what’s going on around them. And really, teens say bad words; it’s part of their rebellion and trying on different identities.
Finally, the Little Bill series of early readers by Bill Cosby came under challenge because of the “criminal sexual allegations against the author.” An interesting and ongoing debate in literary circles is whether it’s appropriate to judge a book by its author’s behavior. Cosby’s Little Bill books were intended to help children understand how to interact with others and build friendship, so the question might be, how can someone who is accused of treating others (yes, multiple others) so poorly be the voice for understanding in human interactions? While many classic works of literature stand, despite their authors’ personal behavior, the Little Bill series will likely never be considered classic literature, so maybe there needn’t be allowances made for this author. Or perhaps the reason there is no exception for Bill Cosby is that these are children’s books, and children’s authors need to be held to a higher standard since they might be considered role models for the children who love their books. Whatever the reason, many people took offense at Bill Cosby’s face staring up at their young children from the back cover of the Little Bill books.
In every case, we have the responsibility to make sure that children retain their rights to access to library materials as noted in the Library Bill of Rights and the Access to Library Resources and Services for Minors statement. Parents need to know that we support their rights to guide their own child’s reading, while at the same time realizing that all parents and caregivers have the same rights. The fight continues.
Pat Peters is director of the Decatur Public Library in Decatur, Texas. In her spare time, she is an adjunct professor of Library Science for Texas Woman’s University, having taught both graduate and undergraduate Children’s Literature and Youth Programming. Pat is the 2016-17 chair of the Texas Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee. Pat and her husband Jeff live in Denton, Texas. Pat can sometimes be found @PatriciaP628.