Each April during National Library Week, the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) releases its annual list of the top 10 most challenged books in the nation’s schools and libraries. A book is challenged when someone requests that it be removed from a library or that access to it be restricted. The OIF’s goal in releasing the list is to inform the public about incidences of censorship in schools and libraries. Since 1990, the OIF has maintained a challenged materials database, collecting information on challenges from media reports and reports submitted by individuals via the Office’s official form. We asked James LaRue, director of OIF, to share some insight on the trends reflected in the 2016 list, which was released on April 10.
“In 2015, nine out of the 10 books were by and about diverse populations,” LaRue says, “and this year still half of them are, with a continued focus on LGBT and particularly transgender.” He also notes that three out of the 10 books this year are graphic novels, reflecting the growing popularity of the format, adding, “Graphic novels are now serious literary forces to be reckoned with.”
According to OIF data, half of the books on the 2016 list were removed from the libraries where they were challenged, marking a significant increase. “Typically we say that 10% of challenged books are banned—that is to say that 10% of the time they are successfully removed, usually from the school where they are being challenged,” LaRue says. “This time, of these top 10, five of them were removed.” This bump coincides with a 17% increase in the total number of reported challenges for the year.
LaRue notes that, in an uptick from 2015, the phrase most often used to complain about books in the past year was “sexually explicit.” He believes one reason is that most challenges now are reported not for books in the library but against books in the advanced English curricula of some schools. This change also represents a shift upward in the age of the readers of the most challenged books.
“We’ve moved from helicopter parenting, where people were hovering over their kids, to Velcro parenting,” LaRue says. “There’s no space at all between the hand of the parent and the head of the child. These are kids who are 16, 17; in one year they’re going to be old enough to sign up for the military, get married, or vote, and their parents are still trying to protect them from content that is sexually explicit. I think that’s a shift from overprotectiveness to almost suffocating.”
One of the challenges on the 2016 list breaks new ground. “For the first time, to my knowledge, we’ve had a challenge to a book not because of the content but because of the author,” LaRue says, referring to the Little Bill series of early reader books written by comedian Bill Cosby, recently on trial for sexual assault.
Another example LaRue cites is an Arkansas state legislator’s proposal of a bill to ban the late Howard Zinn’s books—including A People’s History of the United States—from all Arkansas public schools because of Zinn’s liberal views. “The trend seems to be, if you don’t like the person, or what has been alleged about that person, then they cannot write books,” LaRue says.
Of the 323 challenges in 2016, only 46 were public challenges. LaRue says that according to studies conducted in 2011 in Missouri, Oregon, and Texas, between 3% and 18% of challenges are reported to the ALA, meaning that 82% to 97% are not. By that math, at the high end, he figures people are submitting at least 10,000 challenges total in America each year. LaRue adds, “Of those not reported, do you think the likelihood is greater or lesser that the book was removed?”
The OIF has been making a push to encourage more reporting of challenges, and as part of that effort streamlined its reporting form late last year, and offered an instructional webinar on how to use it. The new form also gives librarians an opportunity to check a box that allows the OIF to release information about the challenge so that people can discuss it.
In addition to book challenges, the new OIF form includes an area to report hate crimes in libraries. These types of incidents have seen a sharp rise in the months following the recent presidential election. On the whole, LaRue says, “I hope that what our office is doing is bringing a greater authenticity and transparency to what it actually going on in our libraries.”
To further spread the word about its mission, the OIF has teamed with the ALA’s Office for Library Advocacy to run “advocacy boot camps,” which serve as a reminder that librarians have a responsibility to report challenges. “We point out that it is part of the brand of librarianship that we stand up for your right to read,” LaRue says.
He believes that the trends seen on the 2016 top 10 list harken back to the earliest days of the Library Bill of Rights, drafted in Des Moines, Iowa, in 1938 and adopted by the ALA in 1939. LaRue quotes a key phrase from the document: “Today indications in many parts of the world point to growing intolerance, suppression of free speech, and censorship affecting the rights of minorities and individuals.” And, LaRue adds, “Here we are again. It’s time for us to recommit to this fundamental value of librarianship and the First Amendment.”
The Top 10 for 2016
1. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki, illus. by Jillian Tamaki
Challenged because it includes LGBTQ characters, drug use, and profanity and was considered sexually explicit with mature themes.
2. Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Challenged because it includes LGBTQ characters, was deemed sexually explicit, and was considered to have an offensive political viewpoint.
3. George by Alex Gino
Challenged because it includes a transgender child, and the “sexuality was not appropriate at elementary levels.”
4. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illus. by Shelagh McNicholas
Challenged because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints.
5. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Challenged because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBTQ content.
6. Looking for Alaska by John Green
Challenged for a sexually explicit scene that may lead students to “sexual experimentation.”
7. Big Hard Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction, illus. by Chip Zdarsky
Challenged because it was considered sexually explicit.
8. Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread by Chuck Palahniuk
Challenged for profanity, sexual explicitness, and being “disgusting and all around offensive.”
9. Little Bill series by Bill Cosby, illus. by Varnette P. Honeywood
Challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author.
10. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Challenged for offensive language.
This article has been updated.