NEW YORK – Before allegations of sexual harassment, Jay Asher and Sherman Alexie were facing criticisms of a different kind.
Asher's "Thirteen Reasons Why" and Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" top the American Library Association's list of "challenged" books from 2017, those most objected to by parents and other community members. The list also includes Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and one of last year's top-selling young adult novels, Angie Thomas' "The Hate U Give."
Complaints about books range from the theme of suicide in "Thirteen Reasons Why" to profanity and sexual content in Alexie's book. James LaRue, who runs the library association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, said that future challenges could well be based on the authors themselves. Last year, Bill Cosby's "Little Bill Books" were on the ALA list because of multiple accusations of sexual assault against the actor-comedian.
"I personally believe the book is distinct from the author," LaRue said. "But when a librarian faces that kind of challenge, my advice is to treat it like any other kind of challenge. You look at the nature of the challenge, consider the context and make the decision based on the needs of the local community."
Over the past few months, several writers have had book deals and other projects canceled or have been kicked out of organizations. Asher was dropped by his literary agent and expelled from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Alexie ended up turning down one of the library association's highest honors, the Carnegie Medal, which had been awarded for his memoir "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me." The prize was announced in early February, just before allegations surfaced that he had harassed numerous women.
The ALA list is part of the association's State of America's Libraries report and marks the beginning of National Library Week, which runs through April 14. Books drawing attention, whether because of sales or a film adaptation, often become more likely to receive challenges. In 2017, "Thirteen Reasons Why" was adapted into a popular Netflix series, while "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" has been widely read and taught since coming out a decade ago. In previous years, Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series have been among notable challenged works.
Asher and Alexie have been on the list before; "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" topped the list for 2014, while Alexie's book and "Thirteen Reasons Why" finished second and third, respectively, for 2012.
Books on the new list were a mix of older works such as Lee's novel (violence, racial language) and Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner" ("May lead to terrorism") and more recent books, including Cory Silverberg's "Sex is a Funny Word" and "I Am Jazz," by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings ("Gender identity"). Three works were cited for "LGBT content": the gay-themed penguin story "And Tango Makes Three," by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson; Alex Gino's "George"; and Raina Telgemeier's "Drama."
The association tallied 356 challenges, up from 323 last year, but in line with numbers over the past decade. The ALA, which believes that reported cases are just a fraction of actual challenges, bases its list on news reports and on accounts submitted from libraries. A challenge is defined as a "formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness."
LaRue did not have a number for books actually pulled from shelves, although he cited some examples. After seven students from a Colorado community killed themselves, a school district official in 2017 ordered librarians to temporarily stop circulating "Thirteen Reasons Why." An Arizona school district pulled "The Kite Runner," and offered no explanation. A superintendent in Katy, Texas, pulled "The Hate U Give" after a man attending a school board meeting complained of the book's language and depiction of drug use.
Top 10 list: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/NLW-Top10
State of Libraries Report: http://bit.ly/soal-2018