Tag Archives: censorship

Book Challenges Suppress Diversity

Analysis of the most banned/challenged books in the U.S. shows that diverse books are disproportionately targeted for book challenges and censorship.

By Malinda Lo

Over the summer, a Delaware school board removed The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth from a high school’s summer reading list after parents complained about the novel’s explicit language. Sadly, this kind of censorship isn’t unusual. Novels are removed from reading lists or are challenged in classrooms and libraries all the time. From 2000–2009, 5,009 book challenges were reported to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (source).

What made me take notice in this case was the fact that Cameron Post is a critically acclaimed novel about a lesbian teen coming of age, but the reason cited for the book’s removal was explicit language — even though several other books on the summer reading list also included explicit language. It was no great leap to wonder if “language” was used as a cover for homophobia.

After the school board was faced with a significant amount of pushback in the media for its removal of Cameron Post, it reacted by reconsidering their decision and deciding to remove the entire summer reading list, not only Cameron Post. Although the School Board continued to insist repeatedly that Cameron Post was removed solely for its language, the parent’s initial letter challenging the book, sent June 4, did in fact focus on the lesbian story line.

In an article at The Atlantic earlier this month, excerpts of the June 4 letter were posted in which the parent was “shocked and appalled” by the reading list, and declared that Cameron Post resembled “a roadmap or guide book on how to become a sexually active lesbian teen.”

The unfortunate situation with Cameron Post and the entire banned summer reading list made me wonder how often the cited reasons for book challenges (which are enumerated by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom here) are smokescreens for the real reasons — reasons that might not always be socially acceptable to state publicly.

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.

The Data

The Office of Intellectual Freedom compiles data on book challenges. According to the OIF:

“A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The number of challenges reflects only incidents reported. We estimate that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported. Therefore, we do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges.” (source)

For my analysis I used the OIF’s list of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books: 2000–2009 and the Top Ten Challenged Books lists for 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

While these books are not all young adult books, the books are most often challenged by parents and/or are challenged in schools (see these statistics). Additionally, many of these books are classics that are often taught in middle and high school English classes, so the issue of banned/challenged books is highly relevant to young adults and the YA community.

Working from these lists, I researched the authors’ race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability status. I also researched the content of each banned/challenged book to determine if the book included any of the following types of content:

  • Non-White main and/or secondary characters
  • LGBT main and/or secondary characters
  • Disabled main and/or secondary characters
  • Issues about race or racism
  • LGBT issues
  • Issues about religion, which encompass in this situation the Holocaust and terrorism
  • Issues about disability and/or mental illness
  • Non-Western settings, in which the West is North America and Europe

I decided to include secondary non-white, LGBT and disabled characters if those secondary characters seemed particularly significant to the story. Additionally, some of these books were story, essay, or poetry anthologies, and some of those stories, essays, and poems were by or about non-white, LGBT and/or disabled characters. Though the entire anthologies were not about them, it seemed important to include them.

“LGBT issues” includes both books that focus on the LGBT experience, and books that are broadly about sexuality and include specific chapters about homosexuality (e.g., It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris). “LGBT issues” also includes a book about two male penguins who hatch an egg together (And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson), who are not gay because they’re penguins and gay is a sexual and cultural identity for humans, but have been interpreted as such by those who wish to ban the book.

Authors and Banned/Challenged Books

From 2000–2009, 84 authors wrote the Top 100 most frequently banned/challenged books. Among those 84 authors, 81% were white and 19% were non-white. Those authors include Walter Dean Myers (Fallen Angels), Rudolfo Anaya (Bless Me Ultima), and Toni Morrison (challenged for Beloved, Song of Solomon, and The Bluest Eye).

chart-authors-2000to2009

To understand what these figures means in this context, it’s important to get a sense of the percentage of non-white authors being published in general. I couldn’t find any comprehensive study of this issue, but there are two data points worth sharing.

In 2012 at The Rumpus, Roxane Gay counted the number of authors of color reviewed by the New York Times in 2011. She concluded:

“Nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white writers. That is not even remotely reflective of the racial makeup of this country, where 72% of the population, according to the 2010 census, is white.”

Secondly, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has been compiling data on the children’s books it receives since the mid–1980s. In 2013, multicultural children’s book publisher Lee & Low examined the CCBC data and concluded that over the past 18 years, the percentage of children’s books by and/or about people of color has remained virtually constant at 10%. In comparison, 37% of the U.S. population consists of people of color — a huge gap.

