November 17, 2017

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Celebrate Banned Books Week with Nonfiction

Considering what qualifies nonfiction as nonfiction, it’s no surprise how unlikely the connection between the words nonfiction and banned are in most minds, yet works of nonfiction are contested quite regularly. Four out of the 10 titles on the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom’s (OIF) 2015 list of the top 10 most challenged books were nonfiction. What happens to collections when communities routinely challenge, and in extreme cases petition to ban, works that are based in fact? Does it skew or shape how children and teens encounter history, science, and the world in general?

In keeping with Banned Books Week’s 2016 theme of diversity, here is a selection of high school nonfiction titles from the SLJ (and in two cases Library Journal) archives that have been banned or challenged at one time or another—and in most cases repeatedly.

Likely the most contested work to be featured in this list, high school curriculum mainstay Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, first published in 1969, has been widely restricted throughout the 40-plus years it has been in print. In the 2000s alone, the title makes the OIF’s challenged list four times (2001, 2002, 2004, and 2007). Below is the original 1970 review of the title from our sister publication, Library Journal.

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Photo scan of LJ‘s review of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. (LJ 3/15/70)

ANGELOU, Maya. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. 288p. Random. 1970. $6.95. LC 73-85598.

This autobiography covering the childhood and adolescence of a black girl in rural Arkansas, St. Louis, Missouri, and San Francisco has many strong points. The story of Maya and her brother Bailey is horrifying and painful to read; yet the strong and sensitive young woman who endures and overcomes is fascinating. Angelou is a skillful writer; her language ranges from beautifully lyrical prose to earthy metaphor, and her descriptions have power and sensitivity. This is one of the best autobiographies of its kind that I have read. Especially recommended for public libraries.Elizabeth M. Guiney, Department of English, North Hennepin State Junior College, Osseo, Minn.

This review was published in the Library Journal March 15, 1970 issue.

Despite its ongoing commercial and critical success, including its adaptation into a Tony Award–winning musical, Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic novel memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was number seven on the OIF’s 2015 list. While this is a work better suited for mature readers, a surprising number of college students have led challenges against it. In 2015, a group of incoming Duke University freshman publicly vocalized their objection to the work on social media, calling for Duke to remove the book from the voluntary summer reading list. Other objections from students have occurred at the University of Utah and the College of Charleston. Here is Library Journal‘s starred review of it in their Collection Development feature “Developing Definitions” by Lisa N. Johnson (LJ 3/1/14).

bechdel_fun-homeredstarBECHDEL, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Mariner. 2007. 232p. ISBN 9780618871711. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780547347004.

Bechdel, author of the award-winning comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, paints her own story in this stunning graphic memoir. Her black-and-white line drawings, brushed with a blue wash, bring to life her childhood with her distant actress mother and her mysterious father, the proprietor of a funeral home. Bechdel’s coming-out process is stifled when her father commits suicide, and she realizes that he, too, was gay. One of the best graphic memoirs to date, this book was the basis of a long-running off-Broadway play. (LJ 7/06)

This review was republished in the Library Journal March 1, 2014 issue.

Juno Dawson’s This Book Is Gay was such a source of a contention in the Wasilla (AK) Public Library in 2015 that a city council meeting was flooded with angry parents over the book’s depiction and exploration of gay sex. According to Hank Reichman’s article in the Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy‘s spring 2016 issue, the entire YA nonfiction section was moved to the adult stacks, with plans in the future to house all nonfiction in one section permanently.

DAWSON, Juno. This Book Is Gay. illus. by Spike Gerrell. 272p. glossary. websites. Sourcebooks Fire. Jun. 2015. Tr $15.99. ISBN 9781492617822; pap. $9.99. ISBN 9781492617839.

Gr 10 Up–This witty, no-holds-barred look at the LGBTQ experience provides information that parents or school friends often can’t or won’t give. The book covers dating, religious perceptions of LGBTQ people, bullying, coming out, and more. Employing occasionally snarky, informal language, Dawson provides very direct, frank guidance (among the subheadings are “Doing the Sex” and “Why Are Gay Men So Slutty?”), including sexual advice (complete with labeled anatomical cartoons). However, these are all topics about which teens are curious. Though the book has an intended audience, a variety of readers will appreciate it. VERDICT An insightful option for those with questions about what it’s like to be LGBTQ.April Sanders, Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL

This review was published in the School Library Journal June 2015 issue.

kurklin_beyondmagentaSusan Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out was the fourth most contested work of 2015, according to the OIF. Curiously, one of the many reasons the book was challenged was to “ward off complaints,” signalling that not just patrons but librarians themselves were uneasy about the presence of this lauded work. For more about this title, check out SLJ‘s interview with Kuklin from February 2014.

