Illuminations and Epiphanies
The Most Challenged Books of 2012
during its Banned Book Week celebration, the ALA releases a list of the
most "challenged" books of the year. Throughout the year, it has
a very active program to collect and record these challenges, and it
does an excellent job of documenting each time anyone reports that
someone has requested a governmental authority--including school
boards, teachers, principals, librarians, city councils, etc.--ban
access to a book, restrict access to a book, require a child to have
signed parental permission to look at a book, stop a book from being
read to a class by a teacher, use an alternate textbook, remove a book
from a required reading list, or take any similar action.
Most challenges occur in public
schools, generally either as
objections to the type of material made freely available to young
children in elementary schools or as attempts to have books removed
from mandatory reading lists. While clearly any
prohibition by a governmental authority to keep a book out of a public
setting--including a school--is censorship and is in opposition to the
First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, this seldom,
ever, occurs. Often, individuals or organizations will rail
against perceived censorship when it may not have really occurred; the
line is not as clear as one might at first think.
- When funds are limited and librarians or
others make decisions not to purchase a book, or to purchase one book
instead of another, is that censorship?
- When librarians or others make a
decision to add or not to add a book to the library collection based on
the their professional assessment of the needs or the expressed desires
of their supported communities or schools, is that censorship?
- If a teacher takes the feelings or
beliefs of students into consideration when determining which books to
add or not to add to a required reading list, is that censorship?
- What if a teacher selects only books
that demean a certain race or religion or promote only one particular
brand of political or economic thought for assigned readings, is that
Should these types of questions concern us,
especially in light of the "culture war" that rages today? I
personally think so, even if I don't always agree that they are usually
Amendment issues. A teacher's attempt or an instituition's
attempt to mold the thoughts of students into any particular point of
view rather than teaching them to critically evaluate a variety of
viewpoints is a far more dangerous than a wacko parent who objects to a
health text because it fails to recommend "Christian prayer" as a
method of preventing stress.
- What if this occurs and parents
subsequently object, are they attempting to prevent a teacher from
exercising "academic freedom" or First Amendment rights?
(Actually, the extablished law is fairly clear in this instance.
In the United States, school teachers have no claim to "academic
freedom," as that term is defined by the
"1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure" which
has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court; "academic freedom" is
for tenured professors at regionally accredited universities.)
So, if we should be concerned about possible challenges to First
Amendment rights as they play out in public schools and libraries, how
big is the actual problem? Well, based on the records maintained
by the ALA, the outright prohibition or banning of a book by any
governmental authority in the United States almost never occurs, and
challenges are incredibly infrequent as well. In the eleven years
between 2001 through 2010, the ALA received 4,659 reports of books
being challenged. That equates to an average of just under 460
- As there are approximately 17,900 public
school districts or similar public agencies in the United States, this
equates to approximately 1
challenge per year for every 39 school districts.
- As there are approximately 98,800 public
schools in the United States, this equates to approximately 1 challenge
per year for every 214 schools.
Clearly, in the United States, very few
citizens are initiating any of the actions that result in the ALA
recording a challenge, much less requesting the outright banning or
prohibition of any book. Still it's worth knowing not only what
books some folks challenge, but also why they the challenge them.
The list below identfies the books that the ALA reports being most
frequently challenged books in 2012.
- As there are approximately 49,400,000
public school students in the United States, this equates to
approximately 1 challenge per year for every 107,390 students.
American Library Association's List of the Top
Ten Challenged Books of 2012
Captain Underpants (series)
by Dav Pilkey.
Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited for age group. In the past,
it has also been challenged for insensitivity and encouraging children
to disobey authority.
Captain Underpants is the most popular children's book series in the
world with over fifty million books in print. The series is about
a superhero from a favorite comic book of two fourth-graders who
accidentally becomes real.
Interestingly, although this series ranks at the top of the ALA books
list, the most recent ALA "Books Challenged or Banned" brochure,
specific instance of any title from the series as being challenged,
restricted, moved, or banned between May 2012 and May 2013.
|2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time
Indian by Sherman Alexie.
Reasons: Offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for
This book is a cartoon-illustrated first-person coming-of-age narrative
by a native American teenager.
The two most significant challenges have come from parents in
Westfields, New Jersey, who asked that the book be removed from a
required freshman reading list because they believed it to be racist,
religiously irreverent, offensive (by using the words 'fuck' and
'nigger'), and encouraged pornography by refering to
masturbation. The was similarly challenged in a school district
in Yakima, Washington.
|3. Th1rteen R3asons Why, by Jay Asher.
Reasons: Drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually explicit, suicide, unsuited
for age group.