The New York Times and CCBC data are not directly comparable to the percentage of authors of color on the banned/challenged books list. However, I do think it’s interesting to see that almost twice as many authors of color appear on the banned/challenged books list as were reviewed in the New York Times.

The data from 2010–2013 is similar.

chart-authors-2010to2013

For this chart, I compiled the data from the Top Ten lists from 2010–2013, and eliminated repeated titles (e.g., The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie appeared on the Top Ten lists of each of the last four years). That resulted in a total of 30 authors (some of them had more than one title in the Top Ten lists), of which 79% were white and 21% were non-white. The non-white authors included Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), Kim Dong Hwa (The Color of Earth) and again Toni Morrison (for both Beloved and The Bluest Eye).

What Kind of Diversity, Exactly?

Among the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000–2009, 52 books included some kind of diversity — that’s 52%: the majority of banned/challenged books included diverse content. Over half of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000–2009 addressed issues about race, sexuality and/or disability; or were about non-white, LGBTQ and/or disabled characters.

chart-bookcontent-2000to2009

Looking more closely at the diverse books on the list, some included more than one kind of diversity. For example, Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk included issues of disability and race, as well as a biracial main character. I counted each of those kinds of diversity separately because they speak to different experiences. That added up to 61 instances of diverse content, in which 40% were about issues (this means that the main character could be white, but the book is nonetheless about race, such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee), and 32% were about a non-white main character. The types of diversity content break down as follows:

chart-diversitycontent-2000to2009b

For 2010 to 2013, the data is similar. Once again I compiled the Top Ten lists for 2010 to 2013, eliminated repeated titles, and found that there were 29 individual titles in all on those four Top Ten lists. Among the 29 titles, 15 included diverse content, and 14 did not. In other words, once again 52% of the banned/challenged books included diverse content of some kind.

chart-bookcontent-2010to2013

The diversity content of those 15 books broke down into 17 different types, which are seen in the following chart:

chart-diversitycontent-2010to2013

Diversity Under Attack

Although the data I am working with is a selected amount — these are Top 100 and Top 10 lists, not the raw list of 5,000+ challenges that the OIF received over the last decade — I think it’s still quite revealing. 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.

The message this sends is loud and clear: diversity is actually under attack. Minority perspectives are being silenced every year.

I think it’s important to note that the reasons for a book’s challenge may be beside the point when the result is a broad silencing of these minority perspectives. Though some might protest a book’s explicit language, the real result is closing off dialogue and preventing readers from experiencing stories and lives outside the mainstream.

Recent academic studies have shown that reading fiction leads to increased empathy, which suggests to me that it’s more important than ever to make sure books with diverse perspectives are widely available, not censored. I hope we can remember this during Banned Books Week, which takes place Sept. 21–27 this year, and every week.


The data I compiled for this analysis is available at Google Docs. Here is my data for Diversity in Banned/Challenged Books, 2000–09, and Diversity in Banned/Challenged Books, 2010–13. While I have double and triple-checked my research, I am the only one doing this research. If you discover errors, please email me at diversityinya@gmail.com. Thanks!

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” Removed From Delaware Summer Reading List – UPDATED

By Malinda Lo

danforth-cameronIn 2012, I was invited by NPR to review an about-to-be-published young adult novel titled The Miseducation of Cameron Post by debut author emily m. danforth. I was a little nervous about it because I don’t like to criticize about my colleagues’ novels in public. But I didn’t need to worry — Cameron Post blew me away. It was the coming-of-age, coming-out novel that spoke to me in in such a deeply personal way that it felt like it was written for me.

Maybe that’s why I was so ticked off to hear that Cameron Post was recently removed from a summer reading list in Delaware due to parental complaints about its explicit language. Cameron Post is a complex, multilayered, award-winning novel that cannot by any means be reduced down to the number of times the word fuck in used in its 470 pages. And yet that is what has happened.

The Story So Far

As first reported by the Cape Gazette, on June 12, 2014, the Board of Education of Delaware’s Cape Henlopen School District removed the novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth from the summer reading list for Cape Henlopen High School’s incoming ninth graders. During the June 12 board meeting, board member Sandi Minard noted that the book contains explicit and inappropriate language.

Board president Spencer Brittingham, who had not read the book but found some passages online, told the Cape Gazette that “I knew in less than three minutes that this wasn’t a book I wanted on the list.” In an interview with Delaware radio station WXDE, Minard clarified, “I have read the book.”

