It’s Banned Books Week, which always makes me think of S. R. Ranganathan’s Five laws of library science.
Books are for use – Every reader his/her book – Every book its reader – Save the time of the reader – The library is a growing organism.
The first three laws deal with censorship directly; books should be for use, not hidden away; librarians do not judge what people choose to read; and items will be collected no matter how small a group may elect to read them.
These first three laws can often become unbalanced because items are misshelved (in the youth collection when they should be in the adult collection, for instance) or because libraries allow patrons to check out any materials, unrestricted by age. I discovered V.C. Andrews when I was in the sixth grade because she was in the paperback shelving area by the cozy, cat-centered mystery paperbacks I enjoyed reading. If my mom knew how young I was when I started hiding V. C. Andrews books between my mattress and box spring I’m sure she would have disapproved of my choices, not the library’s choice to collect the books themselves. Many times, challenged and banned book issues can be resolved with a little common sense and reflection on what the freedom to read really means.
In browsing the top banned and challenged graphic novels, I found three main themes for why they are challenged.
Mis-Leveled / Notion all comics are for kids
Librarians do not have time to read every item they add to a collection before deciding where it goes (contrary to many librarian stereotypes). They rely on reviews, recommendations from the publisher, and other librarians to determine where to shelve a book. However, IF A COMIC IS CALLED BIG, HARD, SEX CRIMINALS, DO YOU REALLY THINK IT’S APPROPRIATE FOR KIDS? The cover has a naked lady with a whip and a gun on the cover. Maybe flipping through the pages you notice naked men and women engaging in adult situations and realize that not all comics are for kids. In this situation, I am all for judging a book by its cover. As a reader of Sex Criminals from the very beginning, this books deals with relationships, adulthood, and self discovery in a unique way, conveying deep commentary in a bizarre premise.
Sometimes, certain authors who write novels and comics, and for adult and youth, can be extremely difficult to level. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series is often shelved in youth graphic novels even though it was published by Vertigo, DC Comics’ mature imprint, and has many adult themes. The association of Gaiman and comics implies a youthful tone. With a little research, librarians can empower themselves to make thoughtful choices based on information about publishers and authors.
Books about people….who are considered different/deviant by some
Unfortunately, some people believe that if a viewpoint which is not their own or contradicts what they view as morally right and good, is expressed, no one should have access to that information. Graphic novels such as Persepolis, This One Summer, and Fun Home are challenged and banned because people do not like or agree with the characters portrayed solely for being who they are. They believe the books inappropriately promote Islam, portray LGBTQA+ characters, yes simply having an LGBTQA+ character is enough to warrant a challenge in many cases. While it is ok to self regulate your reading habits or those of your children, it is not ok to limit access to the items which another person can see themselves reflected in the page. It is the goals of libraries to make all types of information available to the public and leave it up to them to decide what they like to read, what they don’t, discover the truth, or consider something new.
Mis-appropriation of historical context
Comics have been around for a very long time in many countries and have promoted terrible stereotypes. It is something that has been acknowledged and studied in popular culture studies for decades. Tintin in America was recently challenged due to the portrayal of Native American and similarly, Tintin in the Congo uses horrific stereotypical depictions of Africans. Herge was writing Tintin in the 1930 and a lot has changed in society which makes images like these difficult to address. Many people will liken it to the contemporary debates of the use of stereotypes, like the Redskins and the Braves, as sports team logos; however, this debate runs deeper than multi-million dollar sports teams trying to stick with tradition. Comics like Tintin are a time capsule of popular culture and a powerful tool to start a discussion about racism, stereotypes, and colonialism. What is most important with books like Tintin is the context in which they are presented. This is an old book with old views and must be read as such, what was believed and felt then is not what is believed and felt now. Should it be shelved in the adult collection, allowing adult to decide when to share the book with their children? Does shelving things in the adult collection really prevent fans from seeking out all the books by an author. These are all question which must be addressed while balancing the need for a censorship free library experience.
Dealing with a request to ban or challenge a book is always difficult to handle, but there are many great resources available to librarians. Check ’em out!
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund http://cbldf.org/
ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom http://www.ala.org/aboutala/offices/oif
ALA Banned Books Week http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks