Some of the darker chapters in human history were preceded by the suppression of freedom of choice, particularly the censorship, banning, or even burning of books. It is therefore a pillar of our freedom that Americans have the right to choose what or what not to read.
As a parent, of course, it is still important to fully understand what your child is reading, and if the books line up with your particular values. To that end, the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom publishes a list of "Most Frequently Challenged Books" every year, which is derived from the amount of complaints received by schools and libraries from individuals or organizations concerned with the content of the books.
Take a look at the list of the ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010 and decide for yourself. I'll also point you to some similar works that you might deem more suitable for your young readers.
Robert Cormier - The Chocolate War
First published in 1974, Cormier's masterful but dark work has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since, despite being hailed as one of the best young adult books ever. Earlier in the book's life the controversy stemmed mainly from the profane language and sexual content, but time and context have quieted that somewhat given what's available in the average PG-13 film. Now the main furor surrounding The Chocolate War
is its graphic violence and how its hero suffers for standing up to mob mentality. Does the book suppress expressions of individuality through intimidation, or does it authentically depict the ways in which people abuse power? It's a sophisticated concept that some parents may consider too mature.
Parents could generate conversation about a similar subject with the classic book The Outsiders
. The concepts of mob mentality and social outcasts are never going to be devoid of violence; the book does have several depictions of fights, though they are relatively tame by modern standards. But for young readers, the subject is expertly written in a way that young people can immediately identify with (probably because S.E. Hinton was 16-years-old when she wrote it).
Alice Walker - The Color Purple
Even though it was the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner in 1983, Alice Walker's breathtaking masterpiece chronicling the lives of black women in 1930s Georgia regularly draws fire due to some profanity and frequent occurrences of sexual explicitness. While the book's brilliance and lasting impact is in how the scenes of rape, sexual abuse, incest, and bisexuality ironically juxtapose the abusive sexism by black men toward black women against racism toward black people in general, the scenes might be too strong or graphic for younger readers.
Author Sharon G. Flake won the Coretta Scott King award for new authors for her debut novel The Skin I'm In
. The young protagonist's struggles to be secure in her identity in the face of bullying and racial taunts is a good place for young readers to begin reading African American feminist literature before they move on to The Color Purple
Carolyn Mackler - The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things
This inspiring and motivational 2004 book won the Michael L. Printz silver medal from the Young Adult Library Services Association, and has drawn praise from young women for its empowering message of self-acceptance and realistic depiction of body image issues. Yet it has also been banned from a number of public school systems, mainly as a response to how the book frankly portrays a young woman's struggle with deciding about losing her virginity and dabbling with self-mutilation. It also contains some strong language and tackles the subject of date rape.
Scott Westerfield masterfully imagines a dystopian future in Uglies
, where people are "Uglies" until their 16th birthday, at which point a mandatory operation makes them into the "New Pretties." While heroine Tally looks forward to the supposedly blessed event, she is forced to pursue and spy on her friend who flees to a camp of rebels. It's body image issues taken to their harrowing--but age-appropriate--extreme.
Jodi Picoult - My Sister's Keeper
Jodi Picoult regularly dominates the bestseller list with her compelling and thought-provoking novels that frequently touch upon medical or mental health issues of young people. This beautiful but heartbreaking novel presents a prescient ethical dilemma in the story of a young girl whose life is constantly disrupted when her loving but overbearing parents compel her to donate genetic material to her leukemia-stricken older sister. The controversy stems not from the decision of the girl to sue her parents for emancipation, but from some profanity, sexuality, and the homosexuality of a character.
Lurlene McDaniel focuses most of her dozens of YA novels on mortality and sickness, and touches on very similar territory in I Want to Live
, using kid-friendly content. 14-year-old Dawn Rochelle is crushed by news that her leukemia has come out of remission. She must decide whether or not to undergo the rigorous and agonizing treatment again.
J.D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye
Few books have been more controversial than this all-time classic. It has been challenged almost continually since 1951, re-appearing among the top ten this year after a brief absence. Despite the fact that it is widely regarded as one of the greatest American novels of all time, it draws outrage from some based on its frequent use of profanity and depictions of teenage sexuality and mischief. It was never intended as a young adult novel, but since its protagonist is a rebellious teen, it has risen to iconic status among teens seeking identity and independence.
