Don’t Look: Banned Book Week 2016, Challenges to Diverse Materials, and #WeNeedDiverseBooks


Image from ALA.

Every year at the end of September, we come to Banned Books Week. It’s an important thing for us librarians; it’s an important thing for us Americans–we need to remember that yes it does happen here too–and it can sometimes be a fun thing, as we gleefully read books that somebody, somewhere, wants taken off the shelves because they’re tricksey hobbitses or something.


Image from ALA.

Book banning, and intellectual freedom, are, in a way, tricksey hobbitses–they’re incredibly complex, and, as I learned from the brilliant Emily Knox, defending freedom of speech can sometimes leave one feeling rather icky. It’s not a liberal/progressive value, we were told; it’s a libertarian one. And it’s one of our profession’s core values, right along with privacy and social justice. The books we are called to defend aren’t always comfortable creatures. Sometimes they’re meh and sometimes they’re stunning: Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, for instance, has been banned all over the place, ever since it was first published.


From ALA.

Absolutely True Diary is also my entrée into why this particular Banned Books Week is extra important, even as the world seems to be burning around us. As noted in the graphic above, books with diverse content–generally pertaining to race, ethnicity, or gender/sexuality/LGBTQ+ issues–are challenged and banned at much higher rates than, say, books about straight white people. (Interestingly, immigration also factors into challenges, possibly because books about immigrant experiences often–although definitely not always–deal with diversity too.)


Those dirty, dirty books. From ALA.

So, this Banned Books Week, I’d argue we should do a bit more than reading banned and challenged books: we should challenge ourselves to read diverse books, too. We live in an increasingly diverse country, one in which–for the first time since the conquest, amirite?–our kids are majority-minority. In short, we desperately need books wherein our heroes (and our antiheroes, too) look like us. We need books with heroes with disabilities; we need books with people of color.

From ALA.

And, while we are starting to get more, the stats are still pretty abysmal. How can we help? Well, one very simple way is to read what we’ve got now–buy it, check it out from the library, suggest it, recommend it, pin it to Pinterest, tack it onto Goodreads, blog about it, whatever your preferred method may be: the more we read these books, the more publishers will publish.

Publishing is, after all, a business.

Children’s Books

The ALA maintains a list of frequently banned and challenged children’s books here. (I am kinda sad that people challenge books about kids’ bodies, honestly. And I don’t, personally, suggest Tintin or Sambo for anything other than studies of racism.) Among the challenged stands Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop. (The challenger wanted money or something?–which is still deeply confusing. All righty then.) And, of course, back in 2010, Texas banned Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?–because they got the children’s author Bill Martin, Jr. and the Marxist theorist Bill Martin, a professor at DePaul, confused. (This is why fact-checking is essential, yo.)

There are a lot of really amazing resources for those interested in reading diverse books. The single best source for information–since it links to all the other sources, really–is #WeNeedDiverseBooks, where one can find information on pretty much all the diverse book awards out there, along with tons of reading lists. The CCBC’s Multicultural Literature page is another incredible resource.

Teen/Young Adult Books

I feel like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian deserves a special award just for getting banned and challenged on such a routine basis–it’s been on the most-challenged list (in the top ten!) five times since its publication in…2010. (Seriously.) Sherman Alexie keeps getting banned, for reasons that I, as a confirmed pinko, tend to find bizarre. If YA books like Diary aren’t really your thing, you can still contribute to Shitload of Royalties Week chez Alexie, by reading any of his other works. They’re all amazing. (Confirmation here: E, who only reads graphic novels, has read every single book by Alexie, excepting only his new picture book, Thunder Boy, Jr., because he “doesn’t read picture books.”) Have you the desire to read poems about basketball? (I ❤ basketball, by the bye.) He’s got you covered! He’s also got poems about men’s bathrooms! As far as I know, none of those have been challenged, which is kind of odd. But to each their own kryptonite, I guess.

Now, despite its glorious place up at the top of banned and challenged books in the past six years, Diary is definitely not the only frequently challenged YA book; the ALA maintains a list of them here, for your reading pleasure. It’s also not the only amazing diverse young adult book out there. #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the CCBC are, again, really incredible resources here; the CCBC also provides a list of “30 Multicultural Books Every Teen Should Know.” (They’re definitely worth checking out…and, of course, Diary is right there, up at the top of the list!)

