As we noted in last week’s post
, the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association releases a yearly list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books. While the titles vary slightly from year to year, the reasons for censoring material are consistent, and generally boil down to some combination of the following five, listed here in order of frequency:
In pretty much any form, sex between young adults — or the admission of sexual thoughts by a young adult — is a red flag for concerned parents, school administrators, and library patrons who worry that reading about sex will encourage children to think about, express interest in, or have sex. This extends to books like The Kite Runner
, which depicts a rape, It’s Perfectly Normal
, which is a sex education guide for children and teens, My Mom’s Having a Baby!
, and Drama
, for including LGBTIA characters.
UNSUITABILITY TO AGE GROUP.
This is a vague, catch-all label, which explains why it’s so popular. There’s probably a legitimate argument to be made that Fifty Shades of Grey
is unsuitable for some age groups. But the Captain Underpants
series, which has made the Top Ten list five times since 2002 and features characters like talking toilets and wicked wedgie women, is definitely suited to an elementary school audience. (Not that we don’t find talking toilets funny. But they’re even funnier when you’re six.) The real difficulty with labeling a book “unsuited to age group” is that children mature at different rates and bring different life experiences to their reading. Maybe your six-year-old is terrified of toilets and potty training was a nightmare. Or you think fart jokes are gross. That’s okay! But there are a lot of grade schoolers out there whose lifelong bond to reading began with: “Meet George Beard and Harold Hutchins.” At least one of them
works at Powell’s. Plus, as is the case with all five top reasons books are banned, “unsuited to age group” is an easy way to censor books about minorities (Nasreen’s Secret School
, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
, etc.) without stating that as one’s goal.
PROFANITY AND OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE.
This category covers everything from expletives to racist terms, sexual dialogue or vocabulary, and language that references drug use, LGBTQIA issues, and any cultural claims or depictions that strike the challenger as offensive. Recent books challenged under this label include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
, The Hate U Give
, To Kill a Mockingbird
, and Eleanor and Park
. It’s worth pointing out that language is reliant on context: To Kill a Mockingbird
is arguably an antiracist work that uses racist terms to communicate historical realities. Eleanor and Park
uses vulgar language to show how difficult the main characters’ home and school environments are. Another point, well made by Angie Thomas, who had to defend the use of the f-word in The Hate U Give
, is that focusing on profanity allows people to ignore the larger, real-life issues at play in these works. As she noted, “There are 89 f-words in The Hate U Give
; I know because I counted them…. And last year, more than 900 people were killed by police. People should care more about that number than the number of f-words.”
Books by, about, and which reference the existence of people who identify within the LGBTQIA spectrum are often challenged, usually via charges of sexual content, offensiveness, and unsuitability to age group. A casual survey of the last 18 years of lists and statistics gathered by the OIF shows this to be one of the fastest growing challenge categories since 2000.
DRUG AND ALCOHOL USE.
Last but not least, books that depict teen drug and alcohol use are frequently challenged, generally because people fear children will be inspired to experiment with illegal substances.