To commemorate Banned Books Week each final week in September, the American Library Association releases a list of the previous year’s ten most frequently banned or challenged books. Certain titles reappear regularly, like Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower — which features a sexually-active, gay supporting character — and the infamous gay penguin picture book And Tango Makes Three. But 2014’s Top Ten list features a number of newer titles, including one we hadn’t previously heard of: Raina Telgemeier’s Drama, a cute, colorful graphic novel aimed for grades five through nine. So we decided to take a closer look and see just how controversial it is.
Published in 2012, Drama tells the story of a middle school theater class putting on a production of a musical called Moon Over Mississippi. Some parents disapproved of Drama’s supporting gay characters, who aren’t revealed as gay until well into the book. Because of this, Chapel Hill Elementary School in Mount Pleasant, Texas — a 457-student school about an hour’s drive from Arkansas and Oklahoma — banned the book.
Drama was of ten titles banned in Texas last year, according to the Texas ACLU. The district’s elementary school removed the book from its library for its “sexually explicit” content. That content happens on page 188, when a boy is forced at the last minute to take over the role of Miss Maybelle, the play’s female lead. During a big musical number, Union soldier Mr. Johnston and Southern belle Miss Maybelle share a kiss, much to the surprise of the audience.
In an interview with TeenReads.com, Helgemeier explained the inclusion of the gay characters:
It was always a central part of the story, and my editors were supportive from the earliest drafts. There was a lot of discussion about what ages the characters should be. I originally envisioned them as high schoolers, but Scholastic felt middle school was the right setting for the story. That meant adjusting certain elements to be more age-appropriate, but we all agreed that the finding your identity, whether gay or straight, is a huge part of middle school.
One should note that Drama was Telgemeier’s third book, after award-winning, best-selling memoirs Smile and Sisters. In 2013, Drama was one of four children’s titles to receive a Stonewall Book Award, given by the American Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table. It was also named one of the year’s best children’s titles by Publishers Weekly, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Booklist, and School Library Journal.
The book currently has a 4.2 rating (out of 5) on Amazon, but a skim of the book’s one-star reviews show dozens of parents disappointed with the book’s inclusion of gay and/or questioning characters. While sixth, seventh, and eighth grades are an extremely confusing, emotional time for children, it’s a shame that certain libraries cave in to pressure from parents who don’t trust children enough to read about innocent romance among kids their own age.
While this incident took place in a remote part of northeast Texas, book bans and challenges happen nearly everywhere. In 2013, the ALA compiled an interactive map featuring five years’ worth of bans and challenges. The claims are sometimes comically lame, like the group of elderly Wisconsin residents who in 2009 sued for damages after being exposed to the cover of a novel with a queer character at their public library. But the effects of censorship can be seriously chilling. In 2014 alone, the ALA found 311 documented challenges against books nationwide.
Of course, that’s why the ALA holds Banned Books Week in the first place, as a way to shed light on libraries as places to find information, even if that information makes folks a little uncomfortable. They even spell out their opposition to book banning in their Library Bill of Rights, first adopted in 1939: “Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”
(article originally published on October 2, 2015)