Case Study: Fun Home

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic novel memoir of the author’s childhood, particularly focused on her relationship with her closeted gay father Bruce. As Alison grows older and realizes that she is a lesbian, she and Bruce are both forced to confront how his repression may have affected her own self-image and the way that she dealt with her sexuality. Loaded with literary references and appropriately gothic-tinged (“fun home” is the Bechdel children’s abbreviation for funeral home), the book was included on numerous “best of the year” lists, including Publishers Weekly, Time, Amazon.com, and The New York Times. It was also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award (memoir/autobiography category) and won an Eisner Award (best reality-based work), the Stonewall Book Award (non-fiction), the GLAAD Media Award (outstanding comic book), and the Lambda Literary Award (lesbian memoir and biography).

As with many critically-acclaimed books — particularly graphic novels — Fun Home soon drew the attention of would-be censors. In 2006, Louise Mills of Marshall, Missouri, requested that the book (and another graphic novel, Blankets by Craig Thompson) be removed from the local public library. Mills characterized the books as “pornography” and expressed concern that children might be drawn to them because they looked like comic books. Another citizen who spoke at a library board meeting even contended that the books could result in “seedy people coming into the library and moving into our community.”

The CBLDF, in conjunction with the National Coalition Against Censorship, wrote a letter to the Marshall Public Library Board of Trustees explaining why Fun Home and Blankets 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

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.” Both books clearly met several of these criteria 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.”

In 2008, Fun Home also faced a rare university-level challenge. A student assigned to read the book in an English class at the University of Utah objected to its content and was offered an alternate assignment in accordance with the school’s religious accommodation policy. The student accepted the alternate assignment, but also alerted a Salt Lake City area group called “No More Pornography” to the book’s inclusion on the course syllabus. The group started an online petition and issued a press release calling for the university to remove the book from its curriculum, but the challenge progressed no further as the English department and the university affirmed that the single student who objected had been reasonably accommodated.

Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.