Don’t Read, Don’t Tell

Pretty Much Every Volume in Banned Books Week Has LGBTQ Content

Gay marriage has been legal in the U.S. since 2015. Most parents urge their children to “choose kind” and include others. But having kids read about gay people? That might not be okay, as this year’s crop of most-challenged books shows.

Every September as part of its Banned Books Week campaign, the American Library Association releases a list of books that have been challenged or pulled from shelves in the preceding year. It’s always illuminating.

The list that a few years ago included such modern classics as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (Occult! Satanism!) and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (Offensive language! Violence!) now focuses almost overwhelmingly on LGBTQ+ themes or references. Of the 11 books that lead the newest list, parents or administrators challenged eight for such content.

Alex Gino’s George, a middle-grade tale about a boy who has always felt like a girl inside, tops the list. When George’s school mounts a production of Charlotte’s Web, George desperately wants to play Charlotte, but the teacher won’t even allow the fourth-grader to audition. It’s a sweet and thoughtful book. Scholastic, that bastion of school book fairs, publishes George, which won awards from the American Library Association along with glowing reviews in industry journals like Kirkus Reviews and Publisher’s Weekly.

I wasn’t surprised to see George on the list. I first read it in 2016, when I wrote about a prolific children’s book author who’d presented each year at schools in suburban Austin. After he recommended George during a book talk, the district abruptly canceled his eight school visits, maintaining, ironically, that they’d decided to diversify the authors invited to present.

It’s an all-too-familiar story for fans of books like David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, (checked out of an Iowa library and then burned along with other LGBTQ+-themed books) and Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki’s Caldecott-honored graphic novel This One Summer (pulled from shelves in Minnesota and Florida over a two-page spread with a passing reference to Gaia’s Circle, a group for same-sex parents). Those books have made the list numerous times.

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo’s same-sex rabbit nuptials earned the picture book a place on this year’s list. Captain Underpants is there too. In addition to “encouraging disruptive behavior” in the entire series, the plot fast-forwards in one of the books to reveal that one of the boys marries a man.

The horrible perversion of gay marriage as depicted in Captain Underpants.

Forbidding books, of course, often makes them more enticing, as any child of the ‘70s who read Judy Blume’s Forever knows. More worrisome is the fear that’s driving these challenges. Sexualizing any and all LGBTQ+ content ascribes a sneaky, proselytizing intent. These gays are trying to convert our kids! The libraries must protect them! Let our children be children!

It’s ridiculous when any reference to a character being gay automatically makes a book “too adult” in the thinly veiled language of censorship. Do we really equate a young-adult teen romance with a picture book that depicts a child with two dads?

Removing these volumes from a classroom or library doesn’t just erase a story. It erases people. It broadcasts loud and clear that any depiction of a person attracted to the same gender is something so beyond the norms of acceptable behavior that it has to be eliminated or controlled. The message is clear: You don’t belong. You are not worthy. Your story has no place here, and you don’t count.

In the classic admonition from Rudine Sims Bishop, children deserve books that are mirrors and windows. That means LGBTQ+ representation demands inclusion not only for those students who identify with these themes, but also for those who don’t. Until there’s no longer a need for Banned Books Week, we owe it to our kids to ensure that these books remain on the shelves–now more than ever.

Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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