Sex, politics, profanity and religion: these topics are shunned from small talk, but they also share another commonality; LOTS of people don't want us to read about them. From 2000 to 2009, the American Library Association (ALA) received 5,099 reports that a work was challenged (meaning someone filed a complaint to get the item pulled from a school or library). Because only a fraction of challenges are reported, the real number may well be four or five times this amount. Naturally, censoring a book often has the unintended effect of making said book irresistible.
The ALA keeps a list of the top ten challenged books by decade. Because the seven days of Banned Books Week should really last all year, I present for your illicit consideration seven books from the ALA's list that you definitely want to get your hands on.
1. “Looking for Alaska” by John Green
Reasons: Offensive language, sex scene.
As you will find, sometimes books are banned because some administrator glanced at a page or series of pages out of context. “Looking for Alaska” is a fantastic example of this; it topped the ALA list as the most frequently challenged book of 2015. In John Green’s “vlogbrothers” YouTube series, he addresses the novel’s challenged status, explaining that the controversial scene – which Green describes as "awkward, unfun, [and] disastrous" – plays an important and deliberate purpose in showing that sex can never be used to stand in for emotional connection. This is a frank, important lesson for young adults. Beyond that, the novel is great! The teens behave like actual teens in a poignant, quirky coming-of-age story about a boy seeking “The Great Perhaps.”
Reasons: Homosexuality and other (“condones public displays of affection”).
It is poignantly sad that a book about two gay teens struggling for acceptance in their fictional world is banned from school libraries in the real one. We’re constantly reminded that for the LGBT+ community, the fear of violence is not over. That's why “Two Boys Kissing” has always been an important book. But right now? It's essential. The novel features two teenagers aiming to break the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous kiss in response to a hate crime committed against another student, though other LGBT+ characters and their stories are included, as well. The novel is narrated in part by a chorus of spirits which represent the past generation of gay men (many of whom died at the peak of the AIDS epidemic). “Two Boys Kissing” is a beautiful book that demands to be read; it reminds us of the ghosts we carry.
I can’t help but think that “Fun Home” was actually banned for fear that it would make kids too freaking smart. This memoir in cartoon form follows author Alison Bechdel’s early life as she teases out the details of her complicated childhood and accepts her sexual orientation. Shortly after, she discovers a family secret that changes everything. And spoiler: “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” is actually not very fun in the traditional sense. The title “Fun Home” itself is a nickname for the funeral home that Bechdel’s father operates. Still, it’s cerebral, emotional and sharply witty. As we reflect on our own crazy childhoods and see ourselves off to college, it’s cathartic to see Bechdel go on that same journey. This is a wonderful book to carry with you.
4. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon
Reasons: Offensive language, religious viewpoint and other (“profanity and atheism”).
In this novel, 15-year-old Christopher Boone aims to solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog Wellington, who was killed with a fork — a garden fork, that is. Like some other books on this list, the dialog is realistic (i.e. people swear) and atheism is discussed. Nothing that high school students haven't heard already, right? “Curious Incident” is a mystery novel about a grisly murder, which makes for a pretty fantastic story already, but what makes it really unique is voice. The novel is narrated entirely by Christopher, who has an extremely logical mind, but cannot understand things like idioms, social niceties and emotion. Sometimes he takes a breather chapter to go off on a mind-blowing math or science related topic such as the Monty Hall Problem. Interestingly, the book was never intended for a YA demographic. Even so, I absolutely loved it in 9th grade and I love it even more today.
5. “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” by Susan Kukl
Reasons: Anti-family, offensive language, homosexuality, sex education, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group and other (“wants to remove from collection to ward off complaints”).
Though transgender issues have been more prominent in the media lately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the amount of misinformation about transgender people has been reduced, nor that actual trans voices are being heard (yeah, I'm looking at YOU, Stonewall movie). The fact that “Beyond Magenta” is so controversial demonstrates its necessity. It features six teenagers who share their stories at a time when many people could use a crash course on the diverse lives of real trans people. Reading this assists in understanding them beyond some superficial image. It's also a lesson in the deeper ways that people are thinking about gender.
Reasons: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive" and "graphic depictions."
Like “Fun Home,” this graphic autobiography chronicles the author’s childhood, but unlike “Fun Home,” her personal narrative is intertwined with the history of Iran and its complex political issues. For many of us, it can be difficult to step outside of our own cultural viewpoint. That’s why “Persepolis” is so important to both young and old. It helps us to see beyond a country as a talking point. Instead, we see the everyday lives of the people who call it home. Censoring “Persepolis” is censoring violence that really happened. It’s also censoring voices that are rarely heard as it is.
7. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence.
Alexie's novel wins this round of Censorship Bingo. It is written as a diary from the perspective of high school freshman Arnold Spirit, Jr. (usually just Junior) as he reconciles his life on the Spokane Indian Reservation with attending the predominantly white, affluent Reardan High School. Once again, the book uses language that 9th graders use. It tackles topics that affect young teens and their families, such as alcoholism and bullying. The pages is peppered with charming cartoon illustrations from Junior, as well. If you're okay with a flashback to the horrors of 9th grade, read this novel and be proud you got past them. You'll find that the main theme is hope.