Case Study: Blankets

In 2006, Craig Thompson’s celebrated graphic novel, Blankets, was challenged in the Marshall, Missouri Public Library.

Blankets is the semiautobiographical story of Thompson’s upbringing in a religious family, his first love, and how he came to terms with his religious beliefs. The primary narrative in the book describes main character Craig’s relationship with Raina, a young woman he meets at a Christian youth camp. We get glimpses into Craig’s childhood and his relationship with his younger brother through flashbacks, as he wrestles with his views of religion and his relationship with God.

(c) Craig Thompson

Louise Mills, a resident of Marshall, MO, filed a request with the Marshall Public Library Board of Trustees to have Blankets removed from the shelves because of the allegedly obscene illustrations. She likened the illustrations to pornography and was concerned that the comic art would attract children who would subsequently see the images she alleged were pornographic. Mills also feared that the library would be frequented by the same people who go to porn shops.

At the time of the challenge, the Marshall Public Library did not have an established materials selection policy, which would have laid out guidelines as to what types of items the library should buy. The library board decided to draft such a policy, but also opted to remove the two books from circulation during the development process. After several months, the board ultimately approved a policy, which stated in part that the library would buy materials based on contemporary or social significance, critical acclaim, patron requests or popular demand, and “timeliness and/or significance of subject matter.”

On October 4, 2006, the Marshall Public Library Board of Trustees held a hearing to determine the fate of Blankets and another challenged graphic novel — Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. The CBLDF, in conjunction with the National Coalition Against Censorship, wrote a letter to the Marshall Public Library Board of Trustees explaining why Blankets and Fun Home could not be considered obscene and outlining the dangers of censorship:

October 6, 2006

Dear Ms. Wright:

On behalf of the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund we strongly urge you to keep Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home in the Marshall Public Library. The books have reportedly been challenged by a member of the community who claims they contain “pornographic” images and are inappropriate for the library.

Removing these books because of objections to content is impermissible under the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court said in Board of Education v. Pico, the constitution does not permit “officially prescribed orthodoxy” which limits what people may read, think, speak, or say. The fact that we are confronted with images and not words does not make a difference – the courts have ruled that images, like words, constitute symbolic expression and are protected by the First Amendment.

Constitutional issues aside, if depictions of sex were enough to make a book undesirable for a public library, there will be little left – Ovid, Geoffrey Chaucer, Boccaccio, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Dorothy Alison, Toni Morrison, as well as a large number of art history books would be among the many offenders.

Graphic novels combine visual art with literary and cinematic techniques of storytelling. They constitute some of the most creative work in publishing today. Blankets and Fun Home are break out examples of how the graphic novel form is reinventing the memoir genre.

Neither one of the challenged books is legally obscene. To be obscene material must, taken as a whole, appeal to the prurient interest as well as lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The wide critical acclaim the books have received testify to their artistic value, whereas anybody who has read them is aware that they explore a range of important issues of which sexuality is only one.

Craig Thompson’s Blankets chronicles a young man’s coming of age in a rural, evangelical society. The book addresses topics of faith, abstinence, love, responsibility, and commitment from the point of view of a faithful young man who must make critical choices about those topics at the entry to adulthood. The book is beautifully illustrated with careful ink drawings. Blankets was named among the best books of 2003 by Library Journal, YALSA, Booklist, & Time. It has also won numerous national and international awards.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which came out just a few months ago, chronicles the author’s childhood and youth in rural Pennsylvania, and examines her early family life in an emotionally distant environment. New York Times called it “[a] pioneering work … Bechdel’s rich language and precise images combine to create a lush piece of work — a memoir where concision and detail are melded for maximum, obsessive density.” Fun Home spent two weeks on the NY Times non-fiction bestseller list, and is likely to be nominated for several literary awards.

Clearly, when they were ordered, the books met the criteria that form the basis for the library’s collection development policy. Removing the books because of sexual content not only entirely fails to consider the indisputable value of books as a whole, but also ignores the library’s obligation to serve all kinds of readers.

Whatever arguments might be advanced to justify denying minors access to non-obscene sexual content are inadequate to deny adults access to legal materials. As the Supreme Court has repeated on numerous occasions, “The level of discourse reaching a mailbox simply cannot be limited to that which would be suitable for a sandbox.”

We strongly urge you to protect the rights of all readers to read and think freely, and to reject the notion that the choices made by any one reader may be imposed on any other. By keeping the books on the library shelves you will demonstrate respect for your readers and their choices, for the professionalism of the librarians who serve the reading public, and for the First Amendment and its importance to a pluralistic democratic society.

Sincerely,

Svetlana Mintcheva
Director
Arts Program
National Coalition Against Censorship

Charles Brownstein
Executive Director
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

The highly publicized letter was instrumental in rallying community support against removing the books from the library. Both books also clearly met several of the criteria in the new library policy and were restored to circulation immediately when the policy was approved, but the ordeal serves as an object lesson on how important it is for libraries to have a materials selection policy in place before a challenge happens. Additionally, the American Library Association recommends that “challenged materials…remain in the collection during the review process.”