Read with caution: in September, a number of libraries will invite patrons to read comics and graphic novels that have been challenged or banned in schools and public libraries in recent years. Banned Books Week takes place September 21–27, and this year’s theme is comics and graphic novels. The annual week of programming was launched in 1982 by the American Library Association to recognize the freedom to read.
While Banned Books Week has always encompassed a variety of books and genres, this year, in response to several controversies in 2013, the ALA focused on comics and graphic novels.
With 307 incidents reported to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, Jeff Smith’s graphic novel series Bone was the 10th most challenged book in schools and libraries, over concerns with its political viewpoints and depictions of smoking. Chicago Public Schools, targeting grades 7–10, restricted access to Marjane Satrapi’s memoir Persepolis because of its depictions of body parts and torture in post-revolutionary Iran. And in South Carolina lawmakers voted to cut funding to the College of Charleston’s freshman reading program because it adopted Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which deals with gay and lesbian themes. Those events, coupled with comics’ long history of censorship in the 20th century, inspired ALA, as well as a number of librarians whose specialty is graphic novels. “We want to convey the idea that comics, graphic novels, and manga are legitimate library content,” says Barbara Jones, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at ALA.
“This is an international problem,” Jones adds. “I was in Japan last summer, and Barefoot Gen, a comic book on Hiroshima, was pulled out of libraries. A lot of older people reacted strongly about it being censored because they wanted their kids to understand what happened.”
Librarian Eva Volin, children’s collection supervisor at the Alameda Free Library, in Alameda, Calif., is one of the librarians leading efforts to publicize this year’s Banned Books Week; her collection has children, teen, and adult graphic novel sections. She also contributed to two handbooks released this summer by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a New York–based nonprofit organization, The CBLDF Banned Books Week Handbook and Working with Libraries! A Handbook for Comics Creators. Both are free to download at CBLDF’s website and were widely distributed at Comic-Con International: San Diego.
Volin and other librarians suggest events to raise awareness, including banned books debates, comic workshops, and creator visits. “It’s easier to do Banned Books Week with one single collection than it is with the entire library,” Volin says, speaking of graphic novels. “It’s much easier to focus attention. When you’re looking at all banned books, [the scale is] too big. ”
Besides organizing some public readings and performances for Banned Books Week, Volin plans to put yellow “caution” tape around the children’s section of graphic novels, “so they can see what it's like when somebody says, ‘No, you can't read what you want.’ ”
Public libraries like Volin’s have an easier time than some school libraries planning Banned Books Week events. With regard to the ALA’s reported incidents, Jones says parents and school boards have more influence over content and curriculum in libraries at middle and high schools. For Jessica Lee, a librarian at Willard Middle School, in Berkeley, Calif., it’s a matter of drawing a line between censorship and a collection development policy. Lee was another contributor to CBLDF’s guides, and she hosts a lunchtime graphic novel book club at Willard. Something like Gene Luen Yang’s YA graphic novel American Born Chinese is appropriate for her school; Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s oft-challenged series Watchmen, complete with sex, violence, and the deaths of superheroes, is not.
“Most school librarians I know, at least in middle and high school, celebrate Banned Books Week,” she says. “They make a display, often with bars or chains or police tape, with oft-challenged books behind it. They do book talks about the titles and why they were challenged. Then they encourage the students to check them out. But I dread the moment when a student asks, ‘Well, why don’t you have Fifty Shades of Grey if you support the freedom to read?’ And, until I have an answer for the students, one that doesn’t shame them for being interested in something society deems too mature, I am not willing to celebrate this event.”
Near Willard Middle School is the Berkeley Public Library system, where Lee’s colleague, teen-services librarian Jack Baur, is thinking of the best way to explain Banned Books Week to young patrons: “In years past, the two most common responses are, ‘Why are you trying to ban books?’ and ‘If that book was banned, isn’t that a good thing?’ I think we, as a profession, don’t do the best job of talking about how Banned Books Week ties in to our larger mission of intellectual freedom and the freedom to read.”
This September, Baur, another contributor to the CBLDF’s handbooks, is planning lectures and events on the history of comics censorship in America, including the rise of the Comics Code, a voluntary organization that censored comics, which started in the 1950s and lasted until it was almost forgotten in the 1990s.“I think there is a really powerful story to be told about the direct effects of censorship,” Baur says. “Comics in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s were directly shaped by the largest act of censorship in American history.”
Meanwhile, in New York, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund is preparing another printing of its handbooks and encouraging libraries, bookstores, and community spaces to send event details to email@example.com as it compiles a calendar of Banned Books Week events.
“The real strength of Banned Books Week is that it really is a democratic and ad-hoc celebration,” says Charles Brownstein, executive director of CBLDF. “It’s designed for local communities, whether that’s comic book stores or libraries or independent bookstores... they kind of spark the fire for others to take and carry.”