Each year the American Library Association sets aside one week as Banned Books Week, to celebrate the freedom to read. Librarians are often at the forefront of censorship battles, but they are not the only ones affected. Most often it is children and ordinary citizens that suffer when their freedom to read is compromised. This year, just in time for Banned Books Week, First Second Books released a graphic novel that grapples with these topics. Originally serialized at Saveapathea.com, Americus is now a published graphic novel .
By MK Reed; illustrated by Jonathan Hill
Ages 12 and up
First Second, September 2011, ISBN 978-1-59643-601-5
224 pp, $14.99
Many thanks to First Second for providing enough review copies to go around.
From the publisher’s site:
Neal Barton just wants to read in peace. Unluckily for him, some local Christian activists are trying to get his favorite fantasy series banned from the Americus public library on grounds of immoral content and heresy. Something has to be done, and it looks like quiet, shy Neal is going to have to do it. With youth services librarian Charlotte Murphy at his back, Neal finds himself leading the charge to defend the mega-bestselling fantasy series that makes his life worth living.
This funny, gripping, and relatable tale of life and local politics in middle America is currently being serialized online at saveapathea.com.
Esther Keller: While we (bloggers) aren’t all librarians, how many of you have been first-hand witness to a censorship battle and how did it compare to the censorship battle in Americus?
Mike Pawuk: I’ve been very fortunate to not receive any serious censorship battles at any of the branches I’ve worked for, so I’ve never dealt with a response such as in the Americus graphic novel. They’ve easily been resolved by citing my library’s selection policy, which adheres to the ALA Library Bill of Rights. I think one time I had a grandparent complain that their second-grader grandson picked up a Batman graphic novel and there was a scene with a mayor meeting up with a prostitute, and another similar instance was when a young reader wanted to read a manga title that wasn’t quite age appropriate for the young reader. Both titles were reviewed and still deemed appropriate for the teen age group I work with and serve.
Esther: That is fortunate, Mike! I did face a censorship battle about 5 ½ years ago. While it wasn’t really the first situation I faced it was by far the most serious. My principal approached me in the hallway with two assistant principals waving Carolyn Mackler’s The Earth My Butt and Other Big Round Things. She was offended by the first few pages, which portray two teenagers making out. She insisted I remove it from the library shelf. She wouldn’t listen to my arguments at the time, and I was left with no choice but to comply. But I reached out to a number of people, including the Director of Library Services in NYC, while seeking further advice and encouragement from colleagues, using forums like YALSA-BK. I ended up writing her a letter asking her to convene a re-consideration committee as per the DOE policy while citing all the reasons I felt I had made an appropriate purchasing decision. She didn’t respond right away, but a few weeks later she called me into her office and informed me that I could put the book back on the shelf. She had read the book and so had her mother and daughter and they all agreed the book was age appropriate.
Unlike Americus, this battle, as are most censorship battles, was very under the radar. It didn’t make the news. There were no vociferous calls to the masses about librarians corrupting youth. In a way it was a person of authority intimidating someone under them to do what they wanted. It took a lot of courage to stand up to my principal, because I didn’t know if I was risking my livelihood or at least risking the comfortable relationships I had forged in the workplace. I was fortunate that I had enlightened colleagues who whispered in her ear to give the book a chance and to trust my judgment. But most of my colleagues, while they agreed with me, were too afraid to say anything or to stand up for what was right. As a censorship battle, I don’t want to say that the Americus battle wasn’t realistic, but it wasn’t the reality of most challenges presented in the United States. I believe most challenges go unreported.
Robin Brenner: I have never had to deal directly with a challenge in my domain (Teen Services) or in my library, but I have been witness to some fairly significant challenges in my time. I was working in Lexington, MA, at the public library when there were, within one year, two significant challenges in the schools to the picture books King and King and And Tango Makes Three. Lexington is a typical New England suburb—well-to-do, full of college professors, and mostly liberal politically. However, these challenges were akin to the one portrayed in Americus. The challenges were loudly voiced objections from a conservative minority within the town. The objectors brought the challenge not only to the schools but purposefully presented the challenges to create a political firestorm by bringing them outside the school’s domain and bringing their fight to local politicians and reporters. This was the kind of challenge that resulted in arrests, news coverage, protests, and counter protests. We at the library staff were even trained on how to react to protesters that were due to appear in the town.
Emotions definitely run high in these situations, and I personally felt like it was an interesting test of my ability to keep a cool head and in educating questioners about the library, the importance of the freedom to read, and how to best manage reactions to a visible and controversial challenge. I think part of what struck me as a bit off in Americus was the librarian’s initial reaction. I feel that Charlotte does a fine job rallying her troops, including Neal, and in arguing her points at meetings and with administrators, but I was struck at how reactionary she was initially with the objecting parent. She was abrupt, curt, and argumentative—something that I could and would never be if a parent came up to me so visibly angry and ready for a fight. I might well have felt it inside, but a big part of dealing with any complaint is swallowing your immediate defensive reaction and simply listening—it goes so much further in defusing the situation. Although, of course, in this case, that might have defused the entire plot!
