Librarians Respond to the Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010

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The American Library Association’s list of 2010’s most frequently challenged books came out this week, and so we decided to get Sarah Murphy and Joelen Pastva to weigh in on the controversy. Murphy is a school librarian and is a co-founder (with Maria Falgoust) of the Desk Set, “a social and philanthropic group for librarians and bibliophiles” here in New York, and Pastva has worked in both public and research libraries. Also, it’s the end of National Library Week, so what better way to celebrate contested books than to check out one about gay penguins at your local library? We’ve included their responses below, as well as the reasons the books were contested by parents, educators, and other “concerned individuals.”

And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

Reasons: Homosexuality, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

Sarah says: “Tons of children’s books attempt to teach tolerance and acceptance, and Tango is far from the only title about different kinds of families. The book’s popularity with children and its succinct, effective message’s popularity with teachers and librarians have combined to make it an obvious target for groups wishing to deny civil rights to same sex couples. They can call it religious viewpoint, but this librarian calls it bigotry.”

Joelen says: “How could we forget Leslea Newman’s classic book Heather Has Two Mommies? Even if we weren’t children or parents when the book was first published in 1989, it became the banned children’s book of the 1990s. Now that the book has become innocuous enough to be parodied in a major children’s title ([Dav] Pilkey’s Captain Underpants), Parnell and Richardson’s story of male penguins raising an egg together is apparently the latest threat to American families. Except their story is actually based on real events! Go figure.”

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Reasons: Offensive language, Racism, Sex Education, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group, Violence

Sarah says: “Alexie’s ‘offensive’ language and ‘sexually explicit’ situations arise from his main character’s glib discussion of masturbation, which will inevitably amuse many readers and reassure others. The ‘racism’ is directed at the book’s hero, and the ‘sex education’ might come when a peripheral character waxes passionate about how awesome it is to read, telling us about his ‘boner for books.’ Of all the books on this list, this is the one that I most want you –- and everyone I’ve ever met – to read.”

Joelen says: “Not only is this a National Book Award winner, it was also one of two titles chosen for the 2011 Philadelphia Free Library One Book, One Philadelphia campaign. Many of the themes in this modern coming-of-age story may be hard to swallow for some, but the portrayal of modern life on a Native American reservation, including moments of triumph and hardship, provides an important perspective for young readers.”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Reasons: Insensitivity, Offensive Language, Racism, Sexually Explicit

Sarah says: “Alone among the classics, Huxley’s dystopian novel remains on the top ten. (What happened to all of our outrage over To Kill A Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn anyway?) There must be something really current about a totalitarian government distracting its people with sex and soma, something continuing to touch a nerve. Its presence on this list just makes me want to re-read it immediately and repeatedly.”

Joelen says: “This was probably the first real piece of subversive literature I ever read, and I was drawn to it as a high school freshman because it was repeatedly discussed as a banned book. Not only does it take a swing at things we love in America -– consumerism, the automobile industry, religion -– but it also uses sex, drugs, and the critical eye of an outsider to do it. What teenager wouldn’t want to read it? Plus, its criticisms of consumer culture and the dehumanizing effects of technology still ring true today.”

Crank by Ellen Hopkins

Reasons: Drugs, Offensive Language, Sexually Explicit

Sarah says: “A novel in free verse form, Crank is loosely based on the author’s daughter who became addicted to crystal meth. I hate to imagine the free verse novel about meth addiction that doesn’t include ‘drugs, offensive language, and sexually explicit’ situations, and I’m not sure how children are supposed to get their cautionary tales on a censored bookshelf.”

Joelen says: “The plot of this book feels like it could easily be adapted into a Lifetime movie. 15-year-old Kristina goes from being a straight-A student to a meth-addicted drug dealer working for the Mexican mafia. But Ellen Hopkins didn’t write this book just because sex and drugs sell. Her depictions of the dangers of drugs are inspired by her own daughter’s battle with an addiction to crystal meth. Despite the worthwhile messages of this book, as recently as August 2010, Hopkins was uninvited from participating in a teen lit festival in Humble, Texas thanks to the initiative of a middle school librarian. It seems not all librarians are crusaders against censorship.”

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group, Violence

Sarah writes: “As if The Hunger Games needed any more attention! Librarians and readers young and old love, love, love this book and talk it up at any opportunity. The forthcoming movie –- and its controversial casting -– ensures that even the nonreaders among us have heard of Collins’s dystopian trilogy. Now it makes the big time with a five spot on the challenges list. Yes, it is violent. It’s about war, so there you go.”

