Comics and graphic novels are prime targets in the current battle to ban books at libraries across the country: the most-banned book in the U.S. was once again Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, and others, such as Mike Curato’s Flamer, Jerry Craft’s New Kid, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus, appear on multiple ban lists.
Librarians who have championed the comics form find themselves on the front lines, processing and disputing challenges and helping others counter censorship while facing virulent harassment on social media and even in person. Some have left the profession entirely due to the resultant fatigue and fears for personal safety.
There are some positive signs: key legal victories, and a groundswell of popular support as surveys show the majority of Americans—including parents—are against censorship and pro-library.
But overall, it’s a tough situation that has gotten tougher, acknowledges Robin Brenner, teen librarian at the Public Library of Brookline (Mass.) and president of the Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table. The GNCRT is an ALA interest group, now five years old, which helped defenders of the right to read become ever more sophisticated in how they counter challenges. (For more about the GNCRT’s other efforts to support librarians, see “Spotlight on ALA Comics Initiatives,” p. 67.)
The conflict is “more visible, which in some ways is more helpful,” Brenner says. “More people are talking about it and successfully fighting to keep books on the shelves, or stand up to the one person at a school board meeting that’s being contrary.”
But the onslaught wears out even the most stalwart professionals. Kelly Jensen is a former librarian who covers book censorship news for Book Riot. Warnings had been sounded for a while, she says, but the threat was underestimated at first, while groups like Moms for Liberty became “well rehearsed, well funded, and well practiced, and were given a platform by journalists who still believe that you need to cover both sides to any story.”
Victories set precedent
Lawyer Jeff Trexler, interim head of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), points to recent legislative and legal victories that set precedent to protect the freedom to read. Illinois passed a bill to ban book banning, and last year Trexler contributed to win a key victory for Gender Queer in a Virginia court. More and more lawsuits that rely on upholding the First Amendment are being filed.
Recently, PEN America teamed up with Penguin Random House and a group of authors and parents to file a federal lawsuit claiming a Florida school district’s removal of books from school libraries violates both the First and 14th Amendments, because the books being targeted are “disproportionately books by non-white and/or LGBTQ+ authors,” per the suit. The U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office also issued a decision against book bans, which “created a potentially ‘hostile environment’ for students, in violation of their civil rights,” as PW reported in May.
Shira Pilarski, assistant manager of the Detroit Public Library and president-elect of the GNCRT for 2024, applauds the increasing crowd of “people who are supportive and realize that they need to get involved.” They mention a high school senior of color in Boise, Idaho, who successfully ran for the school board on a platform of opposition to book banning. “One of the ways that he won was talking about how it was important for him to read books about characters like him,” Pilarski says.
Communities are rallying: it turns out libraries are one of the most popular government services. An ALA survey showed that more than 70% of voters oppose censorship, “including majorities of voters across party lines,” and attempts to defund libraries have been rebuffed.
“It’s becoming more apparent that the people who are calling for censorship actions are in the minority,” Trexler says. “A lot more people value the library and the services it provides, and even the fact that it includes certain books.”
Brenner says the popularity of graphic novels in libraries for readers has not been quashed, which provides inspiration to weary librarians. Some of the most banned titles are in fact the most in-demand, especially among kids who are nonwhite or queer. “There are so many stories that still need to be told, and kids are finding them in comics more and more,” she notes.
Pilarski is keenly aware as a librarian in an urban center of the need to defend diverse books. “If we didn’t buy books about BIPOC people, then we wouldn’t be reflecting the community,” they say.
Jerry Craft, the first cartoonist to win a Newbery for a graphic novel, was initially shocked by the outcry against his graphic novel New Kid. “Try growing up Black and see how many uplifting books you had as a kid,” he says. “Nobody was trying to save me as a kid. We have all grown up to write the books that we wish we had.” (For our q&a with Craft, see “Just Be Better,” p. 66.)
A chilling effect
Librarians have always been aware that comics are vulnerable to censorship. The visual medium can make taboo material literally more visible—and easier to take out of context, as shown by the claims that Gender Queer is obscene based on a single panel. But “comics are extra vulnerable for challenges, because you already have situations in which the library as a whole is generally not advocating for comics as ‘real reading,’ ” says Amie Wright, the head of GNCRT’s Addressing Challenges Committee and a former manager at the New York Public Library.
The struggle is taking a toll. Accused of promoting child pornography and being abusers or “groomers,” librarians—especially school librarians—often feel isolated or burned-out. There is a chilling effect, the full extent of which is hard to measure.
“People are afraid,” Trexler says. “I get messages all the time asking, ‘Am I going to get arrested for buying this book or shelving that one?’ ”
Even Brenner is apprehensive in her mostly progressive area of Boston, as Pride Month begins. “I’ve been lucky, but we’re all on edge—we have to prepare for backlash,” she says.