Mike: Robin, I agree with your discussion about the librarian character in Americus If I had made the rude comments that Charlotte the librarian did, I’d probably lose my job.
Esther: I agree! Charlotte’s initial reaction to the challenge was totally unprofessional, and like Robin said, in real life a well spoken librarian could probably defuse the situation by handling a patron the right way. But of course, this is a work of fiction.
Eva Volin: I’ve been involved in challenges that were presented in a civil manner and handled professionally, and a challenge that became dirty and painful and destructive, much like the one described in Americus. I much prefer the former. And though everyone who knows me knows I am much more likely to react to a situation than respond to one, like Robin, I would have been in big, big trouble had I handled the first contact the way Charlotte did.
Brigid Alverson: I am not a librarian, so I haven’t personally experienced a book challenge, but I did grow up in the Midwest, and I was disappointed in the portrayal of the woman who challenged the book. It was very two-dimensional, as if the creators had heard of such people but had never actually met one. She didn’t even talk like a real person. I know there is a lot of stridency on this topic on the Internet, but real people are complicated and the authors missed a real opportunity in not showing her as a well-rounded person. There was no acknowledgement that she was a real person, who might be motivated by concern for her children (as opposed to a desire to control them), and who might hesitate or doubt her course of action. There was one panel where she paused, after a huge family fight, and looked at a picture of herself holding a baby. As the mother of teenagers, I know that look, when you ask yourself how you got from that to this. But that was the only moment in the whole book where I felt like she was human. The rest of the time she was just a caricature of everything the creators dislike about the religious right.
On the other hand, I thought the portrayal of high school life was spot on, and I liked the quirky side characters, like Neal’s neighbor. Overall, the book had a lot of life to it, but that one utterly unrealistic character really marred it for me.
Mike: Brigid, I agree. I really liked the characterization of all the characters in the book except for the stereotypical portrayal of the “crazy Christian mom.” I know I’m the only Conservative librarian in the room, but having the mother on page 39 actually suggest her own son lie to frame the librarian that she had an affair with a minor was just too much. To set it up that Christians are psychos and crazy enough to say anything to ban a book was too much for me. The fact that a Christian family would use the public library for years with no problem—and the boy worked there, too—that apparently had such horrid fiction in there that would not upset the mother until she caught him reading the last book in a popular series he must have been reading since he was a tween just was too unbelievable for me.
Robin: Brigid and Mike, I totally agree with you on the characterization of the mom. I saw that Reed was trying to give the family three dimensions, especially in the moment like the one you highlighted, Brigid. I fear, though, that he didn’t succeed, and fell back on making the mom a villain with far too few sides. She felt like she was cobbled together from all the worst instigators of book banning. I have no doubt that there are some who might stoop to such depths in a political fight or are vitriolic about their demands, but I would have been more interested to see a struggle between more even-handed opponents. As Mike points out, most challengers are at the very least driven by concern for their own children. I felt like the chance for a more complex look at challenges was lost.
Esther: Did any part of the story make you uncomfortable? How so?
Scott Robins: I had a big problem with Danny’s coming out used in such a token way, only to have him shipped off to military school. I understood the need to strip down Neal’s support system in order for him to grow on his own as a character but it felt like an easy way to give the story seemingly that much more weight, that much more importance but it felt completely flat. It didn’t feel authentic in any way. If Danny was the central character of the story dealing with censorship as a gay teen, that would’ve been much more compelling.
Robin: Scott, I also wondered at the way that Danny’s coming out and subsequent shipping off to military school was handled. I can see how it might happen. The sequence of events perhaps gives an explanation of the mom’s particularly angry reaction to what’s spiraling out of her control. Ultimately, though, I felt like he was too quickly shuffled off to the side. If you are going to include the character, I wished he’d actually been around during the whole of the book. I would have liked to see them both stand up and fight this fight and, in fact, his direct struggles with his mom might have led to the complexity I was hoping for above. I think what was frustrating was that I could see what the creators were striving to do but felt they didn’t quite manage it.
The one good note was the idea that military school was actually a positive change for him, and that he was able to blossom a bit away from his mother’s control. Military school is usually presented as a punishment or threat, so it was nice to see a perceived negative turned into a positive.
