In the spring of 2014, the Meridian School district pulled Sherman Alexie’s “Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” from the schools’ curriculum in response to complaints from parents who objected to the content of the book.
Alexie’s 2007 book tells the story of a Native American teenager, named Arnold Spirit Jr., who leaves his high school on the reservation to attend an all-white public high school in Reardan, Washington.
Parents objected to the strong language and sexuality discussed in the book. And these Idaho parents weren’t the only ones who fought the title: “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” was the most challenged or banned book in 2014 according to the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom. The book has been in the annual top 10 most challenged or banned books for five years running.
Librarians, booksellers and book lovers celebrate books such as “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” at the end of every September for the annual Banned Books Week, which exists to highlight how frequently people attempt to bar books from being read or made available in schools, classrooms and libraries.
People attempt to ban or bar books from schools or libraries for a variety of reasons, but increasingly, the most challenged books are either written by or about people of color. The top 10 most challenged books in 2014 included novels, comic books and picture books. Half of them are written by or feature prominent characters who are people of color. Others deal with same-sex parents, personal sexuality and abuse.
“There’s no question that minority authors tend to get hit more often because they are raising issues that people don’t want to deal with,” said Chris Finan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression.
Books that deal with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (lgbt) issues are also frequently challenged in schools and libraries.
Challenges today come at a time when our culture is having uncomfortable conversations about race, class and lgbt issues, said Misha Stone, a reader services librarian at the Seattle Public Library.
“Both readers and writers want to see more representation,” she said.
Banned Books Week, on the surface, may seem like a subversive celebration encouraging people to defiantly read a controversial book. But at its heart, the week holds up the stories and lives of marginalized people in literature.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the ala’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said young people in particular will benefit from reading books written by authors such as Alexie and other authors who are frequently challenged. Other books include “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison.
“You’re having your life honestly reflected in the pages of a book, seeing a person struggle with and eventually triumph over the adversities that they face,” she said.
The Seattle Public Library is celebrating the week with a series of events, including the second annual “Banned! Books in Drag” Sept. 26, in which people in drag will perform on stage pieces inspired by books that have been challenged or banned.
Banned Books Week dates back to the 1980s, though Caldwell-Stone said its origins may be apocryphal. The story is that booksellers and librarians put together a display of banned and challenged books at a meeting of the American Booksellers Association, and people became increasingly interested in discovering when people are attempting to ban books.
For about 30 years, the ALA has tracked and publicized when books are challenged or banned.
It’s not a scientific process; they rely on people contacting the ala or media reports on attempted bans.
The ALA's reporting represents “the basement,” Caldwell-Stone said. There are many more challenges and bans that go unnoticed. The Missouri School of Journalism filed public records requests to see how often books were banned in Missouri. Students found 51 challenges to books; the ala was aware of six.
“It’s mind-boggling to think that in this country where we give such lip service about free speech, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience that we’re engaging in such censorship of books,” she said.
“It speaks to the fact that individuals and organizations are not thinking through what it means to take a book off the shelf.”
Marginalized voices already struggle to find a place in the world of publishing, particularly in books for children and young adults. Bans and challenges only exacerbate a systemic problem in the world of books and publishing.
The lack of diversity in publishing was on full display in spring 2014 at the BookExpo America. Featured panelists included mostly white authors. That is, with the exception of Grumpy Cat, the grouchy-looking feline that became popular on social media.
“It was really frustrating that you could have a cat on a panel but not someone from a marginalized background,” said Dhonielle Clayton, a middle school librarian in New York and senior vice president of librarian services for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.
We Need Diverse Books grew out of the reaction and protest to that panel. People posted on social media “#weneeddiversebooks,” which started the groundswell of support to begin the nonprofit.
The lack of diversity is systemic in the book world, Clayton said, a result of who runs publishing houses, who the literary agents are, who earns M.F.A.s in literature and how the books are sold.
People of color, lgbt people and disabled people get left behind. We Need Diverse Books exists to change that at every level. This summer it provided funding to people with marginalized backgrounds to do internships at publishing houses.
Clayton is African American and grew up with a love for reading, but rarely found people who looked like her in books, unless they were about slavery.
“I never went into a wardrobe into Narnia,” she said. “I never got to go into outer space.”