You have to give teenagers--especially boys--something to do, or they will explode. That energy can be diverted away from flat-out mischief or laconic sullenness into the rather innocuous (albeit pre-political correctness) activities taken from The Dangerous Book for Boys
by Conn and Hal Iggulden. Strong fatherly involvement is the theme here, as nostalgia for the days of treehouses, model airplanes, and hunting for small game should get big boys out to play, too.
Stephanie Meyer - Twilight (Series)
Great popularity inevitably draws great scrutiny and criticism, so it's a little surprising that the massive Twilight
phenomenon isn't at the top of the list in its first ever appearance. The Harry Potter
series was similarly challenged, only dropping off the top ten list this year. While both series draw the ire of religious organizations for glorifying the occult or supernatural (with nary a mention of religion to be found), Twilight
apparently also gets black marks for explicit depictions of teenage sexuality (which seems ironic, considering the main couple's inherent need for chastity). Somehow I don't think the challenge will be successful.
Christian families seeking an alternative to the vampire world might enjoy Lisa Grace's Angel in the Shadows
series, which follows a young human high school girl gifted with the ability to see angels and demons.
Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird
Published in 1960, it won the Pulitzer Prize, brought instant celebrity to Harper Lee, became an Oscar-winning film, and has stood the test of time as one of the most beloved books in American history. So what could possibly be the problem? Well, since it emerges from early racially-divided
America, it scratches the old wounds of modern racially-sensitive
America. For example, while it once drew racist challenges because it depicted a white woman coming on to a black man, now it is challenged for not punishing racism enough and for frequent use of racial epithets. Times have changed, but indignant divisions remain sore spots--which I believe attests to the novel's enduring power to heal.
Mildred D. Taylor won a Newbery Medal in 1977 for her poignant and gripping book Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
. It depicts racism and bigotry in 1930s Mississippi from the point of view of a young African American girl. While I am loathe to endorse the exclusion of a masterpiece like To Kill a Mockingbird
, this book is a worthy companion piece.
Stephen Chbosky - The Perks of Being a Wallflower
It should come as no surprise that a novel inspired by The Catcher in the Rye
would be on this list. Its protagonist is a socially awkward but as equally alert an observer of sentimentality as Holden Caulfield, though his meanderings into burgeoning sexuality, drug use, and other adolescent eye-openers are considerably less willfully rebellious. Still, it has been steadily challenged since its publishing in 1999 for its liberal use of teenage sexuality, drug use, homosexuality, and profanity. Adolescent awakenings are always sensitive territories for literature to trod.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
by Jeff Kinney not only accurately and hilariously presents the tribulations of hapless middle schooler Greg Heffley, it does it without any questionable material and with hysterical comic-style illustrations that kids will eat up. Your young nerd will thank you.
Peter Parnell Justin Richardson - And Tango Makes Three
This children's picture book that relates the true story of two male penguins named Roy and Silo raising a chick named Tango together at the Central Park Zoo in New York has touched off a firestorm of criticism from busybody conservative groups who were alarmed that it promotes same-sex relationships and homosexuality in humans. It has been the most frequently challenged book the last three years, though efforts to ban it have been largely unsuccessful. The authors insist that they had no agenda for guiding behavior in human beings, but were providing parents a tool to teach children about same-sex families in nature.
Multiple Caldecott Medal winner Leo Lionni tells a charming and heartfelt story about a young chameleon who despairs at not having A Color of His Own
like all other animals. It is only through the gentle guidance and companionship of an older chameleon that he grows to accept his uniquely colorful identity.
Lauren Myracle - ttyl (Series)
While yours truly cringes at the prospect of entire novels written in the shorthand gibberish favored by teenage text-aholics (e.g. ttyl, lol, how r u, gr8, etc.), Lauren Myracle manages to do the impossible and make the series both compelling and relevant to its intended audience. However, as I mentioned before, depicting the experiences of teenagers always walks a perilous ground between wanting to be authentic and wanting to draw the ire of people who apparently have never met a typical teenager. Graphic discussions of sexuality, drug use and profanity make this series the current public enemy #1 to book challengers.
Denise Vega successfully mixes PG teenage angst with tech advances in her YA book Click Here: To Find Out How I Survived Seventh Grade
. The book's main character navigates through middle school crushes, classes, and changing friendships by posting her thoughts on a blog. But when the blog inadvertently goes public, she's got some messes to clean up.
What's your take on these controversial books?
Do you have any suggestions of more appropriate alternatives? How do you think schools should react? Should they pull these books from the shelves? Book banning and protests have been going on for hundreds of years! What's your opinion on the matter? Tell us in the comments section, below!