Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a memoir of her complicated relationship with her closeted gay father and her own realization that she was gay as well, has the rare distinction of being frequently challenged at the post-secondary level. Challenges from individual students at the University of Utah and California’s Clifton Hills College were rebuffed by administrators, but in 2014 South Carolina’s legislature went so far as debating punitive budget cuts against the College of Charleston for selecting Fun Home as an optional summer reading book for incoming freshmen. In hopes of preventing any future bans of Bechdel’s memoir, we’ve put together these resources for librarians and educators who may need to justify and defend the inclusion of the book in library and classroom collections or curricula.
Upon Fun Home’s 2006 release, publisher Houghton Mifflin provided this synopsis:
A year after her father died, when she was twenty years old, Alison Bechdel was looking through some old family photographs and found one of a young man in his underwear. She recognized him as a student of her father’s and a family babysitter. She also came across a photo of her father as a young man, wearing a woman’s bathing suit. There were also snapshots of her mother over the years, in which her expression transformed vividly from hopefulness to resignation to bitterness. Alison found her own childhood pictures, of a girl who looked like a boy. She knew that these snapshots conveyed much more information than she suspected, and there was a deeper story begging to be told, about a daughter who inadvertently “outs” her gay father, who meets a tragic end. But the painful circumstances that make her story so compelling also rendered her incapable of telling it for a long time. Alison was inhibited not just by the shock of her father’s death, but by the impact of his life — his domination and deception, and the alternately encouraging and crushing influence that he had on her creativity. In her early twenties she attempted, in prose, to tell her part of the tale, but it eluded her. Instead, she turned her creative efforts to an entirely different project: drawing a comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. Years have passed, and Alison is now a comic artist with a cult following. Her strip is syndicated in fifty newspapers and she has a quarter of a million books in print. And she is finally ready to tell her own story. Through twenty years of social change, Alison’s accomplished drawing skills, and her wizened emotional perspective comes Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.
Reviews for Fun Home
Booklist (starred review)
This is a father and daughter story. Bechdel’s mother and two brothers are in it, of course, but Bruce Bechdel had the biggest impact on his eldest child and so is naturally the other main character in her autobiographical graphic novel. Emotionally and physically reserved, to the point of brusqueness, he busied himself restoring–and then some–the Victorian-era house he bought for the family in the Pennsylvania town in which he was born and lived virtually all his 44 years. He enlisted the kids for never-ending interior and exterior modifications of the place in what obviously was his major creative outlet. For a living, he taught twelfth-grade English and ran the small undertaking business that occupied part of his parents’ house and that the kids called the fun home. Bechdel doesn’t even hint about how ironic she and her brothers meant to be, because she is a narrative artist, not a moralist or comedian, in this book and because she has a greater, real-life irony to consider. After disclosing her lesbianism in a letter home from college, her mother replied that her father was homosexual, too. Alison suddenly understood his legal trouble over buying a beer for a teenage boy, all the teen male “helpers” he had around the house, and his solo outings during family vacations to New York. Bechdel’s long-running Dykes to Watch Out For is arguably the best comic strip going, and Fun Home is one of the very best graphic novels ever.
Kirkus (starred review)
Bechdel’s memoir offers a graphic narrative of uncommon richness, depth, literary resonance and psychological complexity.
Though Bechdel (known for her syndicated “Dykes to Watch Out For” strip and collections) takes her formal cues from comic books, she receives more inspiration from the likes of Proust and Joyce as she attempts to unravel the knots of her family’s twisted emotional history. At the core of this compelling narrative is her relationship with her father, a literary-minded high-school teacher who restores and runs the familial funeral parlor. (It is also the family’s residence and the “fun home” of the title.) Beneath his icy reserve and fussy perfectionism, he is a barely closeted homosexual and a suspected pedophile, an imposing but distant presence to his young daughter, who finds that their main bond is a shared literary sensibility. As she comes of age as an artist and comes to terms with her own sexual identity, Bechdel must also deal with the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and, soon afterward, her father’s death. Was it an accident or was it suicide? How did her father’s sexuality shape her own? Rather than proceeding in chronological fashion, the memoir keeps circling back to this central relationship and familial tragedy, an obsession that the artist can never quite resolve or shake. The results are painfully honest, occasionally funny and penetratingly insightful. Feminists, lesbians and fans of underground comics will enthusiastically embrace this major advance in Bechdel’s work, which should significantly extend both her renown and her readership.
Though this will likely be stocked with graphic novels, it shares as much in spirit with the work of Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff and other contemporary memoirists of considerable literary accomplishment.
If the theoretical value of a picture is still holding steady at a thousand words, then Alison Bechdel’s slim yet Proustian graphic memoir, “Fun Home,” must be the most ingeniously compact, hyper-verbose example of autobiography to have been produced. It is a pioneering work, pushing two genres (comics and memoir) in multiple new directions, with panels that combine the detail and technical proficiency of R. Crumb with a seriousness, emotional complexity and innovation completely its own. Then there are the actual words. Generally this is where graphic narratives stumble. Very few cartoonists can also write — or, if they can, they manage only to hit a few familiar notes. But “Fun Home” quietly succeeds in telling a story, not only through well-crafted images but through words that are equally revealing and well chosen. Big words, too! In 232 pages this memoir sent me to the dictionary five separate times (to look up “bargeboard,” “buss,” “scutwork,” “humectant” and “perseverated”).