Eva: Both of the things you two have mentioned disappointed me, too. One of the ways an “issue book” can fail is at creating well-rounded characters. Instead all the energy is expended hammering home the author’s point. As Brigid, Mike, and Robin pointed out, there is only one instance in which Danny’s mother appears as a human being equipped with emotions other than righteous anger. And Danny coming out and then being sent to a military school is another instance of a cookie-cutter character being introduced to show either how “sensitive” readers are (Neal included in this as an example of a “sensitive reader”—none of the bullies show up at the hearing to support their favorite book) or how evil and unfeeling his mother is.
Esther: When I posted this question, I wasn’t thinking of the scene where Danny comes out. But I can’t say it made me uncomfortable as much as it made me scratch my head. Was Danny just saying it to spite his mother or was he really gay? I wasn’t sure. And we’ll never know, because the author never brought it up again. That storyline just fell through the cracks.
What made me uncomfortable was Danny’s mother. She was so one dimensional and so stereotypical. In a way, it’s how the media paints and depicts people who try and ban a book. Yet, in my heart of hearts, I know there’s more to it than just anger, spite, or being a zealot. Somewhere in that person, I imagine is someone wanting to protect their child or to protect their values. I don’t think it’s right, but I understand that part of censorship challenges. Yet, Danny’s mother is just a shrew. She’s so despicable that her husband is driven to drink in secret. Her children cower in her presence. The only one who has a reprieve is Danny—because he was shipped off to military school.
There was a lot of meat in these characters and the story, it just feels sort of undercooked.
Scott: Maybe even overcooked. The meat falls off the bone. As it was mentioned before, the story hinges on a single element for the narrative to move forward that single story element is weak. I hate to get all librarian-y on this book but if Charlotte had gone through the proper channels in dealing with a book challenge the dramatic city hearing probably wouldn’t have happened. I understand that not everything has to be realistic and absolutely accurate in fiction but for something as weighty as censorship and book challenges in public libraries, I think it’s important to get it right. I have to agree with Eva, it felt “issues for issues-sake.”
Robin: To give the creators the benefit of the doubt, I will say that the library aspect of our complaints—how challenges can be handled versus how they are handled in the public eye—are not necessarily apparent to those outside the profession. Sure, I wish someone would show how challenges can actually be handled. Look at the Marshall Public Library (Missouri) challenges to see how, despite having national attention, procedure was actually followed (gasp!). On the other hand, see the challenges in Jessamine County in Kentucky in which library employees themselves demonstrate just how out of control some folks who challenge books can actually be. There is evidence for extremes, and the situations in Americus are not that much crazier than the reports of what went down in Jessamine County. Given that we were getting more of a window into these people’s lives than a news report can provide, though, I still wish for more shades of gray.
In Americus, while Charlotte’s initial reactions were off, I do think that the challenges would have gone forward, and likely blown up like they did, despite any procedure in place. Frequently that IS the problem—challengers ignore whatever procedure are in place or bring in politicians and newspeople before the institution has had a chance to assess the situation.
Mike: I was disturbed by the librarian’ behavior. On page 5, panel 3-5 the librarian is reading a book while working. I’ve been a librarian for almost 16 years and I can count on only one hand how any times I had free time to do that thing everyone thinks we do: read books all day. 🙂
Seriously though, I was concerned about how impolite people are to each other in the book. Civility has gone down the tubes. On page 34, the librarian’s comments to Danny’s mother are just horrid. On page 49, the librarian blabs about the problem patron in front of a 14-year-old kid. No matter how crazy a patron is, you don’t bad mouth them on the reference floor with minors. Just rude. Also, it appears that the librarian is the only staff person handling the book challenge. Where’s the branch manager? Where’s the support staff? On page I did like the book, but much like how there’s been recent discussion on the Graphic Novels in Libraries Listserv about psychologists nit-picking about medical terms used in some DC Comics titles, when I see fictional bad behavior by library staff—even if I agree with their stance—it just reeks of unprofessionalism in my own profession.
Also, I had a real problem with how Neal treats his mother. I could see that there was a comparison being done with Danny’s mom versus Neal’s mom. Danny’s mother was caring, but on a severe overbearing sort of way while Neal’s mom reeked of being passive and kept on clamming up after Neal sighed and scolded her when she was trying to correct his behavior such as on page 67 when he gets upset when she wants him to be courteous and say a simple “thank you.” This happens again on page 189. The only time Neal’s mom stands up and gets a backbone, it’s when she scolds Danny’s mom instead of her own son and jaw-droppingly says “I wish you realized how little you deserve your kids.” The tone of the gaggle of women in the book against Neal’s mom when she was in the grocery store on page 105 was also disturbing. Jeez Louise, folks – is this the setting of middle America or is this Jersey Shore? The meanness of all the adult people in the book was really depressing. Didn’t they leave the pettiness of high school behind them? I guess not.