Shortly after the news of the removal of Cameron Post from the summer reading list, concerns were raised that the removal was related to Sandi Minard’s association with the Delaware Family Policy Council and the 9–12 Delaware Patriots, both conservative, religious-based activist groups. Minard denied that the book removal was related to these groups, telling WXDE,

“This had nothing to do with the Delaware Family Policy Council and it had nothing to do with the 9-12 Delaware Patriots. It had to do with concerned parents that came to us about the book. … There were about three actual complaints that came in. Then whenever the book became an issue, I sat down with a group of different parents — these are people that I work with, that are in my neighborhood. They’re not part of one group that these people like to come on and say that oh because she’s a member of the Delaware Family Policy Council it’s their baby, it’s their agenda. It’s not their agenda. I have not talked to anyone that’s a part of the Delaware Family Policy Council about this book. There’s been no discussion with them, but there has been discussions with neighbors and coworkers and other parents … those people have sat down and said, ‘No way, no way, this should not be on the suggested reading list.’”

The primary reason for the removal of Cameron Post from the summer reading list, according to Minard, was the usage of the word fuck. “I think that the number of times that the F-word is used in this book is way out of proportion for the other books,” Minard told WXDE.

When AfterEllen, a major website focusing on the representation of lesbians and bisexual women in the media1, heard about the removal of Cameron Post from the Cape Henlopen summer reading list, they took action, calling on readers to contact the Cape Henlopen school board to express their concern about censorship. They also reached out to a local bookstore, Browseabout Books, to make sure that the book was available to interested readers. Several people (including myself) have called Browseabout Books and purchased copies of Cameron Post to be given away free to people in the community.

In the wake of the AfterEllen coverage, board president Spencer Brittingham probably heard from plenty of irate readers, because two days later, on July 3, he responded by telling one reader that he would “request a reinstatement of this publication to the list, but a suspension of the list until our curriculum folks can vet this list appropriately.”

Yesterday I wrote to Brittingham on behalf of Diversity in YA and asked when he would request this reinstatement. Brittingham did not answer that question directly, but he did write back with this statement:

“I have to say from the start the book was not banned.  It was removed from our incoming Freshman’s reading list for the language content.  I have been informed from other outlets that some other books on the list also contain excessive amounts of profanity and that is why I will request the reinstatement of this book and request a review of the entire list for acceptance of the content of profanity.  Our code of conduct and school discipline arena has rules against profanity in our buildings and I don’t think we have adequately communicated this to our committee.  I don’t believe it is a school system’s responsibilty to say a child can curse and then attempt to punish for a code violation, if taken out of context.  What is the parent’s role in this?  Some parents are saying, we are right , some are saying, they don’t care, either way it needs more debate and follow  thru.  Thank you for your correspondence and please be patient with us, we will get this right.  I promise!”

The Pink Elephant in the Room

The Cape Henlopen summer reading list for incoming ninth graders is comprised of the 2014 and 2015 winners and nominees of the Blue Hen Book Award, which is an award administered by the Youth Services Division of the Delaware Library Association. Among the other books on the summer reading list are The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, both of which include the word fuck as well as other words that could be considered profanities. In fact, using curse words is not uncommon in fiction — especially fiction that seeks to represent the real world.

As emily danforth told me via email:

“[I]f you have to ask teens NOT to curse in school (and enforce that) then clearly it’s an inclination of many teens, right?—so it stands to reason that those of us who write about teens might likely try to write dialogue and thoughts using vocabulary that’s true to the ways we know that teens (some teens—clearly not all) speak and think. I understand that some parents object to this and might say—’elevate their discourse, don’t just mimic it’—I do understand that—and certainly not every character in my novel uses profanity (nor do the characters who do use profanity ONLY use profanity) but how strange, to me, to equate these usages in works of literature with what you do or don’t want your students saying in the classroom.”

According to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which tracks banned and challenged books, between 2000–2009 they received 1,291 challenges due to “offensive language.” The only type of challenge to outnumber “offensive language” was “sexually explicit material,” which generated 1,577 challenges during this same time period.

Anyone who has read The Miseducation of Cameron Post is unlikely to conclude that it is a book focused on profanity. It is clearly and obviously a book about coming of age as a young lesbian. There is, indeed, sexuality in the book, though whether it’s “explicit” truly varies according to one’s perspective on what “explicit” means. It is explicitly clear that the main character, Cameron, falls in love with other girls. They do more than hold hands and stroke each other’s hair, too — as do most young people in love.

