Our poor pal Rainbow Rowell: “Fangirl” comes out, and at the same time, her previous YA novel, “Eleanor & Park,” gets challenged in Minnesota. Some fussbudget parents claimed the book was too sexy and profane to be taught in schools, and kicked off a big old to-do at the thought of it taking up precious space on library shelves.
Rowell's appearance at the Anoka County Library was cancelled, YA authors left and right rallied to support her, and all of this just happened to coincide with this year's Banned Books Week, running 22-28 September.
Banned Books Week isn't quite the right turn of phrase: it should more accurately be termed Challenged Books Week, because that's what usually happens:
A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. As such, they are a threat to freedom of speech and choice.
Rowell, like many other YA authors, faces a challenge on the grounds that the material in her book isn't suitable for young adult readers. Challenges are common with YA, thanks to conservative parents who believe they can control their children by controlling what they read and how they read it. And some of the strangest books imaginable get challenged for the weirdest reasons.
Take, for example, the “Captain Underpants” series (a chapter book, not YA, but still). Why was it challenged? “Offensive language.” The best challenge to this series dates to 2001, when it was called on the carpet for causing "unruly behavior" among readers.
Or “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie. It's been challenged on the grounds of racism (because the book contains accurate and painful depictions of racism and its consequences, not because it's racist, I'd note), along with sexuality and our new friend “offensive language.” If you can bear to click on a Focus on the Family link, they have a great rundown of why people hate the book.
“Thirteen Reasons Why,” Jay Asher's stark book about teenage suicide, has been challenged because it's about suicide, but also because it contains depictions of alcohol, drugs, sexuality, and smoking. The fact that these things take place in a nuanced context don't matter; the fact that they appear at all in a book that children might read is apparently offense enough.
Hugely popular YA author John Green's “Looking for Alaska” once again contains “offensive language” and teens having the sex, so we can't be having that kind of thing. Books involving blow jobs? No thank you! (Green's comment on the matter: "If a terrible blow job keeps Alaska from being taught in schools, that’s unfortunate.")
Meanwhile, Laurie Halse Anderson's “Speak” has been challenged multiple times because it's about rape and its aftermath. In a deeply disturbing challenge earlier this year, it was labeled “pornography.” Because sexual assault is totally what I think of when I think of porn.
Lauren Myracle (“Shine,” among others) recently did an AMA on Reddit discussing her experiences with book challenges; notably, according to the American Library Association, she was the most challenged author in the US in 2011 (Dav Pilkey ("Captain Underpants") has since nudged her out of the top spot). In response to a question from a librarian-in-training who asked about how librarians (and, indirectly, others) can support challenged authors, she noted:
Talk to the parents of your students (if you work at a school) or offer a presentation to parents at your local library (if that's where you work). Tell them that knowledge NEVER hurts. (Guns do! Rush Limbaugh does!) Help them understand that processing tough "content" through the privacy of reading a book is so much more healthy than never getting to talk about it/struggle with it/come to some conclusions about it at all.
Her response to a Redditor asking about why her books are banned is also right on:
Lots of my books have teen girls in them. Teen girls sometimes talk about sex. Teen girls sometimes have sex. Lots of grown-ups would like to believe that this is not true. I am not one of those grown-ups, and I think it's important and meaningful to give readers stories that reflect reality--in a respectful way. Like, not salaciously, but with the intent of saying, "Let's look at how this story played out. How'd it seem to work out for so-and-so?" And then the readers--who are SMART, dammit--can grapple with those issues themselves. And no, I do not believe I should have been. I do not believe that any author should be banned, ever. Freedom of speech, dude. :)
She cuts to the core of why a lot of YA is challenged: because a lot of great books have bad, intense, and complex things happening in them, often to good people. It's what makes those books great.
These things aren't about moralizing or telling people how to live or providing an instruction manual for teens. They're just about telling stories, good stories, stories that make people think. And there's nothing wrong with that...unless you believe thinking is dangerous, which apparently a lot of parents in school districts across the country do.
The thing is, though, that keeping young people away from highly seditious literature doesn't actually protect them from anything. It might make them more determined to seek it out, or more frustrated, or more afraid to reach out for help -- but it's certainly not going to keep children from growing up.
Book challenges and bans are frustrating, because they make information harder to access, instill feelings of shame, and create a culture of fear. Information longs to be free: trying to hide it instead of openly addressing it is not the way to win friends and influence people. YA in particular tends to be a common spark for challenges because of the audience; adults assume that children need to be protected from the big bad literature, and will go to amazing lengths to gut the library shelves.
Now go read some challenged and banned books. And check your library shelves for frequently challenged and banned books, because many challenges (especially those of authors of color) never make the news, and books quietly disappear from the shelves without making a splash. Remember: as a library patron, you have the power to request any title you like, and to ask why if the library refuses to order it.