Eva: See, this was my big problem with the book: the checklist. We need an issue. Check: censorship. We need a villain. Check: Danny’s mom. We need a hero who will grow and learn something about himself at the end of his journey. Check: Neal. We need a sword bearer. Check: Charlotte the golden-hearted librarian who finds love with another golden-hearted librarian. We need support staff. Check: Danny, the city council member who finds truth through reading, and the nebbish neighbor. All of the categories needed for writing an issue book were checked, but none of the categories were compellingly developed. And this is a shame, because censorship is an issue people feel strongly about.
Yes, it’s cathartic to have characters saying all the things I wish I could say to the people I disagree with, but it’s not realistic, nor does it make for a good read. (True, Chris Crutcher’s rants are fun, but, starred reviews or no starred reviews, The Sledding Hill runs down the same checklist Americus does.)
Esther: So we’ve said a lot about what we (as adults) think about this book. And the book has just been issued, so I’m not sure if anyone had a chance for teen feedback, but what do you think the teens will think of this book? If you’ve managed to get this into the hands of teens already what have they said?
Robin: This is very much my question too. So many of my teens have absolutely no idea what challenging a book means, or how many of their favorite titles have been banned or challenged. And not just far away in some other place, but right in the towns next door. Banned Books Week certainly does a lot to open their eyes for that week, but however black and white we may find these characters, Americus will bring these questions up year round.
Eva mentioned Chris Crutcher above, and I think he’s actually a great parallel. Crutcher frequently has the wish-fulfillment speech of overwhelming eloquence, and the characters that represent different sides of issues in perhaps too easy a manner. But I love Crutcher even if his books smack of following checklists because my teens adore his books. They haven’t encountered all these questions yet. They haven’t had to defend their beliefs very often. Whatever my quibbles with the finer points, the big questions are being presented and the reader is being asked to consider what they would do if they were Neal.
I live in what I fondly refer to as the bluest state that could (Massachusetts), which is its own kind of bubble or ivory tower, and I think it’s vitally important that this kind of story remind teens that not everyone thinks like they do or agrees with them. That they will have to figure out how to handle challenges like those in Americus on small and large scales with grace, understanding and articulate discussion.
Mike: I haven’t been able to get teen feedback yet. Our library copies are still on order. I do think teens might enjoy the book and learn a little about how and why books might be challenged. It’s not a perfect story by any means, but it’s unique to have one done as a graphic novel.
Esther: I cheated. I knew I wanted to ask this question and shoved my copy of Americus into the hands of a couple of eager 7th graders. What surprised me, and was also a great wake-up call, was how different they saw the story from me. Zeta, the first one to finish the book, loved the story. She immediately identified with Neal. She said: Neal’s just like me. Shy. Timid. Insecure. And then he got a job in the library (like me!) and he becomes more self-confident (like me!). She continued, when she came to our school last year, she was new to the city and she felt little and skinny and was afraid that she would be beat up. But she wasn’t like that at the end of the year.
Whereas, I read the story and my focus of the book was mostly on the book challenge and Charlotte.
I asked what they thought of the book challenge and if they thought that it could happen in our school. They were both angry at the idea of someone trying to stop anyone from reading something in the book and couldn’t imagine that it would happen in our school. They didn’t see the problems in the storytelling like we did. For them, this worked.
Eva: I’m not surprised at all to hear this, Esther. As much as I complain about the flatness of characters, I’m old enough and have experienced enough to want more shades of gray. But readers who are new to complicated topics like censorship are often best served by a first look in black and white. The grays come later as the topics are internalized and digested. (Which sounds a bit gastric, but censorship can give the strongest person a tummy ache. Ba-dump-bump.)
Scott: I’m definitely curious to see what teens think at my library. I run a Youth Advisory Group and plan on passing my copy to one of them to see what they think. I know that there are teens out there that do enjoy “issue” books even if they run through that checklist that Eva referred to earlier. I think this book may end up resonating with a lot of teens now, not so much because of the censorship issue but because of the book that’s been challenged. The Chronicles of Apathea is a thinly disguised Harry Potter analog and what I’ve found is that teens now have a deep love with the series. I’m sure they will recognize Apathea as a fictionalized version of Harry Potter and react to it being banned from their own reading experiences as children.
About Esther Keller
Esther Keller is the librarian at JHS 278, Marine Park in Brooklyn, NY. There she started the library's first graphic novel collection and strongly advocated for using comics in the classroom. She also curates the Graphic Novel collection for the NYC DOE Citywide Digital Library. She started her career at the Brooklyn Public Library and later jumped ship to the school system so she could have summer vacation and a job that would align with a growing family's schedule. On the side, she is a mother of 4 and regularly reviews for SLJ and School Library Connection (formerly LMC). In her past life, she served on the Great Graphic Novels for Teens Committee where she solidified her love and dedication to comics.
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