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
This autobiography by the author of the long-running strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, deals with her childhood with a closeted gay father, who was an English teacher and proprietor of the local funeral parlor (the former allowed him access to teen boys). Fun Home refers both to the funeral parlor, where he put makeup on the corpses and arranged the flowers, and the family’s meticulously restored gothic revival house, filled with gilt and lace, where he liked to imagine himself a 19th-century aristocrat. The art has greater depth and sophistication that Dykes; Bechdel’s talent for intimacy and banter gains gravitas when used to describe a family in which a man’s secrets make his wife a tired husk and overshadow his daughter’s burgeoning womanhood and homosexuality. His court trial over his dealings with a young boy pushes aside the importance of her early teen years. Her coming out is pushed aside by his death, probably a suicide. The recursively told story, which revisits the sites of tragic desperation again and again, hits notes that resemble Jeanette Winterson at her best. Bechdel presents her childhood as a “still life with children” that her father created, and meditates on how prolonged untruth can become its own reality. She’s made a story that’s quiet, dignified and not easy to put down.
Praise for Alison Bechdel and Fun Home
“Alison Bechdel – she’s one of the best, one to watch out for.” –Harvey Pekar (American Splendor)
“If David Sedaris could draw, and if Bleak House had been a little funnier, you’d have Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” –Amy Bloom (A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You)
“Brave and forthright and insightful — exactly what Alison Bechdel does best.” –Dorothy Allison (Bastard Out of Carolina)
“Stupendous. Alison Bechdel’s mesmerizing feat of familial resurrection is a rare, prime example of why graphic novels have taken over the conversation about American literature. The details — visual and verbal, emotional and elusive — are devastatingly captured by an artist in total control of her craft.” —Chip Kidd (The Cheese Monkeys)
“The only cartoonist I know of to match [Garry] Trudeau’s achievement is the brilliant Alison Bechdel.” — Chris Ekman, political cartoonist
Awards and Recognition
- ALA Stonewall Book Awards 2007: Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award [list]
- Eisner Awards 2007: Best Reality-Based Work [list]
- Lambda Literary Awards 2007: Lesbian Memoir/Biography [list]
- Publishing Triangle Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award 2007 [list]
- New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2006 [list]
- Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2006 [list]
- Time Magazine 10 Best Books 2006 [list]
- New York Magazine The Year in Books 2006 [list]
- Los Angeles Times Favorite Books 2006 [list]
- The Guardian Best Books of 2006 [list]
- London Times 100 Best Books of the Decade
- Salon Best Books of the Decade [list]
- Entertainment Weekly 10 Best Books of the Decade [list]
- A.V. Club Best Comics of the ‘00s: The Top 25 [list]
Given their visual nature, comics are easy targets for would-be censors. CBLDF Discussion Guides are tools that can be used to lead conversations about challenged graphic novels and to help allay misconceptions about comics.
In 2014, the South Carolina state legislature debated punitive budget cuts against the College of Charleston because it incorporated Fun Home into a voluntary summer reading program for incoming freshman. The proposed state budget would have cut CofC’s funding by $52,000, the exact amount needed for the annual The College Reads program. In March, CBLDF joined a coalition led by NCAC to urge the South Carolina Senate to reject the budget cuts, and the Senate Finance Committee rightly rejected them. However, the full Senate continued to debate the budget, coming up with a “compromise”: Instead of cutting the funds, the legislature proposed a budget provision that doesn’t cut funding but — in a an act of irony so classic that it should be included in the dictionary — the provision reallocated the funds to books that teach about the Constitution. More…
What should I do if Fun Home is challenged?
Most challenges to comics in libraries come from well-meaning individuals, frequently parents, who find something they believe is objectionable in their local public or school library. These challenges are often difficult and stressful for the library staff who must manage them, but there are resources to help them in the process. Below we’ve identified a number of tips and links to assist libraries to increase the likelihood of keeping challenged comics on the shelves.
1. Make Strong Policies.
Strong selection and challenge review policies are key for protecting access to library materials, including comics. The American Library Association has developed a number of excellent tools to assist school and public libraries in the essential preparation to perform before books are challenged here.
2. Face the Challenge.
What do you do when a comic is challenged? Much of the material in this post can be used to help defend Fun Home against a challenge. The American Library Association has developed these helpful tools to cope with challenges:
- How to Respond to Challenges and Concerns about Library Resources
- Working with Community Leaders
- Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, and Academic Libraries
CBLDF can also help by providing assistance with locating review resources, writing letters of support, and facilitating access to experts and resources. Call 800-99-CBLDF or email email@example.com at the first sign of a First Amendment emergency!
3. Report the Challenge.
Another essential step in protecting access to comics is to report challenges when they occur. By reporting challenges, you help the free expression community gather necessary information about what materials are at risk so better tools can be created to assist. To report a challenge to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, call us at 800-99-CBLDF or email here. You can also report the challenge to the ALA here.
CBLDF and its partners have been battling ongoing and organized attempts to censor comics and other books in schools and libraries. You can join the struggle by making a donation or reporting censorship today!
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.