In celebration of Banned Books Week, we’re highlighting a few of our favorite books (and authors) that have been challenged in schools and libraries because of content or appropriateness.
Banned and challenged authors frequently state that the books they write are the ones their younger selves always wanted to read, but couldn’t find. Too often, people forget that while a particular book dealing with topics like diverse sexual orientations may not be right for them or their children, it is probably exactly the right book for someone else. —Maren Williams, reference librarian extraordinaire
A dear friend gently reminded me yesterday that comic books–sometimes known by their gentrified moniker “graphic novels”–are still frequently challenged in schools and libraries. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund website is an amazing respository of information on banned and challenged comics, as well as the long, twisted history of comics censorship in America, and reading it got me all fired up!
After deciding to write about a comic for Banned Books week, though, my next problem was huge: which one? There are so many, and so many of them are so good! But the more I thought about it, the more it became clear to me that there was one graphic novel in particular that deserved my shouts and love today: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
Bechdel, who made her mark on the world of comics with the hilarious-delicious series Dykes to Watch Out For, spent seven years writing and illustrating Fun Home, a graphic memoir of growing up in rural Pennyslvania. Although it was nominated for multiple awards, including three Eisners (it won “Best Reality-Based Work”), the book was challenged in Missouri for being “inappropriate” and “pornographic” (an honor it shared with Craig Thompson’s Blankets, which was challenged at the same time for the same reason.)
The heart of Fun Home lies in Bechdel’s relationship with her father. A closeted gay man, Bruce Bechdel died in an accident two weeks after his wife asked him for a divorce; this, and other subtle clues, lead Bechdel to believe her father killed himself. The narrative weaves back and forth through time as Bechdel examines both her father’s life and her own for clues, comparing and contrasting their experiences of being gay and coming out (or not). We also see many scenes of small-town family life, in which the author and her parents, drawn in gorgeous shades of blue-green-gray, bang up against each other’s secrets and difficulties.
Steeped in literary allusion–Bechdel’s father was, among other things, a passionate reader and English teacher–the story almost demands familiarity with James Joyce’s Ulysses just to keep up. It’s also a book about writing and reading as tools for self-discovery, one that exposes pages and pages of Bechdel’s own childhood journals, and shows scene after scene of the Bechdels reading, reading, reading–a poignant bibliotherapy that, ultimately, saves the author, even if it could not do the same for her father.
What’s so “inappropriate” about being gay, coping with the loss of a parent, or reading and writing yourself into adulthood? Darned if I know. Neither, I suppose, did the library board in Marshall, Missouri, which ultimately decided to keep the book in the adult section where it had originally been shelved (hurray!). I fear, however, that I simply haven’t done the book justice; you really have to experience Fun Home for yourself to see just what a powerful story it is.
with love and gratitude for everyone who ever said to her, “Read this comic book.”