Tucked between the big-ticket pop culture events featuring spectacles of dragons and superheroes on the schedule of San Diego Comic-Con, a healthy number of panels are dedicated to discussion on banned books. Enough books have been removed from library shelves for it to earn attention at one of the largest pop culture conventions in the country. Why discuss banned books at Comic-Con? In Utah, and across the country, the list of the most commonly challenged and banned literature is topped by comic books, including graphic novels pulled from the shelves of Alpine School District libraries this week.
The surge in book challenges
Alpine School District decided to remove 52 books by 41 authors in response to a new state law (H.B. 374) targeting “sensitive material” that “do not have literary merit” in schools.
In response to Alpine School District’s decision, Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, says, “Sweeping removals of books are not supposed to be a routine thing in school libraries. Students have a right to learn about the variety of human experiences and perspectives that these books provide. Serious questions remain about how this decision was arrived at and whether state statutes were properly applied.”
The removal is part of a wider trend of escalating book challenges across the country. The American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 729 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2021 (compare that to just 156 challenges in 2020), resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals. It’s the highest number of attempted book bans since the ALA began tracking challenges 20 years ago.
“Book challenges aren’t new, but they can be organized so much more now with social media,” says Moni Barrette. Barrette is a librarian, president of the ALA’s Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table and one of the SDCC panelists concerned about the trend.
Such social media efforts, organized by a conservative group called Utah Parents United, pushed for banning the books in Alpine and other school districts. The group celebrated the district’s decision to remove them, calling it a “big win.” Other groups, however, see it as a blow to First Amendment rights.
“No one should get to decide what someone else reads. I don’t care if it’s children or adults. No one should get to have that power,” says librarian Jack Phoenix, author of Maximizing the Impact of Comics in Your Library: Graphic Novels, Manga, and More.
In a joint statement addressing the surge in book challenges in 2021, UEA (Utah Education Association) UELMA (Utah Educational Library Media Association), ULA (Utah Library Association) and ULMS (Utah Library Media Supervisors) shared a similar sentiment, saying, “A parent has the right to determine what is best for their child, but they do not have the right to determine what is best for any other child.” The groups reiterated their support for the First Amendment’s provision of free speech, which also includes the freedom to read and listen to other people’s perspectives, “We are committed to challenging censorship in any form as protected by these rights.”
Is this censorship?
Before H.B. 374—and similar bills in other states—passed, librarians were already curating age-appropriate material for their library’s collections (that’s part of the job), and a number of library and literary organizations had guidelines in place for how to handle challenged books. However, PEN America found that, of the bans they tracked between July 2021 and March 2022, 98% departed from best practice guidelines outlined by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the ALA. PEN America also reported that 41% of the individual bans were tied to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers to investigate or remove books in schools.
H.B. 374 instructs local education agencies (LEAs) to develop and implement policy to keep “sensitive material” that is “harmful to minors” or “pornographic or indecent” out of school libraries. This raises some key questions. When is something considered pornographic? Or harmful? Utah law defines something as pornographic when it “appeals to prurient interest in sex,” is “patently offensive in the description or depiction of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, sadomasochistic abuse, or excretion” and “taken as a whole it does not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” And it’s harmful to minors when, in addition to the above, it is “patently offensive…as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors.”
Even under the new state law, the Utah Attorney General’s Office acknowledged that First Amendment rights extend to students. In the second of two memos attempting to clarify guidance on removing books from schools under H.B. 374, the AG foresees possible conflicts with federal law and federal precedent, which could result in lawsuits. In other words, LEAs should tread carefully while removing library books if they don’t want to find themselves in court.
Ultimately, books that might meet the state’s definition of “sensitive material” also have to be deemed to be, as a whole, without any literary value to stand up to legal scrutiny. Therein, as they say, lies the rub. Who determines if something has value? There are some (including a member of the Utah State School Board) who say any depiction of nudity or sexuality is without “serious value for minors.” Groups like Utah Parents United seem to espouse this view as well, arguing that the books banned by Alpine School District and other Utah districts contain content that’s harmful for children.
Librarians and other advocates for free speech, however, say the intentions of these groups are far more insidious than protecting students.
The most banned books
The 52 books removed by Alpine School District (with an additional 32 titles pending further review) includes books that were also recently challenged or taken off library shelves in Canyons, Davis, Murray and Washington school districts. The surge in challenges appear to be targeted at a very particular subject matter.
“It’s not actually about the sexual content,” says Phoenix. “Even if the book doesn’t have any sexual content, they claim that there is so they can pick on someone who is different. They’re trying to erase people who are different from them…it’s villainous.”
PEN America reports that, of the books removed by Alpine, 21 (42%) feature LGBTQ+ characters and/or themes. Nationally, the trend is similar. According to PEN America, 33% of challenged books explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes, or have prominent characters who are LGBTQ+, 41% contain prominent characters of color and 22% directly address issues of race and racism.
This is an escalation of an already existing tactic. In November 2012, well before H.B. 374 passed, the ACLU of Utah sued the Davis School District after administrators removed In Our Mothers’ House, a children’s book about a family with same-sex parents, from an elementary school library, on the grounds that it “promoted homosexuality.” Three months later, the district settled and the book was back on shelves.
Advocates point out, there’s a history of conservative groups sexualizing any work related to queer identities, deeming it inappropriate for younger people to consume. “That’s my lived experience. It’s one of the indignities that a lot of queer people suffer,” explains Phoenix. “Everything about us gets linked to sexuality and sexualization. If kids—and not just kids, people—can understand straight love and straight couples, they can understand gay love and gay couples.”
Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir was challenged in both Alpine and Canyons districts, and in 2021, it was the most banned book in the entire country. It details the author’s journey to identify as nonbinary and asexual and learning how to navigate eir identity with family and society. While there are some who seem to believe the book is “without value,” that’s hardly the consensus. Gender Queer won critical acclaim and several literary awards.
However, according to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, comics are “uniquely vulnerable” to being challenged because a single page or panel is easily taken out of context. This could also be the case with the graphic novel This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, which has been challenged in Washington, Davis and Alpine school districts but was the 2015 Caldecott Honor Book.
“A lot of these books have received critical acclaim,” says Phoenix. “That’s why they get this negative attention…It means these [novels] have been read by a lot of people and there has been a lot of value found in them by countless people across the country.”
For librarians like Phoenix and Barrette, it’s not just about the literary value, but “Every good library should have something that offends everyone,” says Phoenix.
“The purpose of information is to make you think. So, if you take away all of the information that bothers everybody, now you don’t have to think anymore,” says Barrette. “You’re supposed to be bothered by things so it sparks a little critical thinking inside of you.”
Librarians and advocates ask everyone to keep an open mind. “A grain of sand that irritates an oyster is what causes a pearl to grow,” says Barrette. “If something nags at you, it’s probably for a reason. It’s something that you should examine and that’s exciting. That’s good for you.”
Even as more school districts work to implement policy in accordance with laws like H.B. 374 and public libraries deal with the surge in book challenges, it’s librarians who are on the frontline, defending the right to read. “It wasn’t our passion to defend books in the first place,” says Barrette. “It was more that they brought the fight to our doorstep, and we’re not going to back down. Like how doctors ‘do no harm,’ we defend the right to read. That’s just the way it is. We’re here to provide access. Period. And no one should be taking that away.”