This week’s special guest is Megan Dangerous from Oh No! Lit Class.
Walk into your local library this week and you’re likely to see a display of books that have been banned in different times and places for a variety of reasons. Standard choices include Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, Huckleberry Finn and maybe some more recent additions like The Kite Runner. Most of us glance over it was we walk by, but not so for a group of pastors in Maine. They want to ban the display of banned books.
The pastors don’t seem to mind the books banned for racist language, violence against women or drug use, just the ones that shine a positive light on LGBTQ characters. The library refused to remove any books from its display and one can only hope opened a dictionary to the entry for ‘irony.’ Banned books fall into two major categories: those banned by specific institutions, such as a school district, and those banned by countries.
According to the American Library Association, over 11,300 books have been challenged since the origin of Banned Books Week 33 years ago. Over the past 25 years, the most popular reasons for challenging books were offensive language, sexually explicit content and the book being unsuited for a particular age group. Books are most often challenged by individual parents rather than organizations, teachers or religious groups, not that that doesn’t happen, and most challenges are within school libraries. School districts take these challenges seriously. Teachers have been fired for teaching banned classics, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Catcher in the Rye. One teacher was suspended for reading their students Ender’s Game when a parent complained it was sexually explicit, despite the fact that there’s nothing sexual in it. You’d be surprised at the authors who wind up on the list. Judy Blume has five books on the list of the most frequently challenged books of the 1990s, including some of her most popular titles like Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret and Tiger Eyes. The media empire-founding Harry Potter books were, taken collectively, the most banned or challenged of the previous decade for their portrayal of magic and witchcraft, not that it stopped them from selling millions of copies. The most frequently challenged book by an author of color was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou for the author’s autobiographical descriptions of sex and sexual abuse, racism and homosexuality.
The most-printed book in the world is also one of the most widely banned. At present, the Bible is banned outright in Saudi Arabia. In a number of other countries, Bible may be considered extremist materials and translating, distributing, selling or promoting it are prohibited or made difficult. Historically, some countries banned the Bible in certain languages or versions. The Bible in Spanish was prohibited in Spain from the sixteenth until the nineteenth century. In 1234, King James I of Aragon ordered the burning of Bibles that were written in the common tongue, you know, that poor people could actually read and understand. In 2015, Russia banned import of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. Bonus fact: if the Latter Day Saints knock on your door, A) be nice, and B) tell them you’ll listen if they’ll do whatever yard work you’ve been putting off. They’ll do it.
When you think of countries banning books, you may think of totalitarian regime and dictatorships trying to keep people in the dark, but one of the most likely countries to ban a book is Republic of Ireland. A Committee on Evil Literature was formed under their Department of Justice in 1926. The Censorship of Publications Acts allowed books to be banned that were considered to be indecent or obscene, as could newspapers whose content relied too much on crime, which is kind of their schtick, and works that promoted the “unnatural” prevention of conception or that advocated abortion. Ireland’s culture at the time was strictly religious, with the nation being 93% Catholic, and this was the fundamental philosophy behind the censorship laws. In 1933, President Éamon de Valera felt that the arts in Ireland were to be encouraged when they observed the “holiest traditions”, but should be censored when they failed to live up to this ideal. What sorts of things failed his litmus test? A by no means exhaustive list includes Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Brave New World, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell To Arms and on and on. Contrary to popular belief, though, James Joyce’s frequently challenged and banned Ulysses was never *banned in Ireland, but this was because it was never imported and offered for sale, for fear of such a ban and the associated legal costs.
Australia in particular has taken a hard line to a number of best-sellers. American Psycho, the source material for the Christian Bale yuppie serial killer movie, had been banned for sale or purchase in the state of Queensland and even now is only available to person over 18. The infamous Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom was banned, though not until 168 years after it was first published. You might remember it from the Bastille section of our hiStory episode. Even more tardy to the party was their ban on Giovani Boccaccio’s The Decameron, which was temporarily banned twice in the early 20th century, despite first being published in 1353. They were quicker to act on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, for what should be kind of obvious reasons, for forty years after it was published in 1928. James Joyce’s Ulysses was off the shelves for a decade, then restricted to 18-plus for a decade more. You couldn’t get a copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in the mid-1930’s or Heady Lamarr’s autobiography Ecstasy and Me in the late sixties. Bonus fact: though she was best known for acting, Lamar also held a patent for a frequency-hopping device to prevent radio-controlled torpedoes in WWII from being jammed. The Navy was skeptical of civilian inventions, but her work formed the basis for technology still in use today. Housewife-approved pulp author Jackie Collins has seen multiple books, like The Stud and The World Is Full of Married Men banned in Australia. No explanation needed for this reporter, the land down-under also banned The Anarchist Cookbook and How to Make Disposable Silencers. Video game enthusiasts won’t be too surprised by this list. Australia has a similar stance when it comes to pointlessly violent games like Manhunt, horror survival games like Silent Hill, and games whose main selling point is raunchy humor, like Leisure Suit Larry and South Park. The government refuses to give the game a rating, and therefore it can’t be sold.
