April 25, 2017

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Banned Books Are Often Diverse Books. Check the Stats.

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Emily Knox

This year’s Banned Books Week theme, diverse books, has been on my mind for some time.  As Jamie LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, has noted, defining diversity is difficult.  However, the definition used by the organization We Need Diverse Books is succinct and inclusive: “We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.”

A new report from PEN America also explores book challenges and the lack of diversity in children’s literature. My own research  focuses on intellectual freedom and censorship and, as I noted in an SLJ post last September, around half of the news alerts I receive about book challenges concern titles that center on diverse characters.

The trend of targeting diverse materials has continued in 2016, with challenges to books such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower (MTV Books, 1999) and Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress (Groundwood , 2014). The high number of challenges to these books is notable because there so few diverse books published in the first place. Data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center shows  that titles by and about people of color constituted only 25 percent of the 3,400 books received by the center in 2015.

A study conducted in 2014 by Malinda Lo, an author and co-founder of Diversity in YA, showed that challengers often target diverse boWoks in public institutions. Over the past year, I began researching why these books are subjected to more challenges than non-diverse books.

One of my research questions focuses on the stated reasons for challenging diverse books and the relationship of these reasons to the diversity of the characters. I decided to start with the ALA’s annual top 10 challenged book lists from 2001–2015.  Twenty-nine diverse books appear a total of sixty-three times on these lists.

I found that many of the reasons given for the challenges centered on topics that were essential to the diverse characters in the titles.

knox_160930_webFor example, of the 63 challenges, 10 were because the title in question depicted “racism.” These included I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Bantam, 1969), Fallen Angels (Scholastic, 1983), Whale Talk (Laurel Leaf, 2001), and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown, 2007).  Twenty-five challenges targeted books for depicting “homosexuality,” including The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology (Alyson, 2000).

These  were challenged for reasons intrinsic to their subject matter.  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou’s well-known memoir, describes her childhood in the Jim Crow south.  Revolutionary Voices is a book that will, by definition, include homosexuality. This is a somewhat obvious statement, of course, but the fact that these books were challenged for being about diversity implies that these topics are inherently controversial.

I also found the three most frequently stated reasons for challenging diverse books: for containing offensive language (36 instances), being sexually explicit (35 instances), and being unsuited for age group (36 instances). As I wrote in my own book on challenges, Book Banning in 21st Century America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), these familiar reasons seem to be related to the nature of truth and realism in fiction and to what extent fiction, especially fiction for youth, should mirror the human experience. These challenges ask us to consider the place of naturalistic fiction in the juvenile and teen sections of the public library or in the school curriculum.

Diverse books, by definition, center on the experiences of people who are not dominant in society, and it is not surprising that these stories will often include experiences that may make the reader uncomfortable in some way. It makes sense that a coming-of-age novel that centers on a teenage, Native American boy, such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, will include racism, offensive language, and sex. These books speak to the human condition.

I plan to continue researching why diverse books are targeted for challenges. An upcoming book I am editing about trigger warnings will touch on this topic, as I am concerned that media about diverse characters will be disproportionately given such labels. It is often difficult for people to express how the practice of reading affects them. My hope is that this research will help us understand why challengers target certain books and enable us provide the best possible responses when this happens.


Emily Knox, an assistant professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of Book Banning in 21st Century America, was awarded the Illinois Library Association Intellectual Freedom Award and was named a WISE Instructor of the Year in 2015. She is on the board of the Freedom to Read Foundation and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

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  1. Well written, Professor Knox.

    Here is some constructive criticism.

    1) No books have been banned since 1963. So the title, “Banned Books Are Often Diverse Books,” is false right there. The issue of diversity is important. Please don’t conflate it with banned books that simply do not exist since 1963. Stick to the diversity issue and leave out the banned books marketing ploy as several librarians describe it.

