The American Library Association’s (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) has released the 2018 most challenged book list. The OIF releases this each year and then in late September it is the structure around which Banned Book Week is organized in September. The list this year was a top 11 because there was a tie.
The list is for the most part as expected. Five of the selections depict the queer spectrum with some old favorites returning. George tops the list for the first time but it has enjoyed a spot every year since it was published. Challengers are terrified of depictions of trans children but make up alternative explanations. The John Oliver spoof Marlon Bundo is the one new book, it was published recently, in the queer category: a teacher in Florida was put under formal investigation for reading it, though ultimately no serious sanctions were levied. Drama continues to hold strong due to its depiction of a chaste gay kiss in a seventh grade school play (FYI the one star reviews on Amazon are happy to tell you how scandalous this lovely graphic novel is) and Two Boys Kissing returns due to its cover of two boys kissing (ok, fine, some challengers do actually read it). No, the description above is not a typo; a minister in Iowa did burn this book and a number of others; on an upside, donations flooded in to replace the books that far exceeded the damage done. This Day in June, a picture book depicting the history of pride parades, is typically challenged as propaganda intended to convert children to homosexuality. Thirteen Reasons Why continues to enjoy notoriety thanks to the Netflix show. The recent examples I’ve tried to track down turned out to be preemptive actions by principals to limit access out of fear of suicide. This One Summer has often been challenged but in part because a lot of elementary schools bought it after it won a prestigious children’s book award that is often perceived as for young children’s literature only, the book is targeted for 12 and up. I did recently receive a public library challenge describing it as “smut” because it used the words “condoms” and “slut”; yes, the challenger admitted that they had not read the book and just found these two words flipping through it. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is nearly a permanent fixture on this list with parents in my files complaining of language, discussion of sexual themes, anti-Christian bigotry, and accusations that Alexie is depicting racist stereotypes of his own tribe. In my sample to date, The Hate U Give challenges have focused exclusively on language and drug use, in part because both challengers frankly admitted not reading past the first chapter, but it is hard to believe they are unaware of the book’s Black Lives Matter inspired story. Sadly my efforts to locate a Captain Underpants challenge have been futile and I have never even heard of Skippyjon Jones until today so I’ll have to try and find that one.
There are some who question the nature of the OIF’s work. Elliot Kuecker provides an extended critique that I’m not interested in engaging with in detail at the moment but Kate Lechtenberg provides some thoughtful consideration and critique. As a social scientist, the thing that frustrates me most is the hidden nature of the data. The OIF relies upon self-reported data from libraries and schools and does not share that information. This is understandable as it has a legitimate concern for the safety of reporters; an issue may be confidential and thus disclosure risks one’s job or it may just raise the ire of administrators to publicize things they may want secret. The problem for those of us who study book challenges is that there is no way to know the scope of the practice. There are far too many schools and libraries to try and get a representative sample to draw generalizable conclusions. This is why I do not make assertions about there being a crisis of book challenges or the like. Utilizing anecdotes to make systematic claims is a danger in public commentary, as we can see in the claims that there is a crisis of free speech on college campuses based on a small number of anecdotes.
Kuecker makes a reasonable point around banning activity but misses the danger of censorship in this data. Of course challenges are not equivalent to bans, that is a term of marketing as Banned Book Week captures interest better than Challenged Book Week. But the claim that challenges are not a danger because the challenger has no actual power to censor books is troubling. This adopts a frame where censorship is the prohibition of all access to a material, such as prohibiting publication itself. Obviously challengers do not have this power but challenges are designed to inhibit access at a local level. Yes, if they get a book removed, it may still be available in other libraries or online but that ignores the fact that resources to gain access to those alternatives may not be present. There is also the exclusionary statement made when we remove certain stories: that the people represented in them do not deserve a place in our public sphere.
I’m not sure I buy the statement that challenges are isolated or random in nature. Many surely are as a number of my challenges start with a parent complaint that their child picked up a book and they had no idea what was inside, for example here. Some challengers get a taste for it. For example, in Cody, Wyoming, a parent successfully removed one book from the school library and returned immediately to target two more. A school district may decide to preemptively remove or restrict other books with similar themes. At times, the challenges are part of a sustained local or statewide effort. For example, a Texas Tea Party group orchestrated 52 challenges against two children’s books and apparently engaged in a systematic campaign of harassment against the director in particular. The Florida Citizens Alliance found individual curriculum and book challenges insufficient and turned to legislation as a means of criminalizing a wide swath of literature.
While it is early in my research, there are more subtle indications of coordination as well. For example, I found a number of challengers across multiple states and against many different titles referring to books as “pervasively vulgar.” This could be coincidence but it also happens to parallel a leading Supreme Court opinion where Justice William Brennan suggested that removal of books because they were pervasively vulgar might not implicate constitutional values. The fact that multiple challengers, none of whom expressed any legal expertise, happened to invoke this phrase suggests either they are unusually careful in their research or they are getting help from some organized group, even if just an interest group’s FAQ. There is also sometimes indications of interest groups triggering challenges. For example, when a nurse challenged three children and mid-grade books depicting trans stories, some of which I discussed here, they noted hearing about all three from “a podcast” without citing the name. This suggests that some challengers are receiving cues to seek out “dangerous” literature and file challenges. Similarly, One Million Moms called for mass action against the publisher of George.
As Lechtenberg notes, a significant worry with challenges is not just the challenge. After all, the available evidence says that few books are removed or restricted as a result of challenges, as of this moment about 15% of my challenges (roughly 110) have resulted in restriction, relocation, or removal of the book. Challenges, however, contribute to self-censorship. No library can hold every book or even every popular book at a given time. Space limits alone require a rule of selection and it is easy for this to become a means to exercise self-censorship. This can be more nefarious, the refusal to purchase items the purchaser dislikes personally, but is probably more likely to reflect fear of community or administrative response. If you know that a book is challenged often elsewhere, and that sometimes this comes with publicity, you may seek to avoid it all by just never purchasing the book. Self-censorship is unfortunately a difficult thing to find because by definition it happens through a refusal to purchase and it is virtually impossible to uncover failures to purchase a book. Sometimes, rarely, people do tell us about it such as a Wichita, Kansas, school library administrator who announced that the district would not acquire copies of George, though individual school libraries were allowed to purchase out of their individual (presumably much smaller) budgets. It is impossible to know if this act of self-censorship was caused by personal hostility to trans stories or a fear of controversy but the censorship is real. (Suffice it to say, I don’t buy the pretextual claims that George is not age appropriate.)
Ultimately, Banned Book Week may have issues but it represents a useful organizing effort to publicize attacks on the freedom to read. It has limits in terms of depth and transparency, true, but that is why some of the rest of us try to fill in those gaps slowly.