This book was a 2007 New York Times
best-seller and the paperback edition reached #1 in 2011. "When
Clay Jenson plays the casette tapes he received in a mysterious
package, he's surprised to hear the voice of dead classmate Hannah
Baker. He's one of 13 people who receive Hannah's story, which details
the circumstances that led to her suicide. Clay spends the rest of the
day and long into the night listening to Hannah's voice and going to
the locations she wants him to visit. The text alternates, sometimes
quickly, between Hannah's voice (italicized) and Clay's thoughts as he
listens to her words, which illuminate betrayals and secrets that
demonstrate the consequences of even small actions." - Booklist
Again, although the ALA has this book high
on its list, the most recent ALA "Books Challenged or Banned" brochure,
identifies no specific instance of it as being challenged, restricted,
moved, or banned between May 2012 and May 2013.
|4. Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L.
Reason: Offensive language, sexually explicit.
Fifty Shades of Grey
is a world-wide, best-selling BDSM (bondage/discipline,
dominance/submission, and sadism/masochism) novel that has sold over 70
million copies despite mostly negative reviews, many of which claim it
to be of poor literary quality.
"The book was pulled [for apparently undocumented reasons], but later
returned to the Brevard County, Fla. public libraries’ shelves 'in
response to public demand.' The racy romance trilogy is particularly
among middle-aged women. Despite
overwhelming demand and long wait lists
for library copies, some other libraries
across the country are refusing to acquire the book." - ALA
|5. And Tango Makes Three by Peter
Parnell and Justin Richardson.
Resons: Homosexuality, unsuited for age group.
This is a popular children's book
based on the true story of two male penguins, Roy and Silo. It
chronicles six years of their lives at New York's Central Park Zoo when
they formed a couple after being given an egg to hatch and raise.
One of the author's has noted that "[Although,] we wrote the book to
help parents teach children about same-sex parent families. It's no
more an argument in favor of human gay relationships than it is a call
for children to swallow their fish whole or sleep on rocks."
Again, although the ALA has this books high on its list, the most
recent ALA "Books Challenged or Banned" brochure, identifies no
specific instance of it as being challenged, restricted, moved, or
banned between May 2012 and May 2013.
|6. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.
Reasons: Homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint,
This critically acclaimed best seller was the first novel published
by its Afghani-American author. It tells the story of a young boy's
friendship with his servant during the Afgan upheaval. It is
of the Taliban and paints a vivid picture of its
theocratically supported stonings, ethnic rape, and forced
pedophilic-homosexual prostitution. In response to Afghani
criticism of his work, Hosseini has replied, "They never say I am
speaking about things that are untrue. Their beef is, 'Why do you have
to talk about these things and embarrass us? Don't you love your
The novel has been challenged as an optional reading in a tenth-grade
honors class at Troy, Pennsylvania schools because the novel
depicts a rape in graphic detail and uses vulgar language.
|7. Looking for Alaska by John Green.
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group.
This young adult novel delves into personal relationships and the
reasons that might have been behind the possible suicide of a beautiful
wildly unpredictable yet moody and self-destructive young woman.
The book was challenged as an optional 11th grade reading assignment by
parents at a high school near Buffalo, New York, as being
"pornographic" and "disgusting," however it was retained in the curriculum
by a unanimous vote by the school board. The ALA also notes that
it was not included on a required reading list--though apparently not
forbidden to be read--at a high school in Sumner County, Tennessee.
|8. The Scary
Stories series by Alvin Schwartz.
Reasons: Unsuited for age group, violence.
Schwartz was a first-rate folklorist who collected and compiled
America's scariest ghoststories and urban legends. The
well-researched and annotated stories are both terrific and
terrifying. The books have been expertly illustrated as well by
Stephen Gammel, and I suspect that his macabre drawings have as much to
do with these books being challenged as the stories themselves.
the most recent ALA brochure does not list any specific challengesthis
series, objections have come primarily from parents who have asked
libraries to restrict these books so that they are available only to
older patrons and students. Some challenges from religious
fundamentalists have requested they be removed from libraries.
|9. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
Reasons: Offensive language, sexually explicit.
This book, a true memoir by the author about her poverty-stricken
childhood while being raised by dysfunctional, alcoholic, and mentally
ill parents, was on the New
York Times best seller list for over 260 weeks.
It was removed, but later reinstated, as an assigned reading in a 9th
grade honors class in Traverse City, Michigan. A challenge to the
book was also rejected at a high school in McPherson, Kansas.
|10. Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Reasons: Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence.
Tony Morrison's very complex, Pulitzer Award winning novel is loosely
based on a true narrative of an escaped slave, Margaret Garner, who
murdered her two young children to prevent them from the possibility of
being captured and returned to slavery. In Morrison's tale, a
daughter, whom the mother murdered with a hacksaw to "save" her from a
life of slavery, returns to seek revenge and dominate her mother's life.
The book was been challenged--but retained-- in an Advanced Placement
class in Salem, Michigan. A similar challenge was also made in