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YA Under Fire: What Makes the Books Teens Love so Controversial?

As the end of September approaches, the air in the library feels charged. The rest of the year, students walking through the commons might glance at my window display and smile. In September, they stop and stare. A boy runs his fingers around the red graffitied letters that spell out “Banned Books Week 2012.” A girl lightly touches the cover images of books like The Hunger Games and Ann Brasheres’s Traveling Pants series — staples in our library — that have been challenged or banned elsewhere. I can read their lips through the glass. “This book was banned?” “Why would anyone want to ban that?” Some come in and pore over the list, gleefully grabbing “forbidden” books from the display rack to check out.

I have learned not to be surprised, but I am still saddened when, year after year, ALA’s list of “Books Challenged or Banned” bears an uncanny resemblance to my summer reading list. For the past seven years, at least half of the books on the top ten list have been YA novels — more than the number of adult and children’s books combined. Even more disturbing, a whopping 36 of the 47 challenges detailed on last year’s list originated either in classrooms and school libraries or in the YA section of public libraries.┬áThis means that teens are having their right to read threatened more than any other group. So why are people getting so worked up over YA?

The easy answer is that these books are in schools, where challenges are most likely to occur. I also suspect that a high percentage of the challenges come from people who have not even read the books. Take a 2010 challenge to Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (2000 Printz Honor, 2012 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults, 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award), for instance. How on earth does one claim that a book about a girl who has been raped “glorifies” premarital sex? However, I think the reality is much more complicated. Sometimes, the very elements of YA that make it so controversial are the same ones that make these books resonate so powerfully with teens.

I learned something long ago as a college missionary that has served me well as a librarian: Teens can spot a poser a mile away. It’s like radar. If you try to approach them from an insincere place, they will see right through you. Successful YA authors understand this. That is why the very best of them are able to write in a voice that readers recognize as their own. Of course The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2008 Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults, 2009 Odyssey Award winner, 2010 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults) is raunchy, because that is what it is like inside a fifteen-year-old boy’s head. This authenticity is probably the reason it won the National Book Award — and the reason neither of my two copies stays checked in long enough to make it from the book truck to the shelf. Even when they are set in the distant future or in a fantasy world populated by vampires and wizards, in a big way, YA books are real life — messy, confusing and scary. But these books can also be comforting. They say to teens, “You are not alone. Someone else has felt the way you feel.” So much of the recent debate has focused on the darkness in YA, but by looking only at the darkness, we miss out on the light — stories about kids not just going through horrible things, but finding the strength to overcome.

I can understand and even applaud parents trying to protect their children. I have two little girls, and like every mom, I wish I could keep anything ugly from ever touching their lives. However, I know that is not possible. Whenever we face any sort of challenge, from potty training to the death of a pet, my first reaction is to reach for a book. I can only hope that when they are older and confronted with the tough realities all teens must face, there will still be courageous YA authors out there writing beautiful and important books that will help them make sense of the world in ways I can’t.

Celebrate Banned Books Week by rebelling with a great challenged book! We all know the beloved classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and the runaway bestsellers like Twilight and The Hunger Games, but here are few you may have missed. All information about challenges was taken from the ALA’s annual “List of Books Challenged or Banned.”

  • Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson (2008 Best Books for Young Adults, 2008 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers): Tyler’s senior year is turned upside down in the wake of false accusations that he took advantage of a popular girl at a party and posted pictures of her online. Exploring many of the same themes as Speak from a guy’s perspective, this book was removed from classrooms at the Montgomery County, KY High School in 2009 due to parent complaints about foul language and topics “deemed unsuited for discussion in coed high school classes.”
  • What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones (2002 Best Books for Young Adults, 2002 Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers): This funny and poignant novel in verse chronicles the misadventures of Sophie as she muddles through a series of bad relationships before finally finding “Mr. Right” in the most unexpected place possible. The title has been on the top ten list the past two years for offensive language and being sexually explicit. The most explicit thing I can recall about this book is a reference to a character taking a bath.
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving: So this one is not technically a YA novel, but it is a coming-of-age story with definite crossover appeal. In the middle of the literary wasteland that was my freshman year of college, when I was so burnt out on trudging through tedious required reading that all I read for pleasure was airport-trash-crime-thrillers, a professor recommended this book to me, and it changed my life. This story inspired the movie Simon Birch, but as usual, the book is better! It was removed from the Pelham, MA school district recommended summer reading list in 2009 after a parent complained about the novel’s objectionable language and sexuality.

— Wendy Daughdrill, currently reading Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

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Wendy Daughdrill


  1. Gretchen Perkins Gretchen Perkins

    When I was a teen, I remember one of those “ABC After School Specials” about book banning. I think the story revolved around a school where the “Huckleberry Finn” was being challenged. I don’t remember much else about the episode, except the climatic scene where the librarian stood up before the gathered parents and school board officials and told them (and I am paraphrasing here) “What if I told you we have a book in our library with a scene that features a man’s concubine who is gang raped, and then when he finds out he kills her, mutilates her, and then sends the pieces to all the neighboring nations.” There answer was, (again, paraphrasing) “Well, duh, we would take it out of the library.” Imagine their shock when she told them this story was contained in none other than THE HOLY BIBLE! I don’t know exactly what my point is. I guess I realized at a young age that one person’s Bible is another person’s smut, and that you should keep an open mind.

    • Julia Newsome Julia Newsome

      A very telling anecdote.. Thank you for sharing it.

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