What Do We Know About the Frequently Challenged Comics of 2014?

sagavol1Following the news that comics made up almost a third of the books on the American Library Association’s Top Ten List of Frequently Challenged Books for 2014, we did a bit of investigating for more information on the challenges that landed Persepolis, Drama, and Saga on the list.

Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic memoir Persepolis came in at #2 on the overall list, with a total of three challenges. Before this week, we were aware of two of these, both of which broke in the latter half of September. First, a parent in Oregon’s Three Rivers School District demanded the book’s removal from high school libraries because of “coarse language and scenes of torture.” We haven’t found any news stories following up on that challenge, but after ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom confirmed to us this week that the book was ultimately retained, we delved into the school board’s meeting minutes to see if we could find any more about the challenge. We struck paydirt in the meeting from October 21, at which the complainant Joseph Rice spoke about why he wanted the book removed. Rice claimed that he was “not supporting banning a book,” but shortly thereafter said he believes “middle or high school students [having] access to this book is inappropriate.” He compared Persepolis to showing “ISIS members beheading people in our classrooms” and said he prefers to “protect the innocence of his daughter as long as he possibly can.”

On a positive note, at the same meeting parent Liz Baum also spoke up to defend Persepolis, saying that the book “does have some uncomfortable scenes in it but we should not shield our high schoolers from what goes on in the world.” Baum pointed out the irony of trying to ban a book that critiques a regime which “routinely used…book banning and other forms of censorship as an intimidation tool.” After the October 21 meeting, we found no more mention of the Persepolis challenge, and since OIF affirms the book has been retained, we surmise that a staff review committee likely voted to keep it and Rice did not appeal that decision to the school board.

Less than a week after the Oregon challenge, Persepolis was targeted again in central Illinois’ Ball-Chatham School District, where parent Mike Housewirth said it was inappropriate for the senior-level English students to which it was assigned. He also “questioned why a book about Muslims was assigned on September 11.” That challenge was resolved much more quickly than the Oregon one, as the school board voted unanimously on September 29 to retain the book in the curriculum.

A third Persepolis challenge in Smithville, Texas, was news to us this week, but it began germinating almost exactly a year before the other two. Satrapi’s book was part of an innovative community book discussion series called “Let’s Talk About It: Muslim Journeys — Points of View,” funded by a grant from ALA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Muslim Journeys programs were held in 125 communities around the country in 2013-2014 and aimed “to foster opportunities for informed community conversations about the histories, faith, and cultures of Muslims around the world and within the United States.” In Smithville, the series was organized with the participation of the public library, the school district, a community theatre, an art gallery, and professors from the University of Texas departments of English and Middle Eastern Studies. Students in Smithville High School’s World Geography class read excerpts from Persepolis and another book, In the Country of Men, and were encouraged but not required to attend the Muslim Journeys events that were held outside of school hours.

Some parents and community members were displeased with this cross-cultural engagement, however. Library director Judy Bergeron said about 30 of the 100 people who attended the discussion of In the Country of Men on September 16, 2013 were “not supportive of the program.” That same night, a large crowd also attended a school board meeting to voice their concerns “about the newly-introduced Islamic literature available to students.” Debate at that meeting seems to have mostly focused on In the Country of Men, with parent Charles King saying that the book “should be pulled from the schools.”

School board documents and a report from the ACLU of Texas show that King later filed a formal challenge to both In the Country of Men and Persepolis, the only two books from the Muslim Journeys series that were used in Smithville High School’s curriculum. The school board heard his complaint at a meeting on February 17, 2014, but voted 5-1 to concur with the recommendation of an administrator (apparently Superintendent Rock McNulty) to retain the books.

The ban that landed Raina Telgemeier’s middle-grade graphic novel Drama on the Top 10 list was also in Texas, at Chapel Hill Elementary in Mount Pleasant. That information was reported in the Texas ACLU’s Annual Banned Books Report, but there has been no news coverage of the ban, so details are thin on the ground. We do know that the book was claimed to be “sexually explicit” and was removed from the elementary school’s library, while three copies remain in Chapel Hill Independent School District’s combined middle/high school library. We did not find a formal challenge procedure in school board policies, but there does appear to be some sort of review process in place since there is a document containing a challenge form for a parent or other complainant to fill out, as well as an assessment form for a review committee. What we don’t know is whether the district actually followed that procedure in the case of Drama, but it seems unlikely that even a majority of a review committee would objectively agree that the book meets the stated criteria for removal of library materials found in Policy EFA (Legal):

Students’ First Amendment rights are implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library. The District shall not remove materials from a library for the purpose of denying students access to ideas with which the District disagrees. The District may remove materials because they are pervasively vulgar or based solely upon the educational suitability of the books in question.

There is even less information to be found about the challenge to Fiona Staples’ and Brian K. Vaughan’s widely praised series Saga. We know it was challenged somewhere in Oregon by a patron of a public library who said it was anti-family and sexually explicit due to nudity and offensive language. In response to the challenge, the unknown library chose to keep the series in its collection without restrictions.

While free speech ultimately won out in most of these cases, that does not mean that we can grow complacent about the risk of censorship in public institutions. Those positive outcomes emerged largely because people in the local community were willing to speak up in defense of the books and because administrators and governing bodies observed the challenge policies they have in place for these situations. The vast majority of the time when books do get banned, it’s because there is no challenge policy (as in the Chicago Public Schools Persepolis debacle of 2013), or because one or a few people failed to follow the policy that does exist (as in a recent challenge to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in Waterloo, Iowa). Defenders of free speech must remain vigilant and hold local leaders accountable when books are challenged in their communities!

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