It happens every year: During National Library Week in April, the American Library Association puts out their list of the previous year’s most-challenged books. Usually, the list has a number of repeats that continue to be challenged by parents, library patrons and the clergy, alike, but every once in a while there’s a curveball, and 2015 was such a year—as Alison Flood reports for the Guardian, the Bible cracked the top 10 list for the first time ever.
Challenges often relate to things like homosexuality and profanity, but the reasons for the Bible's inclusion are even more surprising. James LaRue leads the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which compiles the annual list. He tells the Associated Press that though its challenge is listed as “religious content,” the explanation is more complicated than that.
“You have people who feel that if a school library buys a copy of the Bible, it's a violation of church and state,” says LaRue. “And sometimes there's a retaliatory action, where a religious group has objected to a book and a parent might respond by objecting to the Bible.”
Then again, everything from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is on the ALA’s list of the most challenged books of all time. But classic and religious literature aren’t the only targets of would-be banners. This year, many of the books on the list were only published recently.
In 2015, the Office of Intellectual Freedom recorded 275 challenges to books, though research indicates as many as 85 percent of book challenges are never reported or publicized. Nine of the top 10 challenged books contain diverse content that highlights non-white, disabled, or LGBT main or secondary characters and stories that highlight things like religion, LGBT issues and mental illness.
Forty-five percent of the attempts to remove books from readers were centered around public libraries, though school curriculums and school libraries were also book battlegrounds. A full 40 percent of people challenging reading material were parents, followed by library patrons (27 percent), boards or administrations (10 percent) and pressure groups (6 percent).
Even today, the right to read is still a contentious one—and perhaps the biggest challenge to those who would challenge people’s ability to access books is to educate yourself about the kind of books people want to ban. Here’s the 2015 list:
1. Looking for Alaska, by John Green: Despite winning the prestigious Michael L. Printz Award for literary excellence in young adult literature, the book, which follows a young man in an Alabama boarding school and his relationship with a girl named Alaska, was challenged for reasons like offensive language, being sexually explicit and concerns it was unsuitable for its age group.
2. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James: James’ book is already controversial: The steamy S&M novel sold more 100 million copies, despite abysmal reviews. Turns out that controversy carried over to would-be banners, too: Attempts to suppress the book were made for everything from its sexually explicit content to reasons like “poorly written” and “concerns that a group of teenagers will want to try it.”
3. I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings: Despite being on the curriculum in some schools, this picture book based on the life of a transgender girl has been repeatedly challenged. Last year, a proposed reading of the book in Wisconsin led to threats of a federal lawsuit. Reasons given for 2015 challenges included “inaccurate,” homosexual and sex education content.
4. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin: Another book with transgender content was on this year’s list. Beyond Magenta features stories based on interviews with six transgender or gender-neutral teens. Reasons given for the challenges included “anti-family,” offensive language and homosexuality.
5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon: Haddon’s book was an enormous bestseller and has been made into an award-winning Broadway musical. That didn’t prevent the book, which follows a kid on the autism spectrum researching a mystery, to be challenged for reasons including offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group and “profanity and atheism.”
6. The Holy Bible: It’s never been on the most-challenged list before, but this year the Bible made its way to the top 10 due to challenges of its religious viewpoint.
7. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel: The graphic novel, which is also an acclaimed musical, has been at the center of multiple controversies since its 2006 release. The memoir, which chronicles Bechdel’s childhood and touches on themes like sexual orientation and suicide, was boycotted by college students and even put funding for South Carolina colleges at risk. Though the South Carolina senate decided to lift budget cuts punishing schools that left the book on its curriculum, it did so with a requirement that those colleges offer alternative reads such as the Constitution and Federalist Papers for students who object to the story. Fun Home continues to be a flash point at colleges, and was challenged this year due to violence and “graphic images.”
8. Habibi, by Craig Thompson: Thompson’s graphic novel depicts an epic love story set in an Islamic fairy tale world. Criticized for everything from cultural appropriation to subtle racism by reviewers, it was challenged based on nudity and sexually explicit content in 2015.
9. Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan, by Jeanette Winter: The book, which follows the life of an Afghan girl who must keep her schooling secret, was at the center of a controversy over Common Core instruction and content related to the Islamic world in Islip, New Jersey, in 2013. At the time, school board members complained that it was evidence of a “social justice agenda and Muslim agenda.” Those who challenged the book in 2015 did so for reasons like its religious viewpoint and violence.
10. Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan: Long-listed for a National Book Award, the bestselling author’s take on gender, AIDS, sexuality and a kissing contest was challenged in 2015 for its homosexual content. But another (perhaps disingenuous) reason for the challenge might take the cake: One person who wanted to ban the book because it “condones public displays of affection.”