Banned Books Week is a national celebration of the freedom to read, which is something we are very enthusiastic about here at The Masters Review. This year’s celebration is September 21-27, and across the country, libraries and bookstores will participate by highlighting banned and challenged books, hosting events, and encouraging adventurous reading. The focus for 2014 is on comics and graphic novels, a literary medium that’s often under fire—in fact, Captain Underpants currently holds first place in the ALA’s 2013 ranking of the most challenged titles. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has released a handy Banned Books Week Handbook for this year, which is available as a free download from their site.
Below are some fantastic graphic novels and the stories of how they have been challenged. This coming week, take a few hours to nab one from your library or bookstore and judge for yourself.
The bestselling Scholastic children’s series Bone, by Jeff Smith, has been challenged for a variety of reasons, including “political viewpoint,” “violence,” and “unsuitability to age group.” In fact, the series ranks #10 out of the ALA’s 2013 list of most-challenged books. Most well known is the 2010 challenge by a Minnesotan parent, Ramona DeLay, who believed that the book encouraged children to smoke and drink. While character Smiley Bone does often smoke a cigar, and a beer-selling competition is a significant plot point in one of the volumes, the activities are shown in a neutral light—as just something the characters do. The challenge was rejected by a 10-1 vote.
Fun Home is a graphic memoir about the author’s relationship with her closeted father and its implications on her own life and sexuality. It won numerous awards, including an Eisner, and the author, Alison Bechdel, just won a MacArthur “genius” grant. Fun Home was challenged along with another semiautobiographical book, Blankets, which is the story of the author’s religious upbringing and its effects on his first love. The challenger was Louise Mills of Marshall, Missouri, who requested that they be taken off the shelves of the library because of “pornographic images.” She also feared that children might be drawn to them because of their classification as comic books. Both books do in fact depict sex—they’re both about relationships and sexuality, after all—but obviously, that does not make them obscene or pornographic, and neither was categorized as children’s literature. While the challenge did spur the library to draft a materials selection policy, they eventually chose to retain the books in their catalog.
This graphic memoir about the author’s childhood in Iran during the Iranian revolution was removed from all Chicago public schools due to “graphic illustrations and language” and concerns about “developmental preparedness” and “student readiness.” In response, students protested by checking out all the copies from the library, talking on social media, appearing on local TV and radio, and writing articles and blogs about it. The book was reinstated in a victory for student involvement and the freedom to read.
The first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, Maus is the story of a son trying to understand his father. It is told in two timelines: the present day, as he interviews his father, and in the past, as his interpretation of his father’s life as a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. It is a tremendous piece of literature and incredibly moving. Spiegelman illustrates the story with anthropomorphized animals—Jews are drawn as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs—which, while an effective narrative device, has often been the reason it is challenged as “anti-ethnic” or “unsuitable for children.” Yet again, we run into the false idea that all graphic novels and comics are for kids, not serious literature, and when they fail that idea, the books are challenged as inappropriate.
Lastly, a book that actually is for children, by beloved author Maurice Sendak. In the Night Kitchen is the story of a little boy’s dream adventure through a baker’s kitchen; however, the protagonist, Mickey, was drawn nude in some panels. This was so upsetting to many parents and librarians that they censored the book by painting diapers or underwear on Mickey. In some cases, the book was actually burned. I’m fairly certain that I read a censored copy when I was a kid, and I’m also fairly certain that I would not have minded the original in the least.
Share your own favorite banned book in the comments!