    2) “We recognize all diverse experiences….” Be honest. Librarians routinely block certain diverse experiences. One such example is books by and about ex-gays. My mere mention of the issue in the context of the double standard that ALA applies has resulted in claims that I am homophobic because, I’m told, ex-gays are homophobic. Attacking the messenger, I have learned, including via a federal lawsuit to silence me, is the leading means for the Office for Intellectual Freedom to address concerns. But is doesn’t make issues go away. The issue is while ALA claims to “recognize all diverse experiences,” in reality there is a limited subset that is routinely blocked by librarians, and books about being exgay is merely one example. I implore you to look into this issue with the honesty and intellectual curiosity I know you have. I look forward to ALA finally being truly cognizant of “all diverse experiences.”

    3) “Twenty-five challenges targeted books for depicting ‘homosexuality,’ including … Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology….” My constructive criticism is this: do your own research and do not blindly believe the Office for Intellectual Freedom. The number of books challenged for LGBT content is not nearly so high as OIF reports. In 2010, OIF reported the top book on the annual list And Tango Makes Three was challenged dozens of times for LGBT content. That shocked me so I called OIF and Bryan Campbell, who said he created the list, told me the book was challenged only four times in 2010, not dozens, saying dozens was just a marketing ploy. Professor Knox, get the research that proves faking discrimination against gays only increases actual discrimination and suicides. OIF should not be faking numbers to promote itself, let alone in a manner that harms the LGBT community. OIF should publish the number of times the listed books have been challenged. Then the number one book would have been challenged only four times, not dozens of times, and that would simply be a non story.

    And you cited “Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology.” That book was only on the list because OIF bumped it up over other books challenged more often because the LGBT issue was involved and OIF wanted that LGBT issue to create that false marketing report called the annual list of challenged books. How do I know this? I attending a New Jersey Library Association meeting where the author admitted OIF did this. And I have published the recording I made of the author saying this. Yet you are still reporting it as if it were true instead of a mere marketing ploy that only harms the LGBT community. If you were not aware of this previously, you are now, and if you continue to teach this harmful lie, you are contributing to efforts to use the LGBT community to promote your own interests and those of OIF. But I know you are honest and will not go down the road of again complaining about something proven to be false. So my constructive criticism is to honestly review issues yourself and do not assume OIF is providing truthful information. “As I wrote in my own book on challenges, Book Banning in 21st Century America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)….” If your book does not acknowledge OIF faked the annual challenge book list in 2010, then it lacks truthful information. If your book repeats OIF’s fake numbers to falsely promote the LGBT issue, then it too harms the LGBT community with proven false claims of discrimination. I really have full trust that you will investigate this issue to see if what I have reported, and recorded in the case of the author/librarian who admitted OIF lied on its annual challenged book list in 2010, is accurate and that you will no longer make fake claims about LGBT discrimination that only harm the LGBT community.

    Again, well written, Professor Knox. I hope the above constructive criticism is helpful as you legitimately work to increase diversity.

  2. Thanks, Dr. Knox, for your always thoughtful work. We need more research into intellectual freedom issues, and welcome it. As for Mr. Kleinman, as always, he offers quite a combination of accusations, conflation, and misdirection. I’ll just respond to one: there are indeed books that are banned from their institutions, pulled from curricula and libraries. Roughly ten percent of the challenges that are reported to us are in fact removed from library collections. In a small town, that might mean the next available copy is 80 miles away, effectively out of reach. When Kleinman says no books have been banned, he’s just using a definition he doesn’t share (another one of his tropes) but clearly ignores the facts.

  3. Fortunately, Mr. LaRue, my “combination of accusations, conflation, and misdirection” is supported by direct evidence, including a recording I made at a NJLA conference of an author admitting your Office for Intellectual Freedom that you now head faked its annual list of “banned” books in 2010 to promote the LGBT issue, and research proves faking discrimination harms the LGBT community. So I’m reporting based on researched, provable facts, not “accusing, conflating, and misdirecting.”

    Further, librarians like ALA President aspirant JP Porcaro and others are openly talking about how they know books are no longer banned and they wish your OIF would provide truthful information, not an “impressionistic marketing tool.” Here’s how JP Porcaro put it: “as long as we are out there banging the ‘banned book!!’ drum for books that actually arent ‘banned’ and are widely available everywhere, this is what we get. We get other people bending the definition of a banned book just as we ourselves bend it.” You, Mr. LaRue, are “banging the ‘banned book!!’ drum for books that actually arent ‘banned’ and are widely available everywhere.”

