Friday, April 14, 2017

Banned in the U.S.A.

Tristin Hopper in The National Post.

For the first time, a Canadian book has nabbed top billing on an annual ranking of books that Americans have tried their hardest to ban.

This One Summer, a graphic novel by Mariko Tamaki, earned the number one spot on the American Library Association’s 2016 list of “banned and challenged books.”

“It’s a nice ‘we’re #1’ moment,” wrote Tamaki in an emailed statement to the National Post.

Illustrated by Tamaki’s cousin, Jillian Tamaki, This One Summer follows two preteen friends, Rose and Windy, during a summer vacation to Ontario’s Awago Beach.

The book does not have any explicit sex or nudity, but is notable for the two characters’ frank discussions of sexuality, such as arguments over breast size, confused uses of the word “slut” and eavesdropping on older teens’ struggles with sex and pregnancy.

The novel has been showered with awards, including a Caldecott Honor and a Governor General’s Award, but its content has prompted successful campaigns to have the book removed from school libraries in Minnesota and Florida.

“How do you explain to a 9-year-old the graphic things that were in this book?” said one parent whose complaints appear to have been sufficient to have the book deemed “inappropriate” throughout one Orlando-area school district.

At the time of the bans, Jillian Tamaki said in a Twitter message that she didn’t want to “corrupt” kids, only that she wanted young readers to “stare at certain panels (and) think, ‘should I be reading this?’”

On Monday, she told the National Post that “we definitely did not set out to make a controversial book” and that the negative attention on the book “increased significantly after winning a Caldecott Honor.”

“That award goes up to and includes books for 14-year-olds, but I think some people assumed it was an all-ages award,” she said.

James LaRue, a representative of the American Library Association, calls their annual banned and challenged list an “anxiety index for mainstream America.”

In prior years, the list has been dominated by fights over obscene language or religious content. 

Atheist groups have attempted to ban the bible, for instance, while U.S. Christian groups spent years attempting to ban Harry Potter due to its supposed association with Satanism.

But for 2016, the list was dominated by books deemed “sexually explicit,” with five of the 10 having allegedly been targeted in part for featuring gay or transgender themes.

A notable exception, however, was the Little Bill children’s book series, which was subject to ban requests due to its association with comedian Bill Cosby, who remains the subject of numerous sexual assault allegations. 

This One Summer contains almost no explicitly gay content, aside from Windy saying in passing that she was at a summer camp where “all the kids’ parents except mine were lesbians.”

“I think there is clearly a general theme relating to sexuality that certain people are uncomfortable with in books for young people,” Mariko Tamaki told the National Post by email.

“So if your book contains any mention of sexuality, it’s likely to end up in this list.”

LaRue chalked up This One Summer’s detractors to being “Velcro parents” — a kind of supercharged version of the helicopter parent.

“I think it falls back into this terrible fear that many parents have that their children are growing up,” he said.

Similarly, U.S. writer Judy Blume, who also specializes in sexually confused coming-of age novels, is a regular feature on the banned and challenged list for similar reasons.

All told, Canadian literature has made very few appearances on the American Library Association list. Since it began in 1990, only Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been a repeated CanLit showing on the ranking.

However, 2016 saw another Canadian joining the Tamakis in the top ten.

Big Hard Sex Criminals, a compendium of comic books about a couple that can stop time with their orgasms, is illustrated by Toronto comic book artist (and National Post alumnus) Chip Zdarsky.

In a citation, the American Library Association said Big Hard Sex Criminals was “challenged because it was considered sexually explicit.”

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