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The Most Challenged Books of 2006

Each year during its Banned Book Week celebration, the ALA releases a list of the most "challenged" books of the year.  Throughout the year, it has a very active program to collect and record these challenges, and it does an excellent job of documenting each time anyone reports that someone has requested a governmental authority--including school boards, teachers, principals, librarians, city councils, etc.--ban access to a book, restrict access to a book, require a child to have signed parental permission to look at a book, stop a book from being read to a class by a teacher, use an alternate textbook, remove a book from a required reading list, or take any similar action. 

Most challenges occur in public schools, generally either as objections to the type of material made freely available to young children in elementary schools or as attempts to have books removed from mandatory reading lists.  While clearly any prohibition by a governmental authority to keep a book out of a public setting--including a school--is censorship and is in opposition to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; however, this seldom, if ever, occurs, and the line simply isn't that clear in most situations. 

For example,
  • When funds are limited and librarians or others make decisions not to purchase a book, or to purchase one book instead of another, is that censorship?
  • When librarians or others make a decision to add or not to add a book to the library collection based on the their professional assessment of the needs or the expressed desires of their supported communities or schools, is that censorship?
  • If a teacher takes the feelings or beliefs of students into consideration when determining which books to add or not to add to a required reading list, is that censorship?
  • What if a teacher selects only books that demean a certain race or religion or promote only one particular brand of political or economic thought for assigned readings, is that censorship? 
  • What if this occurs and parents subsequently object, are they attempting to prevent a teacher from exercising "academic freedom" or First Amendment rights?  (Actually, the extablished law is fairly clear in this instance.  In the United States, school teachers have no claim to "academic freedom"--and it's related First Amendment rights--as defined by the "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure" and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court; that "academic freedom" is reserved for tenured professors at regionally accredited universities.)
Should these types of questions concern us, especially in light of the "culture war" that rages today?  I personally think so, even if I don't always agree that they are First Amendment issues.  A teacher's attempt or an instituition's attempt to mold the thoughts of students into any particular point of view rather than teaching them to critically evaluate a variety of viewpoints is a far more dangerous than a wacko parent who objects to a health text because it fails to recommend "Christian prayer" as a method of preventing stress.

So, if we should be concerned about possible challenges to First Amendment rights as they play out in public schools and libraries, how big is the actual problem?  Well, based on the records maintained by the ALA, the outright prohibition or banning of a book by any governmental authority in the United States almost never occurs, and challenges are incredibly infrequent as well.  In the eleven years between 1990 through 2000, the ALA received 6,364 reports of books being challenged.  That equates to just under 580 challenges per year. 
  • As there are approximately 14,500 public school districts in the United States, this equates to approximately 1 challenge per year for every 25 school districts.
  • As there are approximately 85,000 public schools in the United States, this equates to approximately 1 challenge per year for every 147 schools.
  • As there are approximately 45,000,000 public school students in the United States, this equates to approximately 1 challenge per year for every 77,650 students.
Clearly, in the United States, very few citizens are initiating any of the actions that result in the ALA recording a challenge, much less requesting the out right banning or prohibition of any book.  Still it's worth knowing not only what books some folks challenge, but also why they the challenge them.  The list below identfies the most frequently challenged books of 2006, and contains a link to the top 100 challenged books in the eleven years from 1990 through 2000.

The Top Ten Challenged Books of 2006


 
1. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell.  This book for pre-schoolers to third-graders was challenged for promoting homosexuality, being anti-family, and being unsuitable for its intended age group.

The book is a true, non-fictional account of a pair of gay penguins at New York's Central Park Zoo who foster an abandoned egg from another penguin couple and sucessfully raise the hatchling. 

The challenges recorded by ALA included parents at a Missouri school asking that the book be shelved in the non-fiction section of the library, parents at an Illinois school asking that the school require permission slips from parents before being allowed to check out the book, and a principal at a North Carolina school temporarily removing the book from library shelves while a comittee considered its content.


2. The Gossip Girls series by Cecily Von Ziegesar.  This series of books, aimed at middle-school and young high school girls, was challenged for promoting homosexuality, promoting teen-age sex, promoting drug use, containing offensive language, and being unsuitable for its intended age group.

Publishers Weekly has described the series as follows, "At a New York City jet-set private school populated by hard-drinking, bulimic, love-starved poor little rich kids, a clique of horrible people behave badly to one another."