Some worry that pre-censorship is becoming the norm. Several sources pointed to the recent controversy when Scholastic asked author Maggie Tokuda-Hall to remove references to racism in the author’s note of Love in the Library, her picture book about how her parents met in an incarceration camp for Japanese Americans during World War II.
“Publishers are in a double bind,” Trexler says. Threats of boycotts are real, as the zealous reaction to mild displays of support for queer rights by Disney and Anheuser-Busch have shown. “Companies have to answer to shareholders and boards,” he explains. So thus far, the public task of defending books has been left largely to individual librarians, or to organizations like the CBLDF and EveryLibrary, a PAC formed a decade ago.
Wright agrees that reactions from publishers haven’t been aggressive, but hopes that may change, as PRH’s involvement in PEN America’s lawsuit suggests they might. Librarians, she says, need to make a case for their influence in the overall graphic novel publishing business. “So much of Scholastic’s business is comics. Even in school libraries, 40%–75% of a collection’s circulation is graphic novels, according to various surveys. Let’s discuss return on investment, circulation and statistics, growth over time.”
Even as the number of challenges has soared, some worst-case scenarios remain hypothetical. Despite threats, according to Trexler, he’s not aware of any librarian who has been arrested over a book staying on shelves—yet. “There have been librarians who have been shut down or fired,” he says. “It’s hard to criticize someone who is in jeopardy of losing their job.”
Standing up for the right to read
Librarians defending their collections have an arsenal of new resources, including guides from PEN America, the ALA, GNCRT, Penguin Random House, and other support organizations. Some librarians are discovering the best tool to counter challenges is their existing library policies, Brenner says. For example, a standard rule in many libraries is that once a book is challenged, it can’t be challenged again for two years, to prevent so-called nuisance challenges. More libraries are insisting that only members of their local communities can lodge challenges. School libraries are investigating whether challengers have children who currently attend their schools—or whether they are even parents.
Another basic policy requires that the challenger have read the entire book—often, they haven’t. “It seems irrational, but the first question a librarian asks should be, ‘Did you read this book entirely?’ ” Wright says.
“For comics,” Brenner says, “librarians should ask what image, what page, and why. They should contextualize this image in the entire book.” She adds that complaints are often based on “extraordinarily skewed” talking points. “They say, ‘I don’t want to expose myself’ to the material they’re challenging. Basically, there is no logic.”
The GNCRT assembled a tool kit aimed at presenting “real, pragmatic, concrete advice about what your collection development policy and challenge policy should look like,” Wright says. She also advises that issues unique to comics and graphic novels need to be addressed in library policies. “One of the things we’ve heard is that even now, most libraries don’t actually talk about bans and challenges in advance,” she says. “It’s depressing to need to be prepared, like having active shooter drills.”
Trexler says that another key is knowing that obscenity has a legal definition, despite how often it’s thrown around.
Wright agrees that letting librarians know that they have legal rights is important. “Just because someone comes in and says Gender Queer is obscene, doesn’t mean that it is,” she explains. “It has to be proven in a court of law.”
Trexler sees the very ferocity of the campaign to suppress stories about gender and race as a sign that challengers know they are on the wrong side of history. “It’s a deep-seated feeling that they’ve already lost,” he says. “There’s a sense that graphic novels are everywhere—that the depiction of these relationships and racial questions are everywhere and will be part of schools and libraries. What people are doing is raging against the whirlwind.”
But Jensen, of Book Riot, isn’t so sure. “I’m cynical, having done this for so long,” she says. “Even if we take down Moms for Liberty, these other groups are proliferating. I think we’re in an era where this is going to continue—and one of the biggest problems is the lack of literacy about how to read and understand graphic material.”
The toll taken on librarians will linger, Brenner acknowledges. “Going through a challenge is incredibly personal and exhausting,” she says. “If you’re the school librarian trying to make a place for these kids, being targeted feels very lonely and very isolating.”
Trexler hopes that advocates begin to recognize censorship as a “wedge issue.” He points to large numbers of people who are campaigning against censorship getting on school boards nationwide. “I do think we’re going to win out again, but it’s going to take some time,” he says. “And we’re going to have to be more sophisticated.”
“I don’t want to focus on an end in sight,” says Detroit public librarian Pilarski. “We’re going to keep fighting, because that’s what we do.”
Read more from our Graphic Novels in Libraries feature:
Just Be Better: PW Talks with Jerry Craft
We spoke with Craft, author of the frequently banned, Newbery Award–winning graphic novel 'New Kid' (Quill Tree) and its sequels, on the experience of having one's own book banned.
The American Library Association’s New Comics Initiatives
The ALA’s Graphic Novels and Comics Roundtable is rolling out new initiatives geared toward serving and supporting librarians.