Book-Banning is Still a Problem in Young-Adult Literature

Same-sex and transgender content dominate the annual ALA roundup again

Books might change you. But they don’t make you gay.

Some book-banning-minded grownups continue to struggle with this. The American Library Association released its newest list of most-challenged books for young people this week. Once again, titles with same-sex and transgender content dominate the roundup, cited in eight of the top 10 challenged books. The ALA recorded a 17 percent increase in the overall number of reported challenges.

It’s a potent reminder that we have a long way to go toward creating a culture of inclusion.

Alex Gino’s George, the Scholastic-published, award-winning middle-grade story about a transgender girl, tops the list for the second year in a row. There are other repeats, like the picture books A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo (boy bunnies marry) and And Tango Makes Three (two male penguins parent a baby girl penguin), and the perennial occult-pusher Harry Potter.

Gaining ground this year are books that chronicle same-sex relationships and gender identity from a non-fiction perspective. The second most-challenged book, Susan Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, spotlights six real teens in photos and an oral-history format. Sex is a Funny Word, a health-education comic book from educator Cory Silverberg and artist Fiona Smyth, ranked fourth.

I Am Jazz, a picture book inspired by the life of now 19-year-old transgender youth activist Jazz Jennings, returned to the list at the number-6 slot. Jessica Herthel, who co-authored the book, says that while the book has received a great deal of support since its 2012 publication, it’s also faced critics for nearly as long.

Book banning

“I was not surprised that we went back on the list,” she said in an interview with Book and Film Globe. “The most frustrating component of this is when people say that my kid isn’t old enough for this … A lot of times this was coming from people who hadn’t read the book and assumed it was about sex and not identity.”

With a rollback of Obama-administration protections for transgender students in schools, Herthel says, she’s experienced pushback from some schools and libraries, with canceled speaking engagements and readings.

“I’m not shocked that the vast majority of these (banned) books deal with gender identity,” she says. “There’s a refusal to have a conversation around this. People say, oh, this is a San Francisco issue or this is a New York issue. This is an American issue. It’s not about politics, it’s about safety…I think in a lot of cases the schools think it’s better to have one kid struggling than have 50 parents calling, and that’s just so tragic.”

Fiction books with same-sex couples also made the book-banning list, like Daniel Haack’s Prince & Knight, a rhyming picture book in which the titular men end up living happily ever after. The library director in Upshur County, Va., pulled the book from shelves after complaints from an area minister. “This book is a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children, especially boys, into the LGBTQA lifestyle,” Calvary Chapel Mountain Highlands Pastor Josh Layfield charged in a now-deleted Facebook post.

In a Facebook Live Q&A April 20 with the American Library Association, Haack said the  book banning attempts shame children who may see themselves or their families reflected in his book. “Just seeing how different people live and have different experiences or perspectives really promotes understanding and acceptance, and interest in how people are different as well as how we can celebrate our similarities. … It also helps kids examine the world around them in a really strong and positive way,” he said.

Outright book banning, restricting access to special shelves, or the “soft censorship” of cancelled school visits all stem from fear. But if books truly had the Potter-esque power to change biology, the world would look very different, as Haake pointed out last November: “If the protesters are worried that reading this book will turn someone gay, I can easily refer them to all the gay adults who grew up only reading about straight romances.”

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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