One of the big names in unsurprisingly banned books even resulted in a lawsuit. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, tell the story of a young married woman whose upper class husband is paralysed in the Great War and she has an affair with the gamekeeper, who is of course working class. It was banned by U.S. Customs and the governments of Ireland, Poland, Australia, Japan, India, and Canada. China banned it because the book “will corrupt the minds of young people and is also against the Chinese tradition.” Lawrence’s home country of Great Britain prosecuted the publisher, Penguin Books, under the Obscene Publications Act in 1960, which allowed that lewd-seeming works could get a pass if it could be established that they had literary merit. The trial ran for six days, after which the jury of three women and nine men handed down a verdict of not guilty. This resulted in a far greater degree of freedom for publishing mature material in the United Kingdom. The second edition, published the following year, contained the foreword: “For having published this book, Penguin Books was prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959 at the Old Bailey in London from 20 October to 2 November 1960. This edition is therefore dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, returned a verdict of ‘not guilty’ and thus made Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom. Australia wasn’t done with Lady Chatterly, though, and also banned a book about the trial.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov lent its name to the popular lexicon with a story of a middle-aged literature professor’s obsession with a 12 year old girl, with whom he becomes sexually involved after he becomes her stepfather. Entire nations took umbrage to this plot, including France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, South African, Australia, Burma, Belgium, and Austria, and, at the local level, in some American communities. Though it was first published in 1955, it was challenged at least as recently as 2006, when Marion County, FL commissioners voted to have the county attorney review the novel that addresses the themes of pedophilia and incest, to determine if it meets the state law’s definition of “unsuitable for minors.” Gonna go with ‘yes,’ just off the cuff.
If you’re going to anger entire countries, you might as well anger as many as you can. 80’s babies should remember lots of news mentions and late night monologue jokes about Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. This novel tells the story of Indian expats in England who survived the bombing of a hijacked plane and are essentially transformed into the archangel Gabriel and Satan. There’s also a subplot with a prophet Muhammed-like character. Its publication in 1988 so angered some Muslims that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni issued a fatwa or religious edict, stating, “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the Satanic Verses, which is against Islam, the prophet, and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, have been sentenced to death.” Rushdie went into hiding for a decade. Multiple people associated with publishing the work in translation were attacked and injured or killed. Satanic Verses was banned in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, Sudan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Quatar, Indonesia, South Africa, and India because of its criticism of Islam. Copies were burned in West Yorkshire, England and it was temporarily withdrawn from some bookstores on advice from police after the stores received threats. Five people in Pakistan and one in Kashmir died in riots against the book. In 1991, in separate incidents the Japanese translator was stabbed to death and the Italian translator was seriously wounded. In 1993, five years after the book first came out, its Norwegian publisher was shot and seriously injured. The governments of Bulgaria and Poland restricted its distribution. Across the world in Venezuela, owning or reading it was declared a crime under penalty of 15 months’ imprisonment. In Japan, the sale of the English-language edition was banned under the threat of fines. Rushdie recounted the controversy in his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton, which was a name he used while in hiding. Bonus fact: Rushdie was married to professional model and Top Chef host Padme Lakshi for 3 years.
The topic of books banned by countries may bring to mind examples like All Quiet On the Western Front banned from Nazi Germany for insulting the Wehrmacht, or the Bible being banned in Maoist China and modern day North Korea. But the United States has banned more than its fair share of books. The worst of it traces back to the Comstock Act, federal statute passed in way back in 1873. Named for Anthony Comstock, the act criminalized publication, distribution, and possession of what *he considered to be obscenity, including information on contraception. Violators could receive up to five years hard labour and a fine of up to $2,000, which was at least $50,000 in modern money. It was very subjective, covering everything from birth control and sex toys, to steamy personal letters, The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights, to Paul Emile Chabas’ September Morn, a lovely painting of a lady bathing. Remnants of the act clung onto the law books into the 1990s.