The pink elephant in the room, as I noted when I posted about this on tumblr last week, and as AfterEllen noted in its first article, is the fact that Cameron Post could understandably be challenged for its lesbian content. For many of us — especially those of us who are LGBT, who have faced both direct and indirect homophobia for much of our lives — the idea that a book like Cameron Post would be challenged for curse words rather than lesbianism might seem a bit like protesting too much.

In her interview with WXDE, which brought up the question of the book’s lesbian content, Sandi Minard insisted, “It is only the language issue that was brought up.”

Board president Spencer Brittingham told the reader who wrote to him: “I can assure you that I am not homophobic and never did this area of the book enter the conversation.”

Is this really the truth? To me, it sounds like the argument that women aren’t hired (or reviewed, or acknowledge, or heard) not because they’re women, but because they’re not as qualified as men. Is the real issue that these parents have with Cameron Post the fact that she uses the word fuck, or is it easier — and more politically correct these days — to point the finger at the F-word than to acknowledge any discomfort with same-sex relationships?

We may not ever know the truth behind the “about three actual complaints” that Sandi Minard received. The fact is, the goal of book challenges is to silence people — and that silencing may begin at the very start, even with the true nature of why a book is challenged. If you deny that homophobia is on the table, it makes it very hard to fight back on those grounds.

The Context on Book Challenges

In the press about the removal of Cameron Post from the reading list, board members are quick to stress that the book has not been “banned”; it has simply been “removed” from a reading list. Yes, the book is still available in libraries and bookstores, but this is where book challenges happen now: on school reading lists and in some cases in author visits. This is the local stage on which censorship is enacted, debated, and sometimes (thankfully) successfully fought.

Here are a few links to coverage of recent book challenges:

  • The Los Angeles Times reports on the removal of John Green’s Paper Towns from a summer reading list in Florida.
  • Here’s The Guardian reporting on the removal of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother from a summer reading list in Florida (again).
  • Bill Moyers reports on the removal of Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian from the curriculum of an Idaho school district.
  • Last September, NPR reported on Rainbow Rowell being disinvited to a Minnesota school after Eleanor & Park was on a summer reading list because parents were concerned about the book’s profanity.

emily m. danforth isn’t as big of a name as John Green, Cory Doctorow, Sherman Alexie, or Rainbow Rowell, but exactly the same thing has happened to her novel as has happened to these other books. When it comes to book challenges, the mainstream media tends to focus on those who are already famous. A book like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, an award-winning literary novel that hasn’t hit the bestseller lists, risks slipping through the cracks in these situations, and I don’t want that to happen. This happens far too often to other books that aren’t huge bestsellers: people don’t pay attention. Let’s not let this happen this time around.

What Can You Do About This?

As of today (July 7), many things are happening both behind the scenes and out in the open. If you’re concerned about the removal of Cameron Post from the Cape Henlopen summer reading list — and if you’re concerned that the board might realize that other books on that list also contain profanity and thus might also be removed — there are certainly things you can do.

  • Follow AfterEllen’s lead and buy a copy of The Miseducation of Cameron Post from Browseabout Books either to give away to a local reader or even for yourself.
  • emily m. danforth is giving away the entire uncensored Blue Hen list to a lucky reader: “All you have to do to enter is to use your twitter account (easiest for tech-challenged me to track and collate) to explain, in not very many characters, why you want/need these books. Use the hashtag #LeaveTheBlueHenListAlone so that I can find your entry.” So far, Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor & Park), Erin Jade Lange (Butter), and Gene Luen Yang (Boxers and Saints) are also donating signed copies of their books to the giveaway.
  • If you’re near the Cape Henlopen school district on July 10, 2014 at 6 p.m., you might consider attending their school board meeting, which is open to the public. Here’s the agenda. I’ve been digging around in the Cape Henlopen school district board policies (download PDF), and it’s pretty clear that the board itself hasn’t followed its own rules regarding book challenges. According to section 110 on Instructional Methods, Materials, and Supplies, challenges must be registered in writing with the school principal, using a specific form; the principal must then appoint a committee composed of a librarian and two teachers to evaluate the challenge. None of this has been done yet. In her interview with WXDE, Sandi Minard repeatedly expressed frustration with local parents who don’t come to board meetings and then complain after the fact, declaring, “Come to the school board meetings. Show up and let’s talk.” I suggest we answer Minard’s invitation on Thursday, July 10.

Meanwhile, I will be following this story as it develops. I’ve been told that the National Coalition Against Censorship is stepping in, and if there is any news I’ll update this post when I can.


Updates: July 12, 2014
Update: July 24, 2014

  1. Full disclosure: I was managing editor at AfterEllen from 2006-08, and a regular contributor from 2003-2006.