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Banned Books Week: Booklist Editors Consider Challenged Books

As we near the end of Banned Books Week, our youth department took it upon themselves to discuss three of this year’s most challenged books. (For a full list of 2016’s most-challenged titles, click here.) In addition to free and open access to information, censorship occludes some great ideas—as you’ll see below.




Looking for Alaska, by John Green

Looking for Alaska, by YA superstar author (and former Booklister!) John Green, is no stranger to ALA’s list of most-challenged books. There’s swearing, smoking, and an awkward sex scene in which two teenagers give oral sex an (unsuccessful) try. Those challenging the book have said readers might be sexually influenced by the scene, but this seems unlikely, considering that the embarrassment factor is high and the titillation factor is low. (Later, the duo is more successful, but the act is noted, not described.)

Green has addressed the issue himself on several occasions and has made the important point that, just a few pages after the oral sex scene, the book’s hero, Miles, kisses his real crush, Alaska, and there is minimal touching, but real emotion. The two scenes are part of a whole, one that makes the point that mechanics aren’t a substitute for feelings. Looking for Alaska, like Judy Blume’s Forever, became a touchstone for a generation, but not because of the sex in its pages. Rather, these are books that hit teens where they live: in a world of fear and doubt, desire, and friendship. As Green once wrote in answer to readers’ questions about the book, he wanted to show how sex can be awkward and messy and human. In other words, the truth. And truth is what his readers respond to.—Ilene Cooper




 This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

I adore This One Summer for a lot of reasons (the art!!), but the overarching one is how keenly Mariko and Jillian Tamaki capture the uncomfortable steps from carefree preteen to self-conscious teenager. Rose sees all manner of adulthood around her, from her melancholy mother to the rowdy twenty-somethings in town, and her curiosity and concern—even her awkward imitation—is utterly pitch-perfect.

Adulthood is weird and messy, as any adult would likely agree, but it’s also an inevitability for young teens—like those in This One Summer—and the Tamaki’s depiction of those early, tentative steps out of childhood is perfectly resonant and evocative of that time. For 13- and 14-year-olds especially (and it bears mentioning here that the Caldecott is awarded to picture books for children “up to and including fourteen,” and This One Summer was never intended for elementary-aged readers), those early steps are pivotal, and this book captures better than most the way those years can feel. Yes, the words fuck, slut, and blow job appear in its pages, but those words are out in the world, too, and it would be disingenuous to pretend that hearing that language and trying it out wasn’t a part of growing up. Rose and Windy use those words without really knowing what they mean, and part of their story involves figuring out for themselves how to use—or not use—those words for themselves. They’re sorting out how they want to be older, and that is a quintessential experience the intended audience for this book will be no stranger to.—Sarah Hunter




Little Bill (series), by Bill Cosby, illustrated by Varnette P. Honeywood

Ostensibly, the most benign thing on this year’s list is the Little Bill series, a set of children’s books with titles like The Meanest Thing to Say, Little Bill’s Birthday Party, The Big Day at School, and The Day I Saw My Father Cry. These feature Bill, a little boy encountering the tribulations of everyday life. It’s the author, of course, who is the problem: Bill Cosby, the formerly beloved comedian whose reputation has been shot from uncountable sexual assault accusations.

Unlike most of the other books on the list, I’ll bet there aren’t groundswell defenses being mounted. I don’t have access to the Little Bill books, and from what I can tell, this is no big surprise—they look to be fairly standard, problem-based books that could be easily replaced by other materials. Still, I’m sure that, for some people, it hurts to see them go. No doubt these books offered reassurance to black children, and helped normalize black Americans for white children, similar to how TV’s The Cosby Show did for so much of the nation. Coretta Scott King called the show “the most positive portrayal of black family life that has ever been broadcast,” and that’s a big, big thing. I don’t envy the librarians and communities who have to make calls with books like these. Balancing the value of artistic creations with the negative traits of the artists behind them has always been one of the thorniest issues in art. It’s one thing you can always count on with the annual Banned Books list: Controversies like these reliably rise to the forefront, and those are often the discussions worthiest of having.—Daniel Kraus




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