The Colors of Challenge

Last week author Malinda Lo published a blog post that raised some disturbing questions:

If a book like Beloved by Toni Morrison is challenged because it is “sexually explicit” and has a “religious viewpoint” and contains “violence” (these are the stated reasons for its challenges in 2012), is it simply accidental that Beloved is also a novel about an African American woman, written by an African American woman?

I wondered if there was a correlation between books with diverse content — that is, books by and about people of color, LGBT people, and/or disabled people — and book challenges, so I decided to take a look at the data available from the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and see what emerged.

After looking at a variety of data points (including several lists from the American Library Association‘s Office for Intellectual Freedom) and creating a number of revealing pie charts, Lo came to the following conclusion:

It’s clear to me that books that fall outside the white, straight, abled mainstream are challenged more often than books that do not destabilize the status quo. This isn’t surprising, but the extent to which diverse books are represented on these lists — as a majority — is quite disheartening. Diversity is slim throughout all genres of books and across all age groups — except when it comes to book challenges.

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association.

Artwork courtesy of the American Library Association.


I strongly urge you to read Lo’s entire analysis (you really need to see those pie charts) and examine her data-crunching, which she has made publicly available here and here. Once you’re done with that, I invite you to celebrate Banned Books Week this year by checking out any of the titles Lo analyzed, or the following suggestions, which are taken from the ALA’s list of Most Frequently Challenged Books Written by Authors of Color, 1990-1999:

Kaffir Boy, Mark Mathabane. Protests. Boycotts. Fear. Hunger. A true tale of life under apartheid in South Africa, told by a man who suffered through it first-hand, eventually escaping to became a well-known tennis player. Most often challenged for homosexuality and explicit sexuality in general.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor. Taylor’s Newbery medal-winning novel tells the story of Cassie Logan and her family, who are struggling to hold on to the land they own in Mississippi, despite the challenges of the Great Depression. Most often challenged for offensive language. Also available in OverDrive.

The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende. Meet the Trueba family, three proud, passionate generations of them. The Truebas are known for two things: the psychic giftedness that seems to run in their bloodline, and their political involvement, which frequently puts them at odds with fellow family members. A long, sweeping saga that is most often challenged for being sexually explicit, and containing offensive language.

Always Running, Luis Rodriguez. By the time he was twelve, Rodriguez was already a battle-scarred veteran of L.A.’s gang wars. The power of words led him to complete his education, become a poet, and leave his former life behind him…at least, that is, until his own son joins a gang. A New York Times notable book, and winner of the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, Always Running  is most often challenged for being sexually explicit and containing offensive language.

If you’d prefer to keep to this year’s theme, banned and challenged comics, you can explore diverse works like Alison Bechdel’s  Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, or Kim Dong Hwa’s The Color of Earth. But what I’d really like you to do is go back and read (or re-read) Malinda Lo’s essay, and then tell two friends, who will hopefully tell two friends, and so on, and so on. It’s a whole new (albeit appalling) way of thinking about book bans and challenges, and it will be interesting to see if there is an even stronger correlation over time (though we librarians will do our best to ensure that doesn’t happen).

Keep your reading diverse and colorful!

Leigh Anne


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2 responses to “The Colors of Challenge

  1. That’s really sad! I’ve always thought that one of the most incredible things about books is that they bring you closer to people who are different from you and increase our understanding of each other. What’s the point, if you’re avoiding the stories that aren’t about people who are just like you?

    • I hear you. At the very least, you have to make sure those stories get heard. The last linked essay in my piece talks about books as windows, mirrors, and sliding doors, and every good library should make sure all of their patrons have plenty of all those options…

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Leigh Anne

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