The American Library Associations's annual State of America's Libraries report, released yesterday, may have turned some heads in the publishing world after books by Jay Asher and Sherman Alexie landed at the top of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom's Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2017 list. Asher and Alexie, two authors of significance in the children's publishing world (and, in Alexie's case, in Native American publishing), have, as PW previously reported, been accused of, and respectively denied in some capacity, sexual and professional harassment.
The placement, to some, might seem a bit odd—especially considering that another branch of the ALA awarded Alexie its prestigious Carnegie Medal earlier this year, which he later declined. But Jamie LaRue, director of the OIF, is clear on the matter: the list is a compilation of data, and that data showed that Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why and Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian were the two most challenged books of 2017, for reasons irrespective of the allegations surrounding them.
"Both of these books have been on the list for a long time," LaRue told PW. "Thirteen Reasons Why was released in 2007, was a bestseller, and returned as controversial after the TV series on Netflix came out. Many superintendents and principles were the ones who went in and pre-emptively removed the book from the self. Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, that one has long been challenged for acknowledging issues like poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality, and its portrayal of the difficulties of Native American life."
He added: "By the end of the year, allegations began to surface about both of these authors, which kind of came to fruition in February. We recognize these authors now have a different challenge to their works and speech, but none of that happened last year." (Reports of allegations by the authors first became public in the comments in the comments section of a January article in School Library Journal, "Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks," where comments alleging abuse against these authors and others began rapidly piling up in February.)
The report, according to the ALA's release, found that libraries continue to face challenges that carry with them the potential for censorship of a variety of books, programs, and materials; to discern this, the OIF, as it does yearly, tracked a number of challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2017, finding a total number of 354 challenges targeting 416 books. Asher's and Alexie's were among them—and LaRue is concerned that their placement there will be misinterpreted.
"We have, [in sexual harassment in the publishing industry], an emerging issue. I'm happy to talk about that, and we sounded the alarm last year that this would happen with Bill Cosby, but it really didn't come to fruition [with Alexie and Asher] last year. That report is about something else."
That said, LaRue makes clear that the OIF lands on the side of intellectual freedom, no matter which way you slice it. The tricky part, he added, is that not everyone—even in the ALA—entirely agrees with him.
"The Office of Intellectual Freedom believes no idea, no story should be forbidden or censored just because of what it says," he said. "The book continues to need to be read in its entire context and thought about that way. But even within ALA, you're going to find a lot of different viewpoints about this. Someone will say that it's impossible for them now to imagine reading a book given the allegations against one of the authors. There are some individual responses to that. There are speaking engagements we know are being canceled, and there are some booksellers, we understand, who are pulling books by Jay Asher and Sherman Alexie. And I think that's a good time for us to stop and say, 'Are we rushing to judgment? Is there a difference between an allegation and proof? Is there a difference between the book and the person? Do we need to silence the idea because we disapprove of the person? "
LaRue sees this as an upcoming, and sure to be ongoing, issue of intellectual freedom, pointing to a long history of great authors, "very few of whom were saints," whose work might also end up in the scrap pile should "moral perfection" become our benchmark for whether or not an author deserves to be read. "The concern that I have is the idea that we paint somebody where the whole thing becomes a moral issue," he said. "We decide that somebody is off-limits, and then we stop paying attention to the things that they said that were significant."
LaRue called the issue "part of a larger swell of concern," which, he says, is rooted in the " real conflict right now in our society, and certainly in librarianship, between intellectual freedom and social justice." That conflict has seen more and more complaints or challenges to books arise not from the white cisgendered population—which LaRue said has been the traditional source of such challenges—but instead from minority groups.
"We're seeing a shift in the complaints about, for instance, To Kill a Mockingbird," he said. (Harper Lee's classic novel landed at #7 on this year's list.) "'I find that To Kill a Mockingbird is a story told about black people by white people. Why can't we tell our own stories?' And I think that's a shift in the conversation as well. My stand on this, from the perspective of censorship and intellectual freedom, is that more books are better. You don't need to remove To Kill a Mockingbird to make room for a new book by a black author. We can teach both, and remain open to both."
In terms of Alexie, Asher, and the like, he added: "It can't just be about the allegations. Both of those books have been profoundly challenged, over and over and over, for things we would have said, up until that allegation, was a terrible reason to remove a book—that it was saying something important, that it was worthwhile to discuss. And so now, if we say, 'Well, the person did something wrong,' are we now giving people permission to censor it? I think that's a very dangerous proposition."
This story has been updated with further information.