International books offer teen readers unique perspectives into the lives of young people from other countries. In some ways, these experiences are universal, yet in other ways they are particular to their cultural milieu. They are windows that open readers’ eyes to different experiences, different ways of thinking, and different norms, and in doing so, they may challenge our notions about what we deem socially acceptable.
Only a very small number of international books make it into the U.S. market, and even less into our YA market. Then, a select few of those books are granted the dubious honor of appearing on our Banned Books lists.
It is ironic that the very books whose value lies (in part, at least) in their ability to expand the minds of young adult readers by offering them perspectives outside of their cultural bubbles should be banned — often for those very same perspectives and ideas which are at their core.
Banned Books Week celebrates the freedom to read, to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox, unpopular, or “other.” International books may contain elements of all those things. We celebrate them here by exploring a sampling of international YA books that have been banned or challenged at one point or another, both here in the United States and abroad.
The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa; translated by Lauren Na (First Second, 2009)
This Korean graphic novel was number two on ALA’s Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books list of 2011. The reasons listed for the challenges were: nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group.
The story, the first in a trilogy, sensitively depicts the sexual curiosity and coming-of-age of a young girl, Ehwa, growing up in rural Korea around the turn of the twentieth century. Kim Dong Hwa’s discussion of sexuality is related in evocative metaphors and natural imagery, yet his graphic depictions are refreshingly candid and often amusing. His is a graphic novel that treats the subject of sexual awakening with great humor, sensitivity and honesty, and does not shy away from graphic depictions of taboo subjects. Though set in a conservative society of far away and long ago, Kim shows that childhood and adolescent curiosity about sex is both natural and universal.
Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi; translated by translated by Mattias Ripa and Blake Ferris (Pantheon, 2003)
Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel memoir about growing up during the Iranian Revolution, originally published in France, earned second place on ALA’s Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books list of 2014, for reasons of: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint, graphic depictions, and being “politically, racially, and socially offensive.”
Satrapi does not censor her account of what she remembers from the events of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, including violent protests and scenes of torture. Young Marji is opinionated and headstrong, and Satrapi does not hold back on her use of colorful language or her opinions throughout her memoir. She does so with a good dose of humor and irreverence, poignantly depicting what it was like to live through such a turbulent, violent upheaval in a nation’s history from the perspective of a young child.
Into the River by Ted Dawe (Polis Books, 2016)
The source of heated controversy in its native New Zealand, this award winning book was published in the U.S. in 2016. Access to the book had been restricted for a time by New Zealand’s Film and Literature Board of Review due to complaints about sex scenes, offensive language and drug use.
Into the River tells the story of Te Arepa Santos, a teenage Māori boy who struggles to fit in when he leaves his village on a scholarship to attend a boys’ boarding school in the city. Te Arepa’s Māori perspective is one that is rarely seen in literature for young adults, making this book an important contribution to world literature for young adults.
Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison (HarperTeen, 2000)
Concluding our roundup on an amusing note, this 2001 Printz Honor book appears 35th on ALA’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged books of 2000-2009.
This British import chronicles the daily musings and misadventures of Georgia Nicolson, one singularly irrepressible teenage girl. Georgia has plenty to say about a variety of topics affecting her life, from kissing to homosexuality to bodily functions, narrated with zany candor and a flippant attitude towards the authority figures in her life. Georgia’s uncensored, hilarious voice is the main draw of Rennison’s book, the first in a long and successful series. To censor it would deprive young adult readers the joy of getting to know her.
— Jenny Zbrizher, currently reading The Boomerang Effect by Gordon Jack
Jenny is a YA librarian at the Morris County Library in New Jersey. In addition to reading, she is an avid fan of travel and musical theater. Follow her on Twitter @JennywithaZ