From 2000 to 2009, nearly 5,100 challenges were reported to the Office for Intellectual Freedom concerning the content of fiction books. Before we get to the fun bit, let’s have the fascinating bit. Here’s the breakdown of themes challenged: 1,577 were challenged due to “sexually explicit” material; 1,291 for “offensive language”; 989 owing to materials deemed “unsuited to age group”; 619 for depicted “violence”; 361 because they discussed or depicted “homosexuality”; 274 for “occult” or “Satanic” themes; 291 for their “religious viewpoint” and 119 because they were “anti-family.” And here’s a list of the source of complaints: 1,639 were made in school libraries; 1,811 in classrooms; 1,217 took place in public libraries; 114 in college classes and 30 in academic libraries. The vast majority of challenges were initiated by parents (2,535), with patrons and administrators to follow (516 and 489 respectively).
Up next is a small selection of challenged books from the past couple of years:
This One Summer written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki – challenged because it includes LGBT characters, drug use and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes;
Two Boys Kissing written by David Levithan – challenged because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content which “condones public displays of affection”;
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon – offensive language, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group, and other (“profanity and atheism”);
The Holy Bible – religious viewpoint;
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie – “anti-family”, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”;
Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi – gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”;
And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell – “anti-family”, homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “promotes the homosexual agenda”.
What makes me smile when I read this stuff is that a lot of these taboo topics are exactly the kind of material I’d loved to have read as a teenager and young adult and that I thoroughly enjoy writing about now. I know my situation is not average. It never has been. It all started when I was six-years old. A friend of mine at school got her eighteen-year-old brother to rent out A Nightmare On Elm Street for us. We watched it one Saturday morning with the curtains closed while her parents were out shopping. It was wrong. It was sick. It was great. And I’m utterly convinced that tortuously terrifying mini-social experiment the three of us embarked on that day was entirely the reason I turned into a boundary-busting fiction writer.
But like I said, I had an unusual upbringing. Free to roam, free to make my own decisions and mistakes, I witnessed things most kids won’t and probably shouldn’t. It worked for me. I gained gritty, real-life experience, an acerbic sense of humour, a deeper understanding of different people – both the good, the bad and the ugly – and I learned early on about risk, reward and redemption. Most children, theoretically, could be harmed by seeing violence, swearing and sex too early. It certainly harms them if they see it in their home, never mind between the covers of a book. An average school-kid shouldn’t be subjected to viewing or reading sexually explicit, Satanic or offensive material – of course not – and I’m not arguing a parent shouldn’t report material if it’s clearly unsuitable for a young child, but we’ve got to be careful. Life is a balance between dark and light. Not every day will be rosy and filled with rainbows or straight people.
Homosexuality, one of the key reasons parents complain about books, is the most ridiculous reason. Homosexuality should be discussed or portrayed as openly and as often as heterosexuality is. Men or women kissing their partners in the street or holding hands is not a reason to ban a book. It’s also never ‘caused’ by books. What a pathetic assumption. Seeing love between gay people is a reason to feel proud that society is moving forward into a more tolerant, understanding, accepting place. I would argue that any parent who objects to a homosexual relationship in a work of fiction, but not to their child reading about a heterosexual one has deep insecurities and unacceptable prejudices that are far more likely to harm their offspring than any book.
And what’s all this about “anti-family”? Forgive me for stating the obvious, but not all families are “good”. Most child abuse happens in the home. Books about abuse or family troubles, divorce or infidelity, gambling or drugs – if handled well and from the perspective of a child – could be incredibly helpful to kids who feel lost and alone when bad things are happening at home. Yes, it’s a brave writer who tackles those subjects for kids, but ultimately one with good morals, not bad ones.
It’s great to see the Holy Bible in the list, but “religious viewpoints” can be used both ways. Most religions are desperate to indoctrinate kids to accept their viewpoint when they’re too young to understand what they’re being told. I hope when a parent complains that a book is bad because of its “religious viewpoint” their issue is with the Bible being pushed down their child’s throat, as was attempted with me at secondary school. I was wise to manipulation. I knew blind belief when I saw it. I knew to question everything I was taught as “truth”, but some children need the balanced viewpoint of modern books and the people who hand them out to provide a non-biased view on all religions and to equally promote the idea of not having a religion at all.
The bottom line is that if we prevent our children from learning about the world and everything in it under the guise of ‘protecting’ them, we run the very real risk of failing to equip them adequately for all the challenges they might face and all the rewards a varied, open-minded, tolerant life can bring. I like to think that one book might scare a child; but another might just save them.
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If you enjoyed this post, you might also like to find out why I love to be inspired by darkness, how to make the truth more energetic, scary or heartbreaking or what on earth I mean by trend bucker; tradition fucker: sex before books. You can also discover new fiction here.