The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) published an article in December 2015 summarizing their top ten graphic novels that they defended that year from potential challenges. The 2015 Caldecott Honor winner, This One Summer, was not only the first graphic novel to be honored by the Caldecott Committee, it was also one of the most frequently challenged graphic novels that the CBLDF found itself defending during 2015.
After reading this article, I was curious. How long has it been since a Newbery or Caldecott Honoree has been challenged in connection with its status as an award winner? I wanted to know publication dates related to book challenges, rather than how often something was challenged.
Online searches resulted in popular titles like Maurice Sendak’s 1964 Caldecott Award Winner Where The Wild Things Are and his 1971 Caldecott Honor Winner, In the Night Kitchen. But it was the Newbery titles that repeatedly filled my search results. Thanks to Books Under Fire: A Hit List of Banned and Challenged Children’s Books by Pat Scales (ALA Editions, 2015), I was able to find answers. The appendix contains lists of all Caldecott and Newbery titles that have been reported as being challenged.
It’s been over twenty years since a Caldecott title has been the subject of so many challenges. The last notable Caldecott Honoree to be so scrutinized was A Smokey Night by Eve Bunting and illustrated by David Diaz, which won the 1995 Caldecott Medal. It has been challenged for containing “violence and horror.” Prior to that, Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, which won a 1992 Caldecott Honor was challenged for “racial stereotype & [that] the adults drink beer.”
These Caldecott titles are all picture books, and the CBLDF did some research and discovered that within the last ten years, “about 82% of the Caldecott winners have been aimed at audiences age 8 and younger.” Since a majority of Caldecott books are picture books, many people believe that all of these winners and honorees should be cataloged as picture books. However, the Caldecott Award is intended for ages 0-14, representing a wide range of book formats.
This One Summer has recently ended up housed in some elementary school libraries, while the publisher, First Second Books, clearly states that its intended audience is ages 12-18. One challenge stemmed from three Seminole County Elementary schools in Florida because a parent complained about profanity and sexual references in the book. The book came under attack in the Seminole County High Schools as well. The CBLDF led the fight to preserve high school student access to the book, and just this week, we learned that the book will remain unrestricted in Seminole County High School libraries.
With all the challenges against this single title, I wondered how the publisher feels when their books become challenged or banned. So I emailed Mark Siegel, the publisher and editor of This One Summer to get his input on all these challenges and news headlines on the book.
Janet Weber: First of all, congratulations on First Second Books‘ 10th Anniversary. You’ve published a lot of amazing, high quality graphic novels during this time, with many winning high achievements and awards. What was your reaction when you first learned that This One Summer faced its first challenge?
Mark Siegel: Thank you! My reaction to learning about This One Summer being challenged, as I recall, was NOT total surprise . . . we had a lot of discussions, when we were figuring out how to publish this book, about what the appropriate age level for it was. It definitely has challenging content for any age — following in the tradition of great kids’ books like Goodnight Mr. Tom, Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, and Forever.
But it’s always heartbreaking to hear that one of the books that we publish — a book we believe in and have championed and nurtured — has been challenged, because it means that someone out there thinks that the book has so many problems that no one should be allowed to read it. We know that our books are high quality — and that even if the person challenging the book isn’t the ideal audience, that there are readers in need of the book out there. That’s especially the case when books like This One Summer are challenged based on their content.
JW: How do you, as a publisher learn about titles that have been challenged? Especially of your own titles?
MS: It’s always a different process for each book. Sometimes, we hear from the authors, who tend to get contacted about challenges — sometimes, the school involved will contact us directly. And we’re very lucky to have the Comic Book Legal Defense at our backs in all of these situations. An industry organization that defends works in comics forms from challenges, the CBLDF is always on top of any potential censorship and on the phone with us and the parties involved within twenty-four hours. We really appreciate the work they do, and their support for our titles!
JW: Have any other First Second Books been challenged?
MS: Yes, several. The Korean Color of Earth trilogy, by Kim Dong Hwa, I remember very well. We half expected that, as it treads (however delicately and tastefully) on some sexual issues, in ways that don’t always sit comfortably with western moralities. In other instances, we were taken aback by reactions to very slight partial nudity in George O’Connor’s Journey to Mohawk Country and Sardine in Outer Space. The context and the treatment were so mild that I really didn’t think they could have been considered offensive. Apparently they could.
JW: As a publisher, do you see sales increase when a title has been challenged?
MS: In some instances, yes. I think in cases like This One Summer, there is a very legitimate counter-reaction from people who read and loved the book, and felt the challenge was unfair or misguided.
JW: Is there anything you can do as a publisher to fight for one of your challenged titles?
MS: Our catalog is our soapbox. We publish works by authors we believe in, and stand behind. And we will continue to do so.
We also work to give the teachers and librarians involved resources to fight the challenges themselves — lists of the book’s awards and praise, teacher’s guides, etc. Here we’re also very thankful for the CBLDF for their assistance. They’re a fantastic industry resource who have helped out in every challenge we’ve found our books embroiled in.
If anyone reading this is a teacher or a librarian (or anyone!) dealing with a challenge on one of our titles, we encourage you to get directly in touch with us so we can give you any help you need to keep great graphic novels in your libraries and schools. firstname.lastname@example.org is our e-mail address for this sort of thing.
JW: Is there any advice you can give as a publisher to fight for keeping challenged books in library collections?
MS: I think there are great advocates for good books—allies in all kinds of places. Many of them are librarians, who know and understand their communities, and have a direct line of communication with educators and parents, and patrons. And it’s not to say any challenge is a threat to freedom of speech—on the contrary. Some challenges provoke much needed conversations, and belong with a healthy social dialog. If books never provoked debate, we would really have to worry then!
JW: Thank you so much Mark for sharing your input! It is much appreciated!
Janet Weber is a member of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee and is a Youth Services Librarian at the Tigard Public Library in Oregon. She teaches the ALSC online continuing education course Children’s Graphic Novels 101. She’s seen here (center) celebrating This One Summer with Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki at the American Library Association 2015 Annual Conference.