KUKLIN, Susan. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out. photos by Susan Kuklin. 192p. Candlewick. Feb. 2014. RTE $22.99. ISBN 9780763656119; ebk. $22.99. ISBN 9780763670351.

Gr 9 Up–Extended interviews with six very different transgender, genderqueer, and intersex young adults allow these youth to tell their stories in their own words. Author-interviewer-photographer Kuklin interjects only briefly with questions or explanations so that the voices of these youth—alternately proud and fearful, defiant and subdued, thoughtful and exuberant—shine through. While the interview subjects do occasionally ramble or become vague, the power of these 12- to 40-page interviews is that readers become immersed in these young adults’ voices and experiences. The youth interviewed here do not uniformly share “It Gets Better”–style happy endings, but their strength is nonetheless inspirational as they face ongoing challenges with families, sexual and romantic relationships, bullies, schools, transitions, mental health, and more. The level of detail about their lives, and the diversity of their identities—including gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, and geography—provide a powerful antidote to the isolation and stigma that some transgender youth experience. Photographs of four of the subjects, including some before-and-after transition pictures from childhood and adolescence, help tell their stories and bring their transitions to life. Extensive back matter includes an interview with the clinical director of a health program for LGBTQI youth, a glossary, and books, media, websites, and organizations of interest to transgender youth. While this book’s format and subject matter are probably never going to attract a broad audience, there is much here that will resonate with and hearten the kids who need it, and will foster understanding and support among those who live and work with transgender teens.Sarah Stone, San Francisco Public Library

This review was published in the School Library Journal February 2014 issue.

Mark Mathabane’s 1986 memoir Kaffir Boy was banned from a middle school in Burlingame, CA, back in 2007, as reported by the Washington Post. Another challenge came to the book in 2010, but a review committee for the San Luis Obispo High School (also in California) voted to keep the book despite the anonymous letters sent to the school board objecting to its content.

mathabaneMATHABANE, Mark. Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa. 354p. photos. index. Macmillan. Apr. 1986. ISBN 0025818007.

Gr 7 Up—Those needing graphic confirmation of the harrowing experience of growing up poor and black in apartheid South Africa will find it in Mathabane’s autobiography. His earliest memories were those of violent midnight visits from the dreaded black police, looking for those without the crucial passbook. His parents lived illegally in Alexandra; his father went to jail for a year because he had no job. Daily life was a struggle for food, shelter, and existence. The fact that he was at the top of every class, plus his newly discovered ability in tennis, gained him local recognition. American tennis star Steven Smith was instrumental in pushing for his journey to America, where he attended college and where he is now a writer on his homeland. Mathabane writes with compelling energy, and the details of his struggle will grip readers with immediate intensity. His story, while only one side, is a microcosm of the black African’s fight for independence.Diana C. Hirsch, PGCMLS, Md.

This review was published in the School Library Journal December 1986 issue.

In 2013, the Chicago Public School system ordered the district-wide classroom and curriculum removal of Satrapi’s wildly praised and beloved autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. While the book was allowed to remain on library shelves, the news still came as a shock.

SATRAPI, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. illus. by Marjane Satrapi. 153p. Pantheon. Apr. 2003. Tr $17.95. ISBN 9780375422300.satrapi

Gr 9 Up–Marji tells of her life in Iran from the age of 10, when the Islamic revolution of 1979 reintroduced a religious state, through the age of 14, when the Iran-Iraq war forced her parents to send her to Europe for safety. This story, told in graphic format with simple, but expressive black-and-white illustrations, combines the normal rebelliousness of an intelligent adolescent with the horrors of war and totalitarianism. Marji’s parents, especially her free-thinking mother, modeled a strong belief in freedom and equality, while her French education gave her a strong faith in God. Her Marxist-inclined family initially favored the overthrow of the shah, but soon realized that the new regime was more restrictive and unfair than the last. The girl’s independence, which made her parents both proud and fearful, caused them to send her to Austria. With bold lines and deceptively uncomplicated scenes, Satrapi conveys her story. From it, teens will learn much of the history of this important area and will identify with young Marji and her friends. This is a graphic novel of immense power and importance for Westerners of all ages. It will speak to the same audience as Art Spiegelman’s Maus.Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA

This review was published in the School Library Journal August 2003 issue.

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Della Farrell About Della Farrell

Della Farrell is an Assistant Editor at School Library Journal and Editor of Series Made Simple

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