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Celebrating the Freedom to Read

By Barbara A. Ward
 | Sep 03, 2018
Each year, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom maintains a list of challenged books as reported in the media and submitted by librarians and teachers across the country. Last year, the office recorded 354 challenges to library, school, and university materials.

Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read, affords the book-loving community the opportunity to reflect on the value of free and open access to information. First celebrated in 1982, this year Banned Books Week runs from September 23–29 with the theme “Banning Books Silences Stories.” Naturally, some ideas presented in books and other artistic expressions are more controversial than others, but those of us who support intellectual freedom consider Banned Books Week an important time to advocate for the free exchange of ideas and to speak out against attempts to silence voices by banning or limiting access to certain books.

Thirteen Reasons Why. Jay Asher. 2007. Razorbill/Penguin.                                                                                                                 
Thirteen Reasons WhyThrough tapes sent to some of her classmates, a troubled teen cites the reasons she no longer wants to live and makes them realize their culpability in her suicide. Several school districts challenged the book, which recently experienced a resurgence in popularity after it was adapted for a Netflix series, because it discusses suicide.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Sherman Alexie. Ill. Ellen Forney. 2007. Little, Brown.

The Absolutely True DiaryThis autobiographical story about Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation who leaves to attend an all-white farm town high school, is humorous, honest, and eye-opening. The winner of a National Book Award, this novel has been challenged by schools because of how it portrays poverty, alcoholism, and sexuality and for its use of profanity.

Drama. Raina Telgemeier. 2012. Graphix/Scholastic.

DramaThe protagonist of this middle-grade graphic novel, Callie, a member of her middle-school drama department’s stage crew, finds that there is just as much drama offstage as there is on. Recipient of a Stonewall Honor Award, Drama was challenged and banned in some school libraries because complainants were worried about its inclusion of LGBT characters and others considered it to be “confusing.”

The Kite Runner. Khaled Hosseini. 2003. Riverhead/Penguin.

Kite RunnerKabul, Afghanistan, is the setting for this story of an unlikely friendship between two boys— the son of a wealthy family and the son of his father’s servant. Mistakes are made, and the friendship is betrayed, leaving Amir haunted by his past and his failure to act at a critical moment in time. The novel was challenged and banned in some cases for the inclusion of sexual violence. Other complainants worried that reading the book would “lead to terrorism” and “promote Islam.”

George. Alex Gino. 2015. Scholastic.

GeorgeFourth grader George, who has always identified as a girl, longs to play the role of Charlotte in the school’s production of Charlotte’s Web. Her teacher and mother are less than supportive, but George finds a steadfast ally in her best friend, Kelly. A Lambda Literary Award winner, the novel was challenged and banned for including a transgender child.

Sex Is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings, and YOU. Cory Silverberg. Ill. Fiona Smyth. 2015. Triangle Square.

Sex is a Funny WordForthright and accessible, this informational book uses colorful cartoons and direct language to communicate basic information about the human body, gender, and sexuality. The book steers away from making judgments, instead offering a place for young people and adults to have important conversations about sex. Complainants were bothered simply because the book addresses the topic of sex education, leading some to be concerned that reading it would encourage students to “want to have sex or ask questions about sex.”

To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee. 1960. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.

To Kill a MockingbirdEvents in a small Southern town reveal both the goodness and the evil that are hidden there from a child’s point of view of her attorney father’s efforts to insure justice amid racism and bigotry. Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and a mainstay of many middle grade language arts classrooms, the book’s violence and use of "the N-word" were considered problematic by complainants.

The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas. 2017. Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins.

The Hate U GiveSixteen-year-old Starr Carter is galvanized into the social justice movement after her friend, Kahlil, is shot when they are on a ride in a car. A Michael L. Printz Honor Award winner, this novel for teens was challenged and banned because complainants considered it to be “pervasively vulgar” and were concerned about the inclusion of drug use, profanity, and offensive language.

And Tango Makes Three. Peter Parnell & Justin Richardson. Ill. Henry Cole. 2005. Simon & Schuster.

And Tango Makes ThreeWhen a zookeeper at the Central Park Zoo in New York City notices two male penguins, Silo and Roy, sitting on a rock in an apparent attempt to nurture an egg, he gives them a fertilized egg, which hatches, and their family expands with Tango becoming the much-longed for third member. This picture book has appeared on the Most Challenged list many times because it highlights a relationship between two males.

I Am Jazz. Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings. Ill. Shelagh McNicholas. 2014. Dial/Penguin.

I Am JazzChallenged because it addresses gender identity, this picture book describes the experiences of coauthor Jazz Jennings, who says she knew she was a girl trapped in a boy’s body since she was 2 years old. The process of her parents’ coming to terms with their daughter’s feelings and identity and how they supported her in her struggles for acceptance are covered in simple terms here.

Barbara A. Ward teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in literacy at Washington State University, Pullman. She spent 25 years teaching in the public schools of New Orleans, where she worked with students at every grade level, from kindergarten through high school as well as several ability levels. She is certified in elementary education, English education, and gifted education. She holds a bachelor's in communications, a master's in English education from the University of Tennessee, and a PhD in curriculum and instruction from the University of New Orleans.


These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) and are published weekly on Literacy Daily.

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  1. Yvette Hus | Sep 25, 2018


    Dr. Yvette Hus Ph.D. SLP

    Certified Literacy Instructor

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