You wouldn’t expect sweeping oppression from our neighbor to the north, but Canada relatively recently passed a law that sounded like a sensible defense of the reading public, but was actually an overpowered tool for repressing LGBTQ expression and representation. In the 1992 case R. v. Butler, their Supreme Court declared that not only depictions of “sex with violence” but also of “sex without violence” that is “degrading and dehumanizing,” particularly toward women, could be outlawed as obscene. It seemed a victory…for about six weeks. Then Toronto police confiscated the lesbian magazine Bad Attitude from a bookstore and charged the store’s owner with obscenity. A legal battle ensued, but the high court upheld the charges. Later that year, an Ontario court permitted the censorship of all gay and lesbian magazines, holding that the representation of gay sex is inherently “degrading and dehumanizing.” Its reasoning? You may want to sit down. Same-sex intimacy is inherently devoid of “any real meaningful human relationship.” Under this rationale, Canadian customs officers began tracking every package sent to gay and lesbian bookstores across the country, confiscating the contents, and charging sellers with obscenity. Gay rights groups first challenged the confiscations, but they eventually ran out of money and gave up their legal battle. As far as my research indicates, the law remains in effect today.
Popular reasons for a book to be challenged include racial issues or language, violence, sex, glorifying drug use, normalizing homosexuality, age-appropriateness, witchcraft, encouraging children to rebel against authority, and anything deemed antithetical to Christian values. Some of the great classics that we were made to read in school have face multiple challenges, both failed and successful. Catcher in the Rye has faced dozens of challenges since it was published in 1951, accused of being, in no particular order, being obscene, vulgar, sexually explicit, profane, blasphemous, immoral, violent, occulty, anti-white, according to one parent in 2001, “a filthy, filthy book.” The Grapes of Wrath had it even worse; the East St. Louis library burned their copies the year it came out. John Steinbeck also raised controversy with Of Mice and Men, which opponents complained of profanity, blasphemy, and being depressing, and even accused the author of being un-American. It was banned by entire cities. Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird, the only school assignment book I ever went back and read for enjoyment, has been accused of being a “filthy trash novel,” challenged for having the words “damn” and “whore,” having the n-word (naturally, being about race in the south in the first half of the 20th century) and being counter-productive to racial integration of society and schools. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, which everyone should read, has been challenged repeatedly for insensitivity, racism and offensive language. Lord of the Flies, the tale of marooned British school boys turning feral, has been challenged for its violence and language, but never successfully banned. Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which I wish our school had assigned, has seen challenges for its dystopian society’s use of euthanasia and occult themes like clairvoyance in the visions of what the world used to be passing from one character to another. A Separate Peace by John Knowles has been challenged repeatedly for profanity, whereas it should have been removed for being pointless and boring, data point of one.
The mac daddy of challenged classics is Mark Twain’s The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, the very first book to be banned by librarians, who called it “trash” and “suitable only for the slums.” Mark Twain’s classic tale of two runaways — one escaping an abusive father, and the other escaping slavery — has been consistently challenged since its publication. Nearly every challenge decries the book as racist, citing repetition of the n-word, which is used some 215 times. The arguments have changed in the years since 1885. At first, people objected to the low-class speech with its poor grammar used in the book, then to the racism, and more recently to the fact that a white man is writing about racism inexperientially. Others simply state that Huck Finn “conflicted with the values of the community.” Those values that they alluded to? It may be umbrage to the fact that a black man is not only a main character, but one of the best people in the book. Twain humanizes Jim and doesn’t shy away from portraying slavery as properly evil. Bonus fact: “mark twain” is a measure of the depth of water using a knotted rope.
Challenged books is an area where, sadly, female authors of color actually get representation. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is the story of a poor, teenage girl in the south, physically and sexually abused by her father then her husband, told in part through letters she write to God and to the beloved sister she is separated from. It has faced dozens of challenges for profanity, violence, sexuality and racist language. It was accused in 1984 of having “troubling ideas about race relations, man’s relationship to God, African history, and human sexuality.” The Oakland, CA school district, in which that argument was made, went back and forth for nine months before formally approving the book. In Newport News, VA, it was put in a special section where students had to prove they were over 18 or have a note from their parents to check it out. Watching the movie is a good start, but please also read the book.
