Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel was number 7 on the list of top ten most challenged books of 2015. It was most often challenged for “Homosexuality, graphic images, nudity” / “Violence and other (“graphic images”)”. Of course, like virtually every challenged resource, it’s a great story/resource–at least if you have a little bit of interest in the subject matter. Alison Bechdel and her work have won numerous awards and praise, including: finalist for a 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award, 2007 winner of a GLAAD Media Award, a Stonewall Book Award, a Publishing Triangle-Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award, a Lambda Literary Award, and an Eisner Award (a fuller listing of awards, praise, and placements on lists can be found here). Inclusion on the list of the OIF’s 2015 Top Ten Most Challenged Books is the cherry on top.
Personally, I am a fan of the work and believe all of its accolades are well deserved. Even without the OIF’s immortalizing blessing as one of the top ten most challenged books in the nation, I think Fun Home has a permanent place in the history of graphic novels, as well as LGBTQ and autobiographical books.
With all of that praise in mind, Fun Home is not meant or suited for all age groups. Being a graphic novel, Fun Home still has to deal with the unfair notion that comics are always meant for children. As an anecdote, when The Watchmen film came out, I noticed a couple covering the eyes of their children and ultimately leaving the theater, I assume because they had done exactly no research on the R-rated comic-book movie. Of course, labeling and rating works for age groups is a definite violation of the Library Bill of Rights, but Fun Home is a mature work that may be best appreciated by mature audiences. If a patron found Fun Home in the children’s section alongside Owly and Drama, I could understand why they would request the book be removed from that section.
Looking at the list of charges against the work, “violence, homosexuality, graphic images, nudity,” I would agree that all of these are contained within the work. “The book addresses themes of sexual orientation, gender roles, suicide, emotional abuse, dysfunctional family life, and the role of literature in understanding oneself and one’s family” (wikipedia). So, it does not seem odd to me that the work contains graphic images–it really couldn’t do the themes justice without them. That said, the work isn’t going for shock value; Bechdel has taken a sober look at events in her life, and is recording them without whitewashing or resorting to euphemisms. Additionally, the work is thoughtful and meaningful with its use of sexual content–it is a mentally, but not sexually, titillating work.
Bechdel and her Fun Home graphic novel are not new to challenges and censorship. In 2006, the year of publication, the book was challenged at the Marshall Public Library in Missouri and temporarily removed from the collection for about five months. Bechdel did respond to this incident in an interview with Lynn Emmert:
EMMERT: So what was your reaction to Fun Home being banned in Marshall, Missouri, along with Craig Thompson’s Blankets? [Laughter.]
BECHDEL: My first reaction is: What a great honor! My second reaction is, it’s a very interesting situation, and it’s all about the power of images, which I think is something people need to talk about. I can understand why people wouldn’t want their children to accidentally think this was a funny comic book and pick it up and see pictures of people having sex. I can understand that. I think banning books is the wrong approach. If you don’t want your kids to read it, make sure they don’t get a hold of it. But I do understand that concern, because yeah, drawings are very seductive and attention-catching.
EMMERT: Do you think it had as much to do with the subject matter as it did with the fact that it was illustrated?
BECHDEL: Oh, I think it had everything to do with the fact that it was illustrated. I’m sure that library’s got all kinds of gay material in it. But if they’re just regular books with no cartoon illustrations, there’s not the same kind of concern about it. – via The Comics Journal.
In 2008, a University of Utah student objected to Fun Home being on an English course’s syllabus, and was subsequently given an alternative reading. It moved further, with an anti-pornography group taking up the cause and loudly failing to get the book removed from the curriculum.
In 2013, a wealthy and influential family with ties to politics in South Carolina challenged the book for being included in the reading for College of Charleston freshmen, again calling the work pornographic. College administrators continually defended the work, but the South Carolina House of Representatives proposed a cut of $52,000 to the college–the cost of the summer reading program. Bechdel responded here, saying, “It’s sad and absurd that the College of Charleston is facing a funding cut for teaching my book – a book which is after all about the toll that this sort of small-mindedness takes on people’s lives.” Despite the outcry from students, the ACLU, the American Association of University Professors, the Modern Language Association, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Association of American Publishers, the National Council of Teachers of English and the American Library Association, the House passed the budget with the proposed cuts and Governor Nikki Haley did not veto the budget.
In 2015 a group of students at Duke University objected to reading Fun Home.
I did reach out to Alison Bechdel and her publisher asking for a short statement regarding the inclusion of Fun Home on the 2015 Top Ten list, but did not hear back from either. Bechdel may still be busy with the currently running Fun Home Broadway musical, which won five Tony Awards, or her other projects.
Alison Bechdel is a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Award, and co-author of the Bechdel-Wallace test. Are You My Mother? is a companion work to Fun Home, centering on the relationship between Bechdel and her mother.
Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. Connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.