Peruse the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual lists of the top 10 most challenged books and you see a lot of repeats. Most of the recent selections fall into expected patterns with challenges focused on queer content, sex, and language. One entry in 2015, however, stood out as unusual: the Holy Bible. It is the only time that the Bible appeared on this list. At the time, the primary explanation was that people misunderstood the separation of church and state, believing that it was unconstitutional to purchase a religious text with public money. While I see the reasonableness of this explanation, I was curious to see an example. Finding actual public evidence of a challenge proved difficult. The ALA does not publish the locations of challenges it receives and searches resulted in some pretty odd conspiracy theory websites I did not have the fortitude to explore. I was resigned to having my curiosity unfulfilled when a bit of serendipity hit.
A challenge story from Cody, Wyoming, came to my attention. I became particularly interested when I read that the challenge resulted in the school adopting a policy allowing parents to actively monitor their child’s library check-outs. My freedom of information (FOI) request resulted in a few extra challenges that fit into a clear narrative. The story began with a challenge to A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl by Tanya Lee Stone, a book I’ve seen challenged in a few instances and it made the ALA list in 2013. The challenger complained that “[t]his book is like a porno in paper” and suggested that it should be available only in “a sex store.” The school board overruled a review committee recommendation and removed the book. Less than a month after the board’s decision, two additional challenges were filed by the same parent. The first was against Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan. This is a frequently challenged book but at least the challenger here actual read it as I’ve seen others that are just reacting to the cover (which is, scandalously, a picture of two boys kissing). The challenger submitted four pages of detailed notes on the language and queer supportive content of the book and at one point complained that it “makes PARENTS look like they’re in the wrong for not supporting this absurdity.” The second challenge targeted The Wizard’s Apprentice by Herbie Brennan stressing witchcraft and occult themes. They even suggested that an effect of this material might be “possible school shootings due to mentally deranged students.”
At that point I was pretty happy as a request for one challenge had netted two more that I was unaware of; I was especially pleased with another Two Boys Kissing as I want to accumulate multiple challenges against the same book to compare and contrast arguments. The real bit of research serendipity came with the final challenge delivered: I discovered an elusive Bible challenge filed exactly one month after the last two. Instead of separation of church and state, the challenge was a tongue in cheek slam at the original complaints. This challenger stated that the Bible was “suppose to be example of how to live + be good” but they noted that it had sexually explicit content and would “cause young minds to have sex.” The challenger then submitted five pages of Bible passages, all including sexual language and descriptions of sex acts.
So what do I make of this Bible challenge? It is apparent that the challenger was presenting an object lesson to the original challenger. One can pull excerpts from pretty much anything, even the Bible, to present a scandalous understanding of a work. This is a good reason why obscenity law requires examination of the work as a whole so all elements are judged in context. I can’t say whether the original challenger learned this lesson. My FOI request did cover nine more months after the Bible challenge and I received no further records. So they may have taken the lesson to heart but it is also possible that they just lost interest in scouring the library for books that offended their morals. I like to hope it was the first explanation.