Beloved by Toni Morrison is a novel based on a true story, which examines the destructive legacy of slavery through the lens of a woman named Sethe, following her from her pre-Civil War life as a slave in Kentucky to her life as a free-woman in Ohio, held prisoner by memories of the trauma of her life as a slave and the ghost of a daughter she killed to spare her from being enslaved. Those are heavy topics and the book has been challenged for its violence, language, racism, and it does have a scene of beastiality between a man and a cow.
Even being an ‘unofficial but we’re totally counting it’ poet laureate is not enough to guarantee smooth sailing. Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which dealt explicitly with race and her rape as a child, has been not only challenged but banned enough times to hold the number three spot in the American Library Association’s ”100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-1999” and is one of the ten books most frequently banned from classrooms and school libraries. A few of many incidents include in 1983, it was banned by the Alabama State Textbook Committee for inciting ”bitterness and hatred toward white people;” Bremerton, Washington banned it for the graphic depiction of molestation; one district in Texas deemed it “pornographic” and full of “gross evils”; parents at Gilbert Unified School, Arizona complained it did not represent “traditional values”; Volusia County Florida objected because “It is sexually explicit and promotes cohabitation and rape.” Everything Angelou went through and it’s living with someone she wasn’t married to that bothered you? In 1994, it was challenged for being a ”lurid tale of sexual perversion” in Castle Rock, Colorado and as recently as 2016, parents in Illinois asked for it to be removed from required reading due to sexual content. Yeah, you need to read that one, too.
Some book challenges give you the impression that people were expecting something else from the book, essentially *not judging it by its cover. Especially with the cover of Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, which shows…two boys…kissing. It’s actually about two boys trying to set a world record for longest kiss. It’s been challenged not only for depicting homosexuality, but for condoning public displays of affection. The person who wrote that complaint should get some sort of medal for uptightness. A Milwaukee, WI parent wanted the biography Whoopi Goldberg: Her Journey from Poverty to Mega-Stardom removed from the high school library because it contained curse words. They were possibly unfamiliar with Goldberg’s body of work … and the fact that their high schooler knows, and probably uses, all the swear words. The school board refused to remove the book, acknowledging “some shocking language,″ but also noting Goldberg’s charity work and strong anti-drug message. With a name like Big Hard Sex Criminals, you know it has to be good, and banned. If the title weren’t warning enough, the back cover is embossed with gold lettering, “For mature readers, duh. It’s a graphic novel about a couple who stop time when they orgasm, so they can rob banks.” Three guesses what parents objected to, and the last two don’t count. The same goes for Chuck Palaniuk’s Fight Club, yes, the one the movie is based on, and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric KoolAid Acid Test. The title The Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck should have made it no surprise that there was going be to animal-oriented violence and other shenanigans of nature. Even still, parents cited those chiefly among the reasons that landed the book in the ALA’s top 100 for the previous decade. One teacher in Utica was having none of this foolishness and actually quit her job after her school banned the book.
Some challenges and bannings seem obvious with the benefit of hindsight. You could hardly come up with a better example than Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. It was removed from high schools in CO and Massachusetts “objectionable” language and was removed but later reinstated on a restricted basis in AL, among others. Objections weren’t limited to schools and libraries, either. In 1973 a bookseller in Orem, UT was arrested for selling the novel. Charges were later dropped, but the bookseller was forced to close the store and relocate to another city.
Many a challenge or banning has been the textbook definition of ironic. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a novel about the future and the banning (and burning) of books. It was banned, ironically, because one of the books in it that gets burned is the Bible. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank is the incredible first-hand account of an ever-hopeful Jewish girl who is eventually killed in the Holocaust, but never stopped believing in “the basic goodness of mankind.” It was banned by the Alabama State Textbook Committee in 1983 for being “a real downer.” I’d hate to see how they choose their history books.
