Every year during National Library Week, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom publishes a list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books. The ALA collects information from newspapers and reports by individuals of documented requests to remove books from schools or libraries and compiles them into a database. On the 2015 list (released in April), 9 out of 10 books include diverse content. It turns out these books have something in common: they feature “the outsider.”
According to Malinda Lo, diverse content means “books by and about people of color, LGBT people, and/or disabled people.” The ALA expanded that definition to include issues about religion and racism as well as non-Western settings. The list includes four books with LGBTQ characters or topics: I Am Jazz, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Fun Home, and Two Boys Kissing. Although marriage equality was a huge step forward, the LGBTQ community still faces an upward battle against discrimination. Kentucky clerks like Kim Davis refuse to issue marriage licenses, Tennessee counselors can deny service based on their religious beliefs, and transgender people in North Carolina are required to use a restroom that doesn’t correspond with their gender identity. Also on the list are books with Muslim characters, such as those in Habibi and Nasreen’s Secret School. Muslim Americans also suffer persecution in this country, aided by the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump and his ilk. The fifth book on the list, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is about an autistic atheist. Being disabled and not believing in God put one pretty far out of the mainstream in this country. Rounding out the list are two books deemed sexually explicit (Fifty Shades of Grey and Looking for Alaska) and the Holy Bible.
I find the whole idea of banning books disturbing, and not just because I’m the granddaughter of a militant librarian. It conjures images of a terrifying future such as the one in Fahrenheit 451 and the all too real past, as in Nazi Germany. When we silence voices on the periphery, we do so at our own peril. Refusing to hear stories that are unlike our own and attempting to prevent others (especially young people) from doing so allows us to dehumanize those who are already marginalized. As history has proven, we can do terrible things when we fail to recognize the humanity in all people. The fact that so many diverse books are banned (the ALA estimates that half of all banned books are written by people of color) is telling. Perhaps we are afraid of what is different. It seems we prefer to keep the outsiders where they are, lest they disrupt the status quo.
One interesting consequence of the banned books list is that once the list comes out, the books become more popular. As anyone with a toddler or teenager can tell you, making something forbidden makes it instantly more attractive. (Indeed, I worry that my daughter will never be able to resist the siren’s call of the dog’s water dish.) I find it delightful that the very act of trying to prevent people from reading something makes it more likely to be read, much to the chagrin of those doing the reporting, I’m sure.
So what can be done? I encourage you to put some of these books on your summer reading list. (I have Beyond Magenta on my nightstand.) Consider reading one of the banned picture books to your class next year. Celebrate Banned Books Week September 25th-October 1st. I can’t promise these books won’t make you uncomfortable, but remember that discomfort is an essential first step in developing empathy. Books were never intended to be just mirrors; they were also meant to be windows. And the outsiders deserve to be let in.