    Why don’t you openly debate me instead of making hit and run posts to besmirch me? Your OIF just lost a major lawsuit in federal court to attempt to silence me where your Deputy Director used her personal email to order public librarians to destroy evidence of its “exposure” that I needed to defend against the trumped up claims your Deputy Director taught librarians to use when she trained them to file false claims of defamation since that would drain whistleblowers of up to half a million dollars. And yes, that is a researched, provable fact. Why not stop the games and simply openly debate me?

    Now, my perception of Emily Knox is that she is both intelligent and intellectually honest. My constructive criticism was basically to suggest she look at the researched, provable facts I have gathered instead of merely “banging the ‘banned book!!’ drum for books that actually arent ‘banned’ and are widely available everywhere.” Were she to open her mind and do that, she might begin to ease the concerns many librarians like JP Porcaro and Jessamyn West have with ALA’s office for “intellectual freedom” that you lead.

    Heads up, I fully expect Emily Knox will take the helm at OIF and will begin to address real issues of intellectual freedom and diversity and stop producing impressionistic marketing tools and scare tactics about all the book banning and censorship that is simply people asking legitimate questions and raising legitimate concerns.

  4. James LaRue says:

    Your comments have already hijacked the contribution of Dr. Knox, and your words now outnumber hers. Suffice it to say, weary readers, that I’ve investigated most of Kleinman’s claims. They are NOT facts, and rarely even on point. We don’t “debate” because his endless streams of accusations aren’t arguments, and spam and self-promotion waste everyone’s time. Again, I look forward to more of Dr. Knox’s research on the reasons for challenges, and comments from others.

    • Jamie LaRue attacking the messenger again. That he investigated my reports is nice but the point is someone honest like Emily Knox should, so she doesn’t also end up “banging the ‘banned book!!’ drum for books that actually arent ‘banned’ and are widely available everywhere.” Diversity is an important issue. It should not become part of the “banned books” drumbeat.

      As Jessamyn West said, “it also highlights the thing we know about Banned Books Week that we don’t talk about much. The bulk of these books are challenged by parents for being age-inappropriate for children. While I think this is still a formidable thing for librarians to deal with, it’s totally different from people trying to block a book from being sold at all.” And I’m suggesting the same applies to diversity, and Emily Knox would do well if she avoided the “banned books” drumbeat.

  5. Kristel S says:

    It would be great to see an infographic reflecting this data…perhaps we could cajole the author into making one?

  6. michael grant says:

    Thanks for the link to the Malinda Lo study. It confirms a point that has occurred to me as well:

    “Multiple factors drive the lack of diversity in the publishing
    industry. Unpaid and low-paid jobs are the most
    common points of entry into the field. Aspiring editors
    often take unpaid internships and jobs with low starting
    salaries as a way in the door. “It’s great if you’ve got a
    family that can help subsidize your early career in the
    literary arts, but if you don’t, it closes that door and makes
    that career choice sketchy,” says author Meg Medina.1″

    We are justifiably attuned to matters of race and gender, not so aware anymore of economic class. It’s interesting if you look at the data on the composition of publishing staffs what you see is actually a statistical over-representation of women, gays and, Asians, and a dramatic under-representation of African-Americans and Latinos. Look at the same data through the lens of class and you see the nexus of class and race.

    People on my side of the political spectrum (left) don’t seem inclined to talk about class much, perhaps because it smacks of communism or at least dusty old socialists. But an interesting feature of this year’s political fight is the centrality of class. Sanders ran on class. Trump is running on race, gender and class, but the strongest identifier I’ve seen for Trump voters is a largely class-based one, the famous “non-college white male.” “Non-college” is in effect a euphemism for working class.

    So, as described in the quote above, breaking into publishing means, a) a BA from Brown combined with b) a willingness to work in NYC for less than will sustain human life in NYC. The working class kid of whatever race or gender might get into one of the Seven Sisters colleges if they manage to overcome the many obstacles in their way, but they will also most likely have had to take on crushing student debt, which makes it less likely still that they can take a job working for less than will allow them to live and service that debt.

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