Comix and Graphic Novels (of all ages)

So, I wasn’t sure whether to make graphic novels their own category–after all, they often get shelved according to generalized age range, from munchkins to young adult to adult-people. And then I thought, la, what a dumb cunundrum on my part–they are frequently challenged due to their very nature, so of course they should be included as their own thing. If you’re wondering why anyone would ban graphic novels, the ever-amazing Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, or CBLDF, has an amazing set of history and resources available here, as well as a nice brochure available as a pdf here. (Did you know, for instance, about the golden day of comics, before the Code?) The CBLDF maintains a list of banned and challenged comics–they’re definitely worth checking out! Comics and graphic novels also seem to deal a lot in diversity: from Alison Bechdel (you may have heard of her: she’s the one behind the Bechdel Test) to Dong Hwa Kim, from Marjane Satrapi to Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, from Keiji Nakazawa to Gilbert Hernandez, graphic novelists have this way of delving into diversity, showing it through images as well as words. And boy do they get banned and challenged, a lot.

CBLDF I read banned comics!
And you can too! From CBLDF.

Did you know that we also have diverse superheroes? I’m not talking about aliens, either; see Cindy Moon, aka Silk; see Sam Wilson, Falcon and also Captain America (and, a mi modo de ver, a really amazing Captain America, a superhero for this age and this time); see Miles Morales, aka Spider-Man; Kamala Khan, also known as Ms. MarvelVictor Mancha of the Runaways (which is, by the way, just overall an awesome series); the Green Turtle, aka (in Gene Luen Yang’s amazing Shadow Hero, which you should definitely read) super-nerdy Chinese American Hank Chu.

Adult-People Books, Multiage Books, and Naughty Naughty Classics

Obviously, anyone, from kids to adult people, can read basically any book, as long as they are able to do so. (I, after all, read Titus Andronicus when I was twelve years old. It scared the hell out of me and I didn’t sleep all night. I also haven’t read the damn thing since. Screw you Titus, you suck.) But, lest you think that adult-people books and classics get off easy: they really don’t, hence we are always challenging books by Toni Morrison. We’ve challenged Shakespeare and we really like to challenge The Great Gatsby. Your classics are filthy and you should be ashamed! (Which, to me, says quick go read them allllll!) They are, of course, especially likely to be banned if they cover anything remotely diverse, at all. (I will confess to disappointment: I’ve read quite a number of banned classics and generally don’t find them half so salacious as one might think.)

From ALA.

Most of my diverse-book-finding resources are, alas, for youth literature. However! #WeNeedDiverseBooks is, as always, an excellent place to start. It’s worth trolling the ALA’s lists of frequently challenged and banned classics, since holy cow are a lot of them pertaining to diversity (Toni Morrison? Maya Angelou?). Many of the awards to which WNDB links include books for adults, and, of course, kids’ books are often pretty much amazing reading anyway. This list of frequently challenged authors of color dates way back to the 1990s, but it can be a good place to start.

Now, to Round Off

Now, to finish this off, I have an odd confession: I have pretty much never run into dyslexics like me, in anything. In fact, I first ran into a recognizable dyslexic person when I started reading romance novels, and romance novels remain the place where I have found most of my own kind. Spoiler alert: most of them are guys, and they’re mostly historical (back in the day when they called it word blindness, or just what a dumb kid!, or something)–but they’re still there.

It’s kind of amazing to find people like me, even if they are studmuffin guys with sixpack abs, but it’s also a total mess. As much as those romance authors who have written dyslexics have my eternal gratitude (and are on auto-order, basically), there should be more. We are not so uncommon, we whose neurons aren’t quite right, that we should be represented so seldom, should see ourselves only rarely. I’m like, almost 100% positive that Wylan Van Eck of Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology is dyslexic, and I almost screamed when I put those pieces together, I was so excited to “meet” him.

This isn’t enough, this start, but it is amazing, all the same–and, by reading books and recommending books, we can play a part in bringing more diversity to our literature. Let’s celebrate our First Amendment right to read, and give it a shot while we’re at it.

For anyone interested in more information on book banning and challenging in the twenty-first century United States:

#WeNeedDiverseBooks, Where the Hell to Find Them, and Political and Advocacy Issues Surrounding Them

From Chicago Public Library’s Facebook page.