Some reasons for challenges would reduce you to text abbreviations, like WTF and SMDH. For example, the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster Dictionary was banned in several classrooms in California because it contained a definition for “oral sex.” It wasn’t a description of the two main types, simply the entry for “oral sex.” Again, don’t mean to alarm you, but your teenager already knows about it. One edition of Little Red Riding Hood was banned because Red bring her grandmother wine. But Grandma getting eaten by a talking, cross-dressing wolf didn’t seem to bother them. The children’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? was briefly banned by the Texas State Board of Education in 2010… because they assumed its author, Bill Martin, Jr., was the Bill Martin who wrote ‘Ethical Marxism: The Categorical Imperative of Liberation.’ Apparently, it took a little while before anyone remembered Google exists. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cells you heard about in our episode Life After Death, enraged a mother in Knox county, TN, who described it as pornographic. This happened three years ago this week, leading author Rebecca Skloot to tweet, “Just in time for banned books week. A parent in TN confuses gynecology with pornography & tries to ban my book.” The Orson Scott Card sci-fi classic Ender’s Game faced a challenge in South Carolina when a 14 year old student’s parent complained not about the story’s focus on teenagers being trained to kill, one of whom is tricked into killing scores of enemies and their queen. No, this parent said the book was pornographic. If you have any idea which part of the book they’re talking about, SMCTA, because between my husband and I, we don’t remember anything sexy in there. The same thing happened to Flowers for Algernon. Maybe the version I read was expurgated, but I definitely didn’t take away the same experience as the various parents who’ve complained that the book was comparable to Playboy, the kind of “books in plastic covers you see at newsstands,” containing sexually explicit passages that parents feared would awaken their children’s “natural impulses.”
Another ridiculous-sounding reason gets its own category. Though they’re a mainstay of folklore, fairy tales, and fantasy, talking animals are a deal-breaker for some people. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland had been banned in China for portraying anthropomorphized animals acting on the same level of complexity as human beings. The censor General Ho Chien believed that attributing human language to animals was an insult to humans. He feared that the book would teach children to regard humans and animals on the same level, which would be “disastrous”. Charlotte’s Web was banned in Kansas because talking animals are considered an “insult to god.” The talking animals was one of many reasons George Orwell’s Animal Farm get the ban hammer in places like Vietnam, North Korea and the United Arab Emirates. (The main reasons are usually its depiction of Communism and its foul language.) William Steig’s darling book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is about an unassuming donkey transformed into a rock after finding a magic pebble, as a ‘be careful what you wish for’ moral. The anthropomorphic animals did not sit well with everyone; police associations in 12 states urged the libraries to remove the book, because it portrays police as pigs. Even the residents of the Hundred Acre Woods are considered an “insult to god” by some, resulting in the banning of Winnie The Pooh in parts of the United States. Piglet is a particular problem as he is seen as being offensive to Muslims, getting the book banned in Turkey and even the UK. Then there are those that claim that the book is actually about Nazism, and I don’t even know where to start with that.
A lot of the books in our discussion were challenged in part out of parental fear that they would incite children to rebel, make them question and disobey authority. This protest came up for such childhood classics as James and the Giant Peach, Harriet The Spy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Captain Underpants, and two from Shel Silverstein, Where The Sidewalk Ends, A Light In the Attic, but more about them in a moment. Fear of independent thought in one’s progeny seems to diminish with time, but you still see this objection for books like Catcher in the Rye and Dead Poets Society, which I’ll admit, I didn’t know was a book. An Illinois pastor complained that he found the book “disturbing, very close to a strong, mild pornography… To me that book represents a [disrespectful attitude toward] parents and their judgements. It shows rebellion towards teachers, and has graphic immoral areas.” No wonder they made a movie of it. Also, what qualifies as “strong mild pornography”? If you’re emotionally ready to see Robin Williams again, check the show notes or our website for a link to the Seize the Day remix. If the link isn’t there, scream at me on social media.
A staff cartoonist for Playboy Magazine, Shel Silverstein began writing children’s books in the 1960s. From The Giving Tree to Falling Up, his style was laid back and conversational with accompanying illustrations that border verge on the absurd. The American Library Association’s case file of challenges brought against Silverstein’s works reads like a comedy of errors almost as absurd as the content of his poems. “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony,” which tells of a child throwing a hissy fit, that she’ll die if she doesn’t get a pony, was banned from second grade classes in Huffman, Texas because a mother protested that it “exposes children to the horrors of suicide.” A Mukwonago, WI school banned A Light In the Attic because it “glorified Satan, suicide, and cannibalism.” Multiple schools in Florida banned it for containing violence and encouraging rebellion. One very specific complaint was lodged that it “encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.” Where the Sidewalk Ends was yanked from the shelves of another WI school district over fears that it “promotes drug use, the occult, suicide, death, violence, disrespect for truth, disrespect for authority, and rebellion against parents.” Bloomsburg, PA schools objected to the poem “Dreadful” over the line “someone ate the baby” because they feared some of their more impressionable students might actually be encouraged to engage in cannibalism. If you’ve ever acted out something from a Silverstein poem, please post it to social media. By the way, if my gentle listener is a fair hand at research, feel free to look into the question of why they couldn’t find better pictures of Silverstein for the back of the books and I’ll have you on the show.
