It’s time to celebrate that most secular of holidays, Banned Books Week.
Observed annually in the final week of September by a coalition that includes the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, among other organizations, Banned Books Week celebrates every reader’s freedom to read whatever they want, without barrier or censure.
When I was a children’s librarian, I took great delight in assembling my annual display, festooning it with yellow police-line tape. Adults exclaim in disbelief to see their childhood favorites—and their children’s favorites—pilloried. The Lorax? It’s anti-logging. Where the Wild Things Are? It’s scary. The Giving Tree? It’s sexist. The conversations the display started could go deep.
As the oft-challenged author Laurie Halse Anderson has said, a challenge to a book for young people “most often comes from a place of love and concern. My first response is compassion,” she told a group of students in 2010. And compassion is indeed in order: Adults who seek to keep certain books out of the hands of children are doing it because they want to protect children from harm.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that all 11 of the ALA’s most frequently challenged books in 2018 are books for children and teenagers, and of those 11, seven are for children. Five of those were challenged due at least in part to their embrace of LGBTQ characters and themes.
There’s George, Alex Gino’s tender debut about a trans girl named Melissa who claims her true self, and Raina Telgemeier’s charming graphic novel Drama, which chronicles the misadventures of a troupe of middle school thespians, two of whom are gay. Dav Pilkey’s characteristically subversive Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot drew special ire for its depiction of a same-sex couple. In Jill Twiss and E.G. Keller’s media stunt, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, a fictional male rabbit based on Vice President Mike Pence’s real one marries another boy bunny. And Gayle Pitman and Kristyna Litten’s This Day in June distills the joy of a Pride parade for young readers.
Those who object to these books do so to protect children from content they deem harmful. I, and those who support these and other LGBTQ books, believe that they counter the harm done to LGBTQ kids by simply living in a hostile world. It’s easy for me to defend kids’ rights to read them.
My feelings when I look at Judy Schachner’s Skippyjon Jones series are not so simple. “Challenged [in 2018] for depicting stereotypes of Mexican culture,” this series debuted in 2003 to general acclaim; its eponymous first book even won the inaugural E.B. White Read Aloud Award in 2004. One reason it’s so easy for many to read aloud is its caricatured Spanish, made familiar by such mocking icons as the Frito Bandito. That’s harm of another sort. Among its many one-star reviews on Amazon is this one from a Chicana mom: “When my five-year-old daughter asked [why] Skippyjon is speaking the way he does…I had to say, ‘because they think it sounds funny when people speak Spanish.’ ”
We support the right to read Skippyjon Jones because we support the right to read George, Drama, and the others. But if I were back in my library and a parent asked me why Skippyjon Jones was in book jail for the week, I’d probably share that mom’s words. It’s these conversations that make Banned Books Week such a valuable observance: The more we talk about the books we read with our kids, the more thoughtfully we can share them.
Vicky Smith is the children’s editor.