Challenges have come from parents and feminist organizations who have asked that the books be removed from or restricted within school libraries.  The ALA leadership has aggessively defended making these books available for young girls because, we should be "happy to see teen girls reading."


3. The Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  This series of books, aimed at middle-school girls, was challenged for its sexual content and offensive language.

The series follows the coming of age of a middle-class girl and addresses a myriad "true-to-life" controversial subjects including masturbation, inter-racial marriage, pre-teen sex, problem mensturation, parental death, stalking, underage drinking, pre-teen suicide, gynocological exams, mean stepmothers, abusive boyfriends, casual oral sex, and many more.

Challenges have come from parents who have asked that the books be removed or restricted within school libraries.


4. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler.  This book, aimed at middle-school girls, was challenged for its sexual content, having an anti-family bias, use of offensive language, and being unsuitable for its intended age group.

The book follows the life of a privileged overweight New York City girl including her problems with self-mutilation and her difficultly in adjusting after her older brother rapes another college student. 

Challenges have come from parents who have asked that the book be removed from or restricted within school libraries.


5. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. This book was challenged for its sexual content, its offensive language, its depiction of the black community, and for being unsuitable for the age group to which it was assigned as a mandatory reading.

Morrison's first, and possibly best, novel is a complex and sophisticated examination of the tragic self-loathing that destroys a young girl growing up in a poverty-stricken, amoral African-American community during the 1940s.  It includes descriptions of incestuous pre-teen rape and depicts black males as irresponsible and violent.

Challenges have come from parents who have asked schools to remove the book from mandatory reading lists.


6. The Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz.  This series, intended for middle-school students, was challenged for referring to the occult and Satanism, containing violence, being insensitive, giving children nightmares, and being unsuitable for the intended age group.

Alvin Schwartz was a first-rate folklorist who collected and compiled America's scariest ghoststories and urban legends.  The well-researched and annotated stories are both terrific and terrifying.  The books have been expertly illustrated as well by Stephen Gammel, and I suspect that his macabre drawings have as much to do with these books being challenged as the stories themselves. 

Challenges have come primarily from parents who have asked libraries to restrict these books so that they are available only to older patrons and students.  Some challenges from religious fundamentalists have requested they be removed from libraries.


7. Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher.   This collection of short stories aimed at middle school and high school students has been challenged for being sympathetic toward homosexuality and containing offensive language.

Chris Crutcher has attempted to single-handedly destroy the myth that high school athletes are nothing more than stupid, unsensitive egotists.  His stories feature athletes confronting and coping with issues like parental abuse, racism, disabilites, poverty, and homosexuality.   One of the stories in Athletic Shorts is undoubtedly the reason for most challenges.  In it a high school runner becomes close friends with a young man dying from AIDS.

Challenges have come from parents who have requested this title be removed from libraries.


8. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.  This MTV-hyped book, aimed at high school students, was challenged for being sympathetic to homosexuality, being sexually explicit, using offensive language, discussing incestuous child abuse, and being unsuitable for its intended age group.

The book is narrated through a series of letters written by a highschool freshman that discuse child molestation, gay highschool couples, suicide, and other similar issues. 

Challenges have come from parents who have requested the title be restricted so that it is only available to older students.  Some challenges have requested that it be removed from libraries.


9. Beloved by Toni Morrison.  This book was challenged for using racially offensive language, incorporating sexual content, discussing infanticide, and and being unsuitable for the age group that was required to read it.

Tony Morrison's very complex, Pulitzer Award winning novel is loosely based on a true narrative of an escaped slave, Margaret Garner, who murdered her two young children to prevent them from the possibility of being captured and returned to slavery.  In Morrison's tale, a daughter, whom the mother murdered with a hacksaw to "save" her from a life of slavery, returns to seek revenge and dominate her mother's life.

Challenges have come primarily from parents who have requested the book be withdrawn from mandatory reading lists.


10. The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. This book was challenged for including sexual content, offensive language, and violence.

The central themes of this coming-of-age novel are that all of society is corrupt, everyone is either amoral or cowardly, and it is futile and dangerous to buck the system.  For my money, it the most depressing Young Adult novel in print today.

Challenges have come primarily from parents who have requested the book be withdrawn from mandatory reading lists.