Well-meaning, pearl-clutching parents may be doing their children a disservice by trying to remove issues from their environment, rather than helping their children to understand and interpret them. The controversial book-turned-Netflix series 13 Reasons Why, wherein a fictional teen makes 13 tapes explaining her upcoming suicide, has been a target of censorship since it was published in 2007. A Colorado school district banned the novel, saying it glamorized suicide. In Ontario, Canada, the story was pulled from school libraries for its “negative portrayals of helping professionals.” In Alberta, any discussion of the book was prohibited. Parents and school districts worried the series would promote “suicide contagion.” Author Jay Asher is concerned that hiding this issue away may be making things harder for teenagers. He said in an episode with PBS, “I never understood the power of having books written about your experience — whatever that experience may be — until I wrote one and started hearing from teens. I just got an email from a reader who said that “Thirteen Reasons Why” was the first time they had felt understood. A book shouldn’t be anybody’s first time feeling understood and that’s where censorship bothers me. These books need to be out there. A lot of authors see their book being banned or challenged as a badge of honor. But for me, it’s nothing but frustrating and upsetting. I hear from readers, and now viewers of the Netflix show, that my work encouraged them to ask for help or reach out to someone about the situation they’re in. When you hear stories like that on a daily basis and then hear adults call for your work to be banned, it’s proof of why the stigma around these issues is so dangerous.”
Even books made for the wee ones find themselves in the cross-hairs. The Family Book by Todd Parr looks like it was illustrated in crayon. That didn’t charm the Erie, IL school that objected to the line “some families have two moms or two dads.” The Roald Dahl classic James and the Giant Peach was banned from an elementary school in Lufkin, TX because it contains the word “ass.” The Little Bill book series has come under fire in the past few years, not for its content, but for its author, Bill Cosby, once-beloved TV dad who had been revealed to be a sexual predator. Again, it’s only a half-hour show; we can’t get into the question of separating the art from the artist. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree has come under fire since it was first published, for everything from its ambiguous moral, to being sexist, criminalizing the forestry industry (an accusation that also plagued Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax), to the subtext of bad parenting – not because we never see the boy’s parents provide for him, but because the tree is portrayed as a mother who spoils him.
A lovely book about penguin parents hatching an egg and raising a chick, And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, caused righteous indignation when it was published in 2005 because the adult penguins are both male. Before we go any further, this is a thing that actually happened. Tango is the story of a family of penguins living in the Central Park Zoo in New York, where a bonded pair of males were given an untended egg for the nest they had built together. Tango made the American Library Association’s top 10 banned books five years in a row for its depiction of homosexuality and gender roles, age-appropriateness of the material, and raising the question of what makes a family. Many librarians kept the book available by moving it to a different location, like moving it from picture books to non-fiction. Oh yeah, did I mention this repeatedly-challenged volume is a picture book.
If you’ve had a child in the last fifteen years, there’s probably a Captain Underpants book somewhere in your house. This series, that follows the adventures of two prank-loving young boys who create a superhero called Captain Underpants, actually gets challenged and banned more often than the Fifty Shades of Gray books. Some parents objected to the references to underwear, naturally, the protagonists referring to their principal as a mean old man, and the boys beating up a robot with bits of wood. It all seems like sound and fury amounting to nothing in this reporter’s opinion. How can you not love a book that opens with “Some material in this book may be considered offensive by people who don’t wear underwear”?
Let’s hope the old adage ‘even bad publicity is good publicity’ hold true because if you’re writing a book for young readers about LGBTQ acceptance, you’ll be getting a lot of it. I Am Jazz is Jazz Jennings an autobiographical picture book of a child that was born with “a girl’s brain in a boy’s body.” It’s become something of a gold standard for teaching children and families about transexuality. It raised controversy in a Rocklin, CA school after a transgender kindergarten student gave some books about her situation to her teacher, and the teacher read them to the class. Some parents complained to the school board about being “blindsided,” despite having been sent a written notice. The district responded that the books were age-appropriate, fell within the book selection policy, and that unlike sex education, the topic of gender identity did not require prior parental notice. However, the superintendent conceded that “staff will be engaging parents and teachers in discussions about how materials outside our curriculum will be addressed in the future.” I Am Jazz was not read as planned in Mount Horeb, WI schools after the Florida-based Liberty Counsel threatened to sue. The group describes itself as a “non-profit litigation, education and policy organization with an emphasis on religious liberty issues.” The Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as a hate group that advocates for “anti-LGBT discrimination, under the guise of religious liberty.”
Alex Gino’s George tells the story a child who is born as George, but comes out as Melissa to her best friend, and eventually to others, through the help of a school play. Five elementary schools in eastern Oregon withdrew from an annual statewide ‘Battle of the Books’ competition because of the inclusion of George in the reading list. The book carries an age recommendation of grades 3-7 and the schools’ principals argued it was not appropriate for their third-to-fifth grade students who would be participating in the competition.
My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis was inspired by the author’s son, who enjoys wearing girls clothes, even while doing traditionally boy things, and her journey to understand and accept him. The public library of Granbury, TX received more than 50 “challenge forms,” at least one of which claimed this book and another title, This Day In June about LGBT history, endorse “the gay lifestyle” and encourage “perversion.” Library director Courtney Kincaid moved This Day in June to the nonfiction section, but refused to remove the books entirely. “Lesbians and gays are in this community, and they deserve to have some items in this collection.” City councilwoman Rose Myers objected that if the books weren’t moved from sections where children might see them, they should be removed from the library. “Can a 4-year-old understand the content of this book without the help of an adult? In my opinion, no.” To which I would counter with the question: What *does a four year old understand on their own? They still poop their pants on the regular. This literary lather took place in Hood County, which made headlines the same week when a county clerk refuse to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples.
Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution by David Carter is noteworthy in today’s discussion not only for being about a topic that raised the dander of a few parents, but makes our list for going *in to institutions during controversy. In May 2005, the Oklahoma House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on public libraries to remove children’s books with references to gay characters or families. In response, gay and lesbian civil rights groups in Oklahoma donated copies of Stonewall to local high schools. The donation was met with conservative outcry but the Oklahoma City school board voted to permit the donation.
This isn’t the only occurrence of government bodies taking on LGBT books. Republican lawmaker Gerald Allen proposed Alabama House Bill 30, which would have banned public school libraries from purchasing books by gay authors or with gay characters. A proposed ban in Arkansas would have barred *any representation of gay and lesbian people in schools, libraries, and state-funded universities. State Rep. Sally Kern, a Republican from Oklahoma City supported House Resolution 1039, which would have required Oklahoma libraries to “confine homosexually themed books and other age-inappropriate material to areas exclusively for adult access and distribution.” The bill also required that no public funds be used in “the distribution of such materials to children.” Thankfully, none of these attempts made it into law.
Good luck to you if you’re LGBTQ or an ally in Fayetville, Arkansas, or even a young person with questions about your body. The group Parents Protecting the Minds of Children has challenged 55 books in their area. I’ve been able to find references to the 55 books, but not a single list. One that we know they challenged was Marion Bauer Am I Blue? Coming Out From the Silence, a collection of short stories about growing up gay or lesbian, or with gay or lesbian parents or friends. PPMC was having none of it, not only because of the subject matter, but because proceeds from the sale of the book went to PFLAG, Parents and Friends of Gays and Lesbians. PPMC’s Geocities-looking website, which is rather difficult to navigate claims, “PPMC is trying to reach an equitable solution with school officials from all perspectives. Our objective is not to remove any books from the library, it is simply to enforce our parental rights to choose for our children.” They seem particularly ruffled with Robbie Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal, which contains straight talk and frank illustrations about puberty, masturbation and intercourse. It’s a bit like 1977’s Where Did I Come From?, without which having been loaned to me by my friend Stacey, I would have continued woefully unfamiliar with basic human anatomy and reproduction into high school. I’m not saying it’s because I was raised Catholic, but I’m not not saying that.
That’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. We’ll end with two of the face-palm-iest reasons for a book being challenged in the United States, and both of them on the same book. At one point, The Wizard of Oz was banned from all public libraries in Chicago because of its “ungodly” influence “for depicting women in strong leadership roles.” In 1957, the Detroit Public Library banned the book for having “no value for children of today.” How about you let us decided what we, and our children, should read? Thanks for spending part of your day with me.