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Celebrating the Freedom to Read

By Barbara A. Ward
 | Sep 18, 2017

For more than 30 years, book lovers, librarians, teachers, publishers, book lovers, and supporters of intellectual freedom have celebrated the freedom to read through Banned Books Week. Librarians and teachers are all too aware of the threats to a free exchange of ideas that arise when a member of the community demands that a book be removed from the shelves.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (ALA OIF) maintains records of books that have been challenged, restricted, removed, or banned during the year. Typically, challenges are filed because someone considers the book or material to be "sexually explicit," to contain "offensive language," or to be "unsuited to any age group." The ALA OIF reported 323 challenges in 2016.

This year, Banned Book Week is celebrated from September 2430. The reviews in this week’s column take a look at the eight children’s and young adult books that appear on the ALA's Top Ten Most Challenged Books list for 2016. In support of intellectual freedom, consider reading all of these books and discussing them with friends and colleagues.

Ages 4–8

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

I Am JazzEven at age two, Jazz Jennings knew that she had the brain of a girl but the body of a boy. This picture book provides insight into her feelings and the journey she and her parents took toward acceptance, understanding, and advocacy for those who experience gender dysphoria. Issues such as Jazz’s struggles for acceptance on sports teams and in school bathrooms are highlighted here. The simple text, complemented with cheerful watercolor illustrations, offers reassurance and hope and a place to begin conversations about gender roles and identity. The picture book memoir has been challenged because it portrays a transgender child and because of “language, sex education, and offensive viewpoints.”

Little Bill Series. Bill Cosby. Various years since 1997. Cartwheel/Scholastic.

Little BillIntended for young readers, each of the thirteen titles in this series explores an emotion and traces the protagonist’s development. As Little Bill faces changes and choices related to loss, death, wealth, bullying, and honesty, readers have the chance to explore the same issues in their own lives. The series was challenged because of sexual assault allegations surrounding Bill Cosby, the author.

Ages 9–11

George. Alex Gino. 2015. Scholastic.

GeorgeFourth grader George has felt that something wasn’t quite
right for a long time. As she grows up, she becomes convinced that she’s a girl born into a boy’s body. When she auditions for the role of Charlotte in the class’s production of Charlotte’s Web, her teacher reacts negatively. But with the help of her best friend, Kelly, who understands George’s feelings, George ends up right where she wanted to be. Readers gain insight into the struggles faced by George when even her mother and teacher fail to understand or to act as her allies. Eventually, George’s mother realizes her mistakes, and George finds support in a surprising form—the school principal. This book was deemed inappropriate for young readers because it features a transgender child and sexuality “not appropriate at elementary levels.”

Ages 12–14

Drama. Raina Telgemeier. 2012. Graphix/Scholastic.

DramaSeventh grader Callie is a theater geek with no musical talent. Instead, she channels her passion into set design for the drama department. Not only must she contend with an almost nonexistent budget, but there is as much drama off the stage as there is on it. As Callie gains confidence in her abilities to create a great set, she also deals with an unrequited crush on a classmate’s older sibling and another crush on one of the actors. Although she doesn’t find love, she does develop confidence and a sense of accomplishment. This graphic novel was challenged because it “includes LGBT characters, was deemed sexually explicit, and was considered to have an offensive political viewpoint.”

This One Summer.  Mariko Tamaki. Ill. Jillian Tamaki. 2014. First Second/Roaring Brook.

The One SummerRose and her family always look forward to spending their summers at Awago Beach. Rose loves to hang out with Windy, a younger friend who is there as well. But this particular summer seems different from previous ones. Rose’s parents are constantly at each other’s throats, and her mother seems mired in some unnamed depression. With too much free time on her hands, Rose spends much of it watching horror films while Windy consumes unhealthy foods. On the cusp of her own physical maturity, Rose is fascinated by the relationship dramas unfolding among the local teens. This graphic novel was challenged because it “includes LGBT characters, drug use and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes.”

Ages 15+

Eleanor & Park. Rainbow Rowell. 2013. St. Martin.

Eleanor and ParkAt first glance, Eleanor and Park couldn’t have less in common, but as they get to know each other, it is clear that they are both misfits, just in different ways. Eleanor tries to stay beneath the radar because her size and fashion choices make her the object of ridicule, while Park rebels through his choices of music and the makeup he wears. The story is set in 1986 in Nebraska and contains just enough cultural references to make its setting believable. When the two teens happen to sit together on the school bus, they find commonalities while Park shares his music and comic books with Eleanor. This unlikely friendship blossoms into an even more unlikely love with little chance of lasting. Since the story is told from the dual perspectives of Eleanor and Park, readers gain insight into the thoughts and feelings of both characters, which only adds to the book’s heart-wrenching impact. The book was challenged for “offensive language.”

Looking for Alaska. John Green. 2005. Dutton/Penguin.

Looking for AlaskaLooking for something beyond the safe and predictable life he has been living, Miles (Pudge) Halter heads to Culver Creek Boarding School, where he meets classmates and makes friends who share a very different perspective on life than his own. If risk-taking is what Miles is looking for, he certainly finds it in his new surroundings while romancing one girl and falling in love with another one. Not only does Chip, Miles’ roommate, help him spread his wings, but Alaska, the mysterious girl who is clearly haunted by the past, awakens him to life’s possibilities while also crushing his spirit. Life can never be the same after meeting Alaska. This book was challenged for a “sexually explicit scene.”

Two Boys Kissing. David Levithan. 2013. Alfred A. Knopf/Random House.

Two Boys KissingSeventeen-year-old Harry and Craig are out to set a world record for kissing, but while they’re locked in an embrace, the former couple must sort out their feelings for one another as their parents and the world look on. As the competition continues, it garners media attention, and the boys become exhausted, thirsty, hungry, yet determined to press on. The fact that one teen’s family already knows about his sexual identity while the other boy’s does not adds to the drama, as does the use of commentary of individuals from an older generation in which many died of AIDS. This book was challenged for its cover featuring two boys kissing and for “ sexually explicit LGBT content.”

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.

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