Publishing in the 21st Century
October 14, 2013
Modern Day Banned or Challenged Books
Each year, the American Library Association (or ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the top ten most frequently challenged books in order to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools year to year. The ALA condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information. This information is directly prevalent to the future, and continuing, careers of today’s writers; however, some may not even be aware of this struggle.
Judy Blume, one of the most confronted authors according to ALA, has been quoted saying, “Something will be offensive to someone in every book, so you’ve got to fight it.” Even though Blume has become somewhat of a household name, her work continually was contested throughout the 90’s on matters of censorship. It might come as a shock to rising “90’s kid” writers, that one of their childhood favorites was almost banned from library shelves.
Generally, the topic of censorship and banned books is associated with past publications. However, the future writers of America need to know that this isn’t the case. The idea that one person has the right to decide what is suitable for others still exists. Authors face just as much opposition today as they have in the past, mostly in the form of challenging books.
A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The number of challenges reflects only incidents reported. It is estimated that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported. Therefore, there is still some variability with these statistics.
Over the recent past decade, 5,099 challenges were reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom. “Sexually explicit” material continues to be one of the most challenged with 1,577 complaints in this past year. Within the past couple years “offensive language” and material deemed “unsuited for age group” continue to battle for second place regarding top reasons for challenges. In 2012, they received 1,291 and 989 challenges, respectively. There were also 619 challenges for reasons of “violence,” and 361 for reasons of “homosexuality.”
Furthermore, 274 materials were challenged due to “occult” or “Satanic” themes, an additional 291 were challenged due to their “religious viewpoint,” and 119 because they were “anti-family.”
The following chart displays these challenges over the past twenty years.
Figure 1: Bar graph of challenges to books, sent to the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, separated by challenge reasoning. Where purple bars represent challenges made between 1990-1999 and the light blue represents challenges between 200-2009 (ALA 2013).
However, it is important to note that the number of challenges and the number of reasons for those challenges do not match, because works are often challenged on more than one ground.
Challenges are reported even after the top ten list has been published. These numbers reflects all the challenges received since July 31, 2013 for the 2000-2009 time period.
Many of the books that appear on the top-ten-challenged lists by year, are familiar titles. Out of 464 challenges as reported by the Office for Intellectual Freedom for the year of 2012 these we’re the top ten most challenged books and the reasoning behind those challenges:
- Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey.
Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.
Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
3. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher.
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited for age group
4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James.
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
5. And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson.
Reasons: Homosexuality, unsuited for age group
6. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
Reasons: Homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit
7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green.
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group
8. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
Reasons: Unsuited for age group, violence
9. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit
- Beloved, by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence
Some books, such as Fifty Shades of Grey, may not be a surprising addition to this list. But the Captain Underpants series, which held the number one spot in 2012, might have been more of a surprise. How could an innocent children’s book offend someone to the point of filing a formal complaint? And who are these people that are so put off by the undergarment inspired super hero? The graphs below showcase the number of complaints by initiator and the institution in which the complaint was made.
Figure 2: Below, bar graph showing the most common institutions where book challenges are made; where blue represents challenges made in the time period of 1990-1999, and red represents 2000-2009 (ALA 2013).
To be more specific, 1,639 of these challenges were in school libraries, 1,811 were in classrooms, and 1,217 took place in public libraries. There were 114 challenges to materials used in college classes, and 30 to academic libraries. On a smaller scale, there were isolated cases of challenges to library materials made available in or by prisons, special libraries, community groups, and students.
Figure 3: Above, bar graph showing the different groups of people whom most commonly put challenges in against books. Years are separated using light green representing challenges made from 1990-1999, and orange representing 2000-2009 (ALA 2013).
Clearly, parents are, by far, the leading challengers of modern-day books with 2,535 challenges, followed by patrons and administrators (516 and 489 respectively). Comparing the three graphs this makes sense. The high volume of challenges coming from schools and libraries combined with the complainants main concerns being sexually explicit content, violence, offensive language, and subject matter that is unsuited for the target age group, all correspond with some everyday parental concerns.
Every parent wants what’s best for his or her child, but according to the American Library Association that should not be at the expense of other potential readers. The ALA promotes the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinions even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those viewpoints to all who wish to read them.
With that being said, there are precautions to be taken by prospective authors. Proclamations about the Freedom of Speech has masked the censorship that hides out in our own town library. Still, knowing that not everyone will be happy with the work you’ve produced is only half the battle.
Look at the list of most challenged books again. Do you recognize a few titles? Perhaps all of them? As an writer this draws intrigue. For all the censorship in the world, there is just as much resistance. We crave books that push the limits, even as children. Being vulgar for the sake of being vulgar is nothing, but speaking the words everyone else is too afraid to whisper is a unique kind of boldness.
ALA. “Frequently Challenged Books of the 21st Century.” Ala.org. American Library Association, 1999-2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.
Blume, Judy. “Quotes.” Goodreads. Quotes Daily, 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2013.
Challenges by Reason, Initiator & Institution for 1990-99 and 2000-09.” American Library Association. Ed. ALA. American Library Association, 1999-2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2013.