Why Are There So Many Stories About Girls and People of Color on Banned Books Lists?

3 years ago

It’s Banned Books Week, which hits especially hard for creators and fans of diverse literature. I learned last year that one of my favorite summer reads, the Young Adult novel Eleanor & Park, had been called “dangerously obscene” by the Parents Action Council in Minneapolis. The author, Rainbow Rowell, had been scheduled to speak at schools in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, as well as public libraries in the area, but those plans were cancelled.

L- Yacqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass book cover, Candlewick Press; R- Eleanor & Park book cover, St. Martin's Press

Rowell wasn’t the only author whose speaking engagement was cancelled. Last fall, author Meg Medina was scheduled to appear at a bullying awareness event at Cumberland Middle School in Virginia, but the principal refused to allow her to mention her book Yacqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Besides being popular Young Adult novels, both Eleanor & Park and Yacqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass are also tales of minority youth who experience bullying.

In 2012, The Mary Sue noted that the most of the books on the 2011 list of most frequently banned books were written by women.

”Is there something about the subjects that women and people of color feel are important to talk about (like sex, race, poverty, biology, and their actual effects on adolescent life), and the way that they talk about them, that makes America in general nervous? The evidence is before us. Also, and I’m actually kind of proud of this, but this is the first time I can remember seeing a graphic novel of any kind on the list. I just might have to read The Color of Earth now, and fortunately for me, my library hasn’t removed it from the shelves.”

Other titles frequently on the banned books lists include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and Beloved by Toni Morrison.

The reasons for banning these books include offensive language, sexually explicitness, religious viewpoint, racism, and unsuitableness for the age group. However, Eleanor & Park was also criticized for offensive language and sexuality. The exact words were “dangerously obscene” and “too hot for teens and taxpayer money”, which sounds like a tagline for a summer blockbuster.

But in Rowell’s novel, the profanity occurs mainly in the form bullying, most commonly threatening notes left to Eleanor, and the sex consists mostly of lustful thoughts that would shock no high schooler and one brief, tender scene involving some sexual activity that stops short of going all the way.

Why is this important to note when books featuring characters of color are being kept off of public library shelves? At a time when the nation is becoming increasingly diverse, children’s books are staying just as white as they were eighteen years ago. And recommended reading lists for Young Adult literature tend to feature mostly white characters, as well.

It’s no wonder that readers love three-dimensional minority characters, such as the mixed-race Korean Park, and non-conventional white characters, like the poor and overweight Eleanor. Kit Steinkellner from Bookriot explains:

“You just don’t see the big girl and the Korean dude get to star as romantic leads in ‘classic’ love stories and you certainly don’t get to see them star together.”

And what if the experiences of the mixed-race, the extremely low income, and the otherwise outcast include being taunted or beat up… and occasionally even finding a glimmer of hope in a loving relationship? There’s a difference between gratuitous profanity and adult sexuality that I wouldn't want my teen reading (think: Fifty Shades of Grey, also on the list of most banned books of 2012) and that which helps readers understand and emphasize the experiences of others -- and perhaps realize something about their own humanity in the process.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

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