Banned Books Week and “Too Graphic” Novels


Libraries all over the country will be celebrating Banned Books Week from September 23-29 in support of freedom of expression and to highlight titles that have been targeted for censorship. These are books that groups or individuals have asked or petitioned to be taken off shelves in schools, libraries, and stores.

When you look at the top ten banned books for 2017 you'll see an intriguing diversity of age ranges, subject matter, and publication dates. For example, the 2017 young adult novel The Hate U Give shares a place on the list with the perennial classic To Kill a Mockingbird which made its debut in 1960.

Interestingly, number three on the list is Raina Telgemeier’s award-winning graphic novel Drama, whose relatively chaste depiction of adolescent relationships of multiple sexual orientations had some up in arms. Drama is one example of how the comic art form can address relevant subject matter in creative and enriching ways.

Graphic Novels Targeted for Censorship

In honor of Banned Books Week San Mateo County Libraries is excited to highlight enriching graphic novels that have been targeted for censorship.

Comics in their modern form have been around for at least a century, as have been the attempts to ban them! Just like written novels, graphic novels are usually targeted because someone finds the content offensive, obscene, or inappropriate. With comics, this is complicated by the still widely held perception that they are intended only for young readers, despite the existence of works clearly intended for adults like Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga.

Saga, which some have described as a Game of Thrones meets Star Wars space opera, is often irreverent and explicit. Like Game of Thrones, it also uses dark adult fantasy to explore questions of gender, sexuality, race, and war in endlessly creative ways. Unfortunately, the fantastical elements of Saga can add to the perception that comics are exclusively for juvenile readers or that they are only targeted towards a specific subculture, but there are many titles available that take a more down to earth look at human life.

The above-mentioned memoir Fun Home uses motifs from classic literature and mythology to explore the author's coming to terms with her sexuality in the wake of her father's death.

Mariko Tamaki's This One Summer is a slice of life snapshot of a summer vacation where two pre-teen girls see what choices they may have to confront in the future by watching the adults and older teens around them navigate their lives with varying degrees of success.

Similarly, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis follows one young woman's journey growing up in a culturally conservative culture in Iran. These books depict modern lives and the challenges that come with them in a candid, mostly straightforward way, and all have been targeted for censorship at one time or another.

Our Call Numbers Can Guide You

While it is not the purview of libraries to censor materials for content, there are resources available to help readers choose work that is appropriate.

When searching for titles on our eLibrary, note the call numbers for each title. This One Summer is cataloged as "YA-TAM", where the "YA" stands for "Young Adult" which is traditionally considered to range from 12-18 years of age. If you see a "J" in a call number, this covers juvenile fiction which usually features protagonists under 13 and usually correspondingly appropriate subject matter. Adult-oriented graphic novels are a little trickier, and are usually identified by omission. A good rule of thumb: if a graphic novel has no age identifying labels in the call number like "J", "YA", or "TEEN" than they are probably intended for an older audience.

Don’t Forget the eBook Versions

Many of the above-mentioned comics have eBook versions that are available with your SMCL card though services like hoopla digital (all current issues of Saga are currently on hoopla) so you don't have to wait for a library hold on a physical copy.

To see more titles that have come under fire and the reasons why, take a look at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's list of banned and challenged comics.

If you are interested in finding out more about graphic novels (not just the banned ones!) we invite you to take a look at our upcoming Comic Arts Fest taking place during the month of February where libraries all across the county celebrate the art form of comics by holding multiple events, workshops, and author talks/panels for all ages.

If there are titles targeted for censorship that you'd like to highlight or ideas about censorship you'd like to share, please let us know in the comments below!

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