Banned Books Week
Banned Books Week kicks off today, and the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has lots of resources for those who are interested, including a blog and lists of the most challenged books over the past 10 years or so.
The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is a co-sponsor of Banned Books Week, has a comics-specific list on their site as well, compiled by Betsy Gomez. Click on the title of any comic and you will get more details about the book, why it was challenged, and what the outcome was. The list includes everything from J. Michael Straczynski’s The Amazing Spider-Man to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, and you could do a lot worse than to just spend the week reading those graphic novels.
The CBLDF also has a list of ComicsPRO retailers who are having special events around the country to celebrate banned comics, and offers brochures and other resources for retailers who want to have their own events.
A lot of us have been observing Banned Books Week with lists of banned and challenged graphic novels and notes about recent challenges in libraries and schools, but this video of manga creator Akira Maruyama speaks to a larger issue: When books are suppressed, they may simply disappear.
Maruyama is talking here about shoujo manga (manga written for young girls). Most histories of manga start with the Year 24 Group, a cohort of female manga creators born in or around 1949 that includes Moto Hagio (A Drunken Dream, The Heart of Thomas), Ryoko Ikeda (The Rose of Versailles) and Keiko Takemiya (To Terra). Maruyama, who edited a shoujo manga magazine in the 1950s and 1960s, says that we have lost the body of shoujo manga that was published during that time, because it was not only disparaged but actively suppressed. Parents looked down on manga, regarding it as cheap slapstick, and, Maruyama says, “Left-wing thinkers thought manga was bad for the intellectual development of children.” Children, on the other hand, preferred it to the “boring” storybooks of the day. The writers and leftists actually organized book-burnings in the summer of 1955, bringing manga its own Fredric Wertham moment. Manga was later rehabilitated, but the male critics (who didn’t read shoujo manga) and the Year 24 creators (who were busy reinventing it) simply ignored first-generation shoujo manga. Maruyama defends this early manga, which the Year 24 creators grew up reading, and calls for researchers to search for this manga, preserve it, and bring it back into the public eye, restoring a lost chapter in the history of the medium.
Trying to keep a book out of a public library seems profoundly un-American, and yet it seems to be a great American pastime; as we have seen this week, challenges to graphic novels and prose works are all too common.
Americus, by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill, looks at the human side of that equation, telling the story of two 14-year-olds who are huge fans of a fantasy series, The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde, and the chain of events that is set in motion when the mother of one boy takes away his library copy and tears it up. It’s not a challenge, per se, as the library promptly gets a replacement copy; it’s really about the futility of trying to control another person’s thought process by restricting their reading. Americus is running as a webcomic (with a very interesting side blog) right now, and it will be published next year as a graphic novel by First Second Books. I e-mailed MK Reed and Jonathan Hill to discuss their story and their feelings about challenging books.
Robot 6: What was the book that carried you away as a child, the way Apathea does for the characters in this story?
The Huffington Post has a list of the 10 most popular graphic novels that have been challenged in libraries. The list purports to be from the American Library Association, but I can’t find it on their site; I suspect they pulled the graphic novels off several lists of challenged books. Here they are:
• Absolute Sandman, by Neil Gaiman and others
• Blankets, by Craig Thompson
• Bone, by Jeff Smith
• Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
• Maus, by Art Spiegelman
• Pride of Baghdad, by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon
• Tank Girl, by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin
• The Dark Knight Strikes Again, by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
• The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill
• Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Notably absent from the list is any mention of manga, which has been challenged in several libraries recently.
This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association and a host of other organizations to bring attention to books that have been challenged or removed from libraries, schools and reading lists over the past year. You can find the full list of challenged books from 2009-2010 here, and it contains plenty of good reading, from Sherman Alexie’s Diary of a Part-Time Indian (often challenged but beloved by readers) to the anthology Paint Me Like I Am: Teen Poems. The list tilts strongly toward young-adult novels and sex manuals, but there are a surprising number of classics, including To Kill a Mockingbird (a parent objected to the word “nigger,” which seems to miss the point), Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Ernest Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (a perennial on this list) and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, which, shockingly, contains the term “oral sex” and has therefore been (no joke) removed from classrooms in the Menifee, California, Union School District and may be banned permanently there. The most often-challenged book in 2009, according to the ALA’s top ten list, is ttyl and its companion volumes ttfn, l8r, and g8r, which, as you might guess, are YA novels.
The list contains a handful of comics, as well:
I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about Banned Books Week until I read this somewhat-maddening column in The Wall Street Journal that paints the American Library Association as a well-funded, reactionary bully attempting to silence “a few unorganized, law-abiding parents.”
Yes, those awful, awful librarians!
The opinion piece, by Mitchell Muncy of the Institute for American Values, goes on to characterize citizens who challenge books as underdog patriots “petitioning the government for a redress of grievances” — granted, a poem by challenged YA author Ellen Hopkins provided the fuel — while librarians hand down “hidden verdicts” as they stigmatize any who dare oppose them (presumably while rolling, Uncle Scrooge-style, in a money-filled room).
Oh, and then there’s the whole table-turning moment, when Muncy asks who’s actually the censor: the mean librarian or the ordinary citizen. Hey, it’s to be expected. You don’t win sympathy, or rouse the faithful, by portraying yourself as Goliath (no matter what your cause is).
What really irked me, though, is this part: Without a hint of irony, Muncy tsk-tsks the ALA’s use of “loose language,” then asserts that books aren’t truly banned in this country because if you can’t find a title at the local library or bookstore, you can always track it down elsewhere: “Not even the most committed civil libertarian demands that every book be immediately available everywhere on request — though in the age of Amazon that’s nearly the case.”
If I were playing Muncy’s game, I might portray him as a big-city elitist with little appreciation for the child whose small town may not have a Borders, and whose family budget may not permit participation in “the age of Amazon.” For that kid and others, the forced removal of a book from the local library is, truly, a banning.
More outrageous still is the implication that the wishes of the complaining party take precedence — hey, let everybody else be inconvenienced — and that having a book pulled from the shelf is an acceptable alternative to monitoring what your child is reading and explaining why a title might not by appropriate for that child.
Banned Books Week continues through Saturday. Celebrate by going to your local library and checking out a title on the ALA’s frequently challenged books list. While you’re there, donate some books, and thank a librarian.