Joelen says: “When discussing the concern some parents have expressed over the violent content of her books, author Collins said, ‘That’s not unreasonable. They are violent. It’s a war trilogy.’ On the surface this books seems to lack ‘teachable moments,’ but it’s the overt violence and brutal government that carry the message in proper dystopian fashion. Plus it managed to get teens excited about reading and talking about important issues. Isn’t that what a good book is supposed to do?”

Lush by Natasha Friend

Reasons: Drugs, Offensive Language, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group

Sarah says: “The ‘drugs’ in question would seem to be related to the protagonist’s father, who is an abusive and unpredictable alcoholic. A difficult family life combined with typical teenage girl dilemmas involving crushes and puberty: this sounds like classic YA lit –- the kind of thing twelve and thirteen year old girls the worldwide are clamoring to read. Evidently some adults would prefer they didn’t. Best not to read at all than to read about unpleasant things like alcoholism and bras.”

Joelen says: “Although there is some typical teen drama surrounding the main character (a crush on older boy, awkwardness about her developing body), there are some atypical elements as well, such as her anonymous pen pal who helps give her advice. The topics of abuse and alcoholism combined with the complications of budding sexuality would be hard for any teen to handle, but Friend’s protagonist shows that teens struggling with these problems can deal with them just like adults.”

What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones

Reasons: Sexism, Sexually Explicit, Unsuited to Age Group

Sarah says: “That there are two verse novels in this group of ten is misleading: it’s a pretty rare thing among young adult -– or any other –- titles. This one explores themes reminiscent of Judy Blume’s work (frank talk about periods and breasts), and feels perhaps just a bit too honest for parents who aren’t ready for their kids to grow up. Kids typically want to read about protagonists just a little older than they are (only 13 year olds ever read Seventeen magazine, right?), but in the words of a (every) generation, parents just don’t understand.”

Joelen says: “Yet another coming-of-age story, this time in the voice of a ninth grade girl looking for love through a string of boyfriends. One passage in particular that drew the attention of censors deals with a discovery the girl makes about how her breasts react to the cold. Seriously?”

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Reasons: Drugs, Inaccurate, Offensive Language, Political Viewpoint, Religious Viewpoint

Sarah says: “I suspect this book was challenged at a school where it was assigned as a required text. It provides great potential for classroom discussion, and raises questions about ethics, journalism, economics, classicism, and the realities of America’s workforce. But, yeah, students shouldn’t be thinking about that stuff. At least not in a context that includes the F-word. Right.”

Joelen says: “This book is unique to the list in that it hasn’t been challenged due to sexual content. It contains drug use, offensive language, criticism of evangelicals, and the unthinkable suggestion that minimum wage is not enough to live on. Clearly this reveals that the author is a socialist who hates America.”

Revolutionary Voices edited by Amy Sonnie

Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit

Sarah says: “If you’re feeling at all cynical about our country, it’s not hard to figure out why this book would be challenged. It’s not just about gay teens, it’s written by gay teens. Those who issued the complaints likely didn’t get to the part of the book where Jason Roe challenges the idea that ‘queerness only has to do with sex.’ If the reluctant readers were to face their fears and read it, perhaps Roe and the other writers might actually have a shot at changing some minds.”

Joelen says: “This book was intended to empower queer or questioning youth and show the diversity of identities within the queer community. Instead, it was labeled as child pornography. Interestingly, one complaint against the book in New Jersey came from a woman who belonged to a local chapter of Glen Beck’s 9/12 Project. Think about that a little.”

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Reasons: Religious Viewpoint, Violence

Sarah says: “Twilight is a funny thing. Some Christian parents have identified it as representing their values –- or at least that one big value about not having sex before marriage –- but it’s still probably not a great read for the 8-year-old kid who assured me ‘it’s okay! There aren’t any curse words.’ My guess is that this entry on the list has more to do with the films that the books.”

Joelen says: “It is interesting that the complaints for this book are primarily about its overt sexual content given Stephenie Meyer’s religious background and her not-so-subtle opposition to premarital sex. I guess vampires are just too hot to handle, even when they’ve come from the mind of a Mormon.”**

**”As a side note, my favorite patron complaint is unrelated to this list of titles. I once had a middle-aged woman approach the reference desk with a copy of Amy Sedaris’s I Like You. She was upset that the book advertised itself as a crafting and entertaining book and turned out to be filthy! I think she was particularly offended by some colloquial reference to the vagina. She felt it was simply trash and should be removed from the shelves. We filed her complaint as protocol required but the immensely popular book stayed on the shelf.”