Illustrations by Mar Hernández
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In the 1800s, it was illegal to send pornography using the U.S. Postal Service. More broadly, federal and state Comstock Laws banned the distribution of any “obscene literature or articles of immoral use” using the mail. In practice, that meant any books, pamphlets, periodicals and letters that referred to topics like abortion, contraception, homosexuality and sex could be seized by post offices.
You can find items like these at the Library of Congress, which keeps tracks of artifacts seized under those obscenity laws. Meg Metcalf, a women’s, gender and LGBTQ studies librarian and collections specialist at the Library of Congress, oversees the collection and speaks to visitors about its significance. Included in the collection is a vast back catalogue of One Magazine, an early gay publication who fought for — and won — the right to distribute legally. When Metcalf shows queer patrons these items, they often get emotional: People want to know why they haven’t had access to their own history.
“It's an emotional, psychological feeling when you can’t see yourself in history,” Metcalf said. “And people come to the library to see themselves in history.”
This kind of broad-reaching censorship may seem like an antiquated notion, but censorship in the United States is alive and well, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who directs the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Caldwell-Stone noted that communities diversifying faster than the national average are facing more battles over equity initiatives.
“I think it’s one of the few ways some folks believe they can control the world around them,” Caldwell-Stone said. “There’s changes going on that that they can’t control. And so one thing they can control are the books that their children are reading or that the children in their community are reading.”
Caldwell-Stone’s office tracks these kinds of challenges to library, school and university materials. Every year, they publish a list of the country’s 10 most challenged books, which is compiled from voluntary submissions and media reports. Because the list is anecdotal, it portrays only a sliver of book challenges in the United States, Caldwell-Stone said: The association estimates that between 82 and 97 percent go unreported.
Still, the list provides a snapshot into some of the anxieties and fears that drive media censorship. Books for children are most frequently targeted, with most reports coming from schools, according to Caldwell-Stone. In recent years, the list has been dominated by books that feature explicit language, violence, sex and LBGTQ characters — especially transgender narratives. These books are being selected amid a rise in violence and legislation directed against trans people.
But something shifted in 2020, said Caldwell-Stone: This year’s list was populated with books about anti-Black racism and racial justice. After the murder of George Floyd and the sweeping wave of racial justice protests that followed, some of the reasons for challenging books included “divisive language” and “anti-police views.” The reports also correspond to a widespread backlash against teaching about racism from school boards and state legislatures: At least five Republican-led states have passed bans on critical race theory or related topics in recent months. Conservatives often argue this type of education is divisive and encourages White students to feel guilty about their race.
Metcalf said that historically, censorship has been used to target marginalized groups.
“Censorship is a tool to ensure conformity: what people in power consider to be the right ideas, ” Metcalf said.
This year, the ALA is using its annual Banned Books Week to highlight these challenges to LGBTQ books and books about racial justice. Ahead of the celebration, which takes place from Sept. 26 to Oct. 2, we spoke to authors who have appeared on the ALA’s banned book list about what it’s like to have your book challenged.
By Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
Year(s) on the list: 2016, 2018
Why: It was challenged in 2016 “because it includes LGBT characters, drug use and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes.” It was banned and challenged in 2018 for “profanity, sexual references and certain illustrations.”
Published in 2014, this coming-of-age graphic novel follows tweens Rose and Windy during a summer on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. Together, they navigate a summer of growing up, exploring their sexuality and reckoning with the complex, and often dark, adult world around them.
Cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki said they didn’t set out to make a controversial book. When the book won a Caldecott Honor, an award designated by the American Library Association to distinguished picture books for children up to aged 14, it began reaching a wider audience in America. Jillian said the distinction might have created some confusion for readers, who associate the award with picture books for very young children, or confuse the genre of graphic novels with cartoons and comic strips.
They started to hear from teachers who told them the book had been pulled from shelves in their classrooms. A parent complaint in Henning, Minn., led Henning Public School to pull the book from their shelves in 2016, later restoring it but still requiring signed parent permission to read it and only for 10th- through 12th-graders. That same year, schools in Seminole County, Fla., pulled the book from their shelves after a third-grader brought it home to their parents.
“When the parent brought that to the attention of the principal, we immediately took a look at it and realized yes, that’s a teen-reader book, not appropriate for elementary school age students,” a spokesperson for the district told WFTV, an Orlando-area news station, which also noted, “The book references oral sex and contains numerous obscenities.”
When it landed on the ALA’s banned book list in 2016 — in the No. 1 spot — Mariko and Jillian noticed the books that accompanied them also featured queer themes: Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel “Drama,” David Levithan’s “Two Boys Kissing” and Jazz Jennings’s “I Am Jazz,” a memoir about her experience growing up transgender.
“It felt more like a larger problem and less about us,” Mariko said.
“[T]here are people who are uncomfortable with any discussion of sexuality, who see this as inappropriate, maybe, for any age of young reader,” she told NBC News at the time. “But really what expelling these books does is erase queer experiences, queer lives.”
Contrary to the intent of these challenges, Mariko said the attempts to remove “This One Summer” have contributed to higher sales and broader interest in the book. In some ways, the book’s impact is magnified: After all, if the library won’t carry the book, you can always buy it — that is, if you have the disposable income. But what that doesn’t do, Mariko said, is increase access for young and low-income readers, who may rely on the library for access.
“People are free to not like our book,” Jillian said. “But what is required of a public institution like a school or a library is the bigger question.”
By Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin
Year(s) on the list: 2020
Why: It was challenged “for ‘divisive language’ and because it was thought to promote anti-police views.”
In the fall of 2016, Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard, three faculty members at Emory University’s School of Medicine, were talking about the pattern of disproportionate police violence against Black people and its impact on children. They had a question: How can parents help their children cope with news of police violence? As child psychologists, they came to the idea of a children’s book and, in May 2018, published “Something Happened in Our Town.” The book, published by the American Psychological Association’s Magination Press, follows two children who are neighbors — one Black, one White — in the aftermath of a police shooting of a Black man in their town.
“We felt that children know more than adults think they do,” Hazzard said. “Young children are seeing stuff on the news or overhearing conversations. Many children are aware of the police shootings of Black individuals and other individuals of color. It would be hard not to be aware. … So we thought that our book could be a tool for that.”
The book gained traction in the summer of 2020, when it was included on reading lists from the New York Times, BuzzFeed and USA Today, as well as schools and libraries. Sales went up, but so did challenges to the book’s inclusion in school libraries and curriculums. In Minnesota, the state’s largest law enforcement trade organization wrote a letter to the governor requesting the book not be read to elementary school students. In Springfield, Vt., two parents filed a formal complaint to their school superintendent after learning their son’s teacher was presenting the book. They did not request the book be banned but asked for the district to implement other measures, like notifying parents and giving them the opportunity to opt children out from the unit.
“As a law enforcement officer, my wife and children have to be extra cautious right now and I cannot believe this would intentionally be brought up as a topic by the teacher when few kids ever understood or knew what was going on when asked,” Jeremy Desjardins wrote in an email, as reported by the Eagle Times.
In response to challenges like these, Celano said the book is not anti-police and she does not believe children perceive it as such. When presenting the book to children during readings and classroom visits, they often ask children what the book is about: “Not one child has said this book is about how police officers are bad. … Most kids say what this book is about is treating people fairly,” Celano said.
Parents have also expressed anxiety that the book’s events are disturbing to young children. The authors said they anticipated the material might be challenging when they conceptualized the book, so they included a guide for talking to children about the story’s narrative and broader issues of racism.
“As child psychologists, we’re used to talking to kids about challenging topics, and we felt like kids would be ready to process the book and talk about it,” Hazzard said.
At one reading, Hazzard said, a child in the audience, who was Black, asked, “When I'm older, if I get stopped by a policeman, how will I know if he’s a policeman that’s going to make good choices or bad choices?”
It’s a “tough question,” Hazzard said. “But a question that all Black children in America are struggling with.”
By Alex Gino
Year(s) on the list: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016
Why: It has been challenged, banned, restricted, relocated and hidden, most commonly for including a transgender child, challenging traditional family structures and conflicting with religious viewpoints. Other reasons cited include encouraging children to clear their browser history, describing male anatomy and mentioning “dirty magazines.” One citation says schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion.”
It was 2003 when Alex Gino decided to consider writing a middle-grade book with a transgender protagonist. Over the next decade, they drafted and revised their debut novel “George,” which they later renamed “Melissa’s Story” to avoid deadnaming its protagonist. Published by Scholastic in 2015, the novel follows fourth-grader Melissa as she navigates the world as a transgender girl. It went on to win a Lambda Literary Award and a Stonewall Award from the American Library Association.
The decision to write a trans narrative for a younger age group was intentional: At the time, Gino noticed a lack of books with queer themes for middle-grade audiences, which typically includes children between ages 8 and 12. That period, they said, is crucial because it’s when many children begin understanding themselves, including their gender identities. They wanted to write the book they needed as a transgender kid — and give other children the tools to understand them.
“Middle grade is when I started to really understand myself, make sense of things around me and have opinions about how I thought the world should be,” Gino said.
Gino became attuned to challenges of the book when it made the ALA’s list of banned books in 2016, a year after publication. Their publisher reminded Gino that the list keeps track of challenges, and many challenges fail. When the Wichita School District removed the book from its purchase of award-winning books in 2018, Gino raised money on Twitter to buy the books for the district’s 57 elementary schools. In 2019, a school board in Scappoose, Ore., demanded the book be removed from a reading list for the popular Battle of the Books contest. In the end, the school board voted not to remove it. In Lincoln Parish, La., a library removed the book from its shelves in 2020, making it available by request only. The book, along with other challenged texts, was later returned to shelves after a board vote.
“When you tell someone not to read a book, everyone suddenly wants to read the book, and yes sales do go up, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it,” Gino said. “What you’re telling me is that my existence is so scary, that you need to protect children from me. And that hurts.”
Gino connected these challenges to a broader backlash against the progression of trans rights in recent years. When trans people are more visible in culture, it leads to more backlash, they said. More than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced in state legislatures in the first half of 2021, the highest number on record, according to the Human Rights Campaign. The vast majority of that legislation was aimed at transgender youth: prohibiting them from accessing gender-affirming care, participating in sports aligned with their gender, and accessing restrooms and locker rooms aligned with their gender. Proponents of these laws argue they’re necessary to “protect” children from abuse, but legal historians and other experts say this kind of rhetoric has a long history of disguising discriminatory practices and harms transgender youth.
Ultimately, Gino said, it’s important for both trans and cisgender kids to access queer stories. The very impulse to withhold the information, they said, is an indication of how important it is.
“Are you afraid that [children] might know queer people exist?” Gino said. “Well, we do exist. It’s not fair to not give kids an awareness of who’s in the world.”