There's a curious commonality among the books that get banned by schools and libraries.

It's Banned Book Week! Hooray for banned books! Er ... wait, no, that's what I —

What would you guess is the main reason why books get banned?

You'd probably think it comes down to sex and swearing; after all, that's how it works with music and movies, right?

But you have to wonder: Are people really getting that upset over some four-letter words and a few racy scenes? Really? You sure that's all that's going on?



Photo by Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images.

Turns out that the majority of books getting pushed out of libraries and schools in America all share a strong emphasis on diversity.

Consider the case of "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" by emily m. danforth, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age novel about a lesbian teenager. Originally published in 2012, the book was banned from some approved summer reading lists in Delaware because of "explicit language."

Something about this didn't settle right with author Malinda Lo, who helps run the website Diversity in YA.

Lo couldn't shake the feeling that "explicit language" was just code for "has homosexual characters."

So she decided to crunch some numbers, based on data from the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom and see if she might find a pattern.

Spoiler alert: She did.


Photo by San José Library/Flickr.

Lo discovered that 52% of the books that were banned or challenged from 2000-2009 contained what she qualified as diverse content — taking on issues of race, sexuality, disability, LGBTQ, non-Christian religions, or non-Western settings.

Like "Cameron Post," most of those books weren't explicitly banned because they had a transgender character (or empathetically portrayed a Muslim or dared to depict a woman enjoying sex, et cetera). But in our current society of cleverly-coded bigotry, you can't help but wonder if it's more than a coincidence.


In terms of this chart, "Issues" are defined as "books that focus on the LGBT experience, and books that are broadly about sexuality and include specific chapters about homosexuality." Image by Malinda Lo/ DiversityInYA. Used with permission.


Image from the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom. Used with permission.

The numbers start to look even worse when you consider the overall lack of diversity in the publishing industry.

Only 10% of children's books feature multicultural elements despite the fact that nearly 40% of the country identifies as a person of color.


Photo by San José Library/Flickr.

And you know what's even crazier? The majority of those books that contain diverse elements are written by white authors.


Censoring books isn't exactly a new phenomenon.

As long as we've been marking up dead trees with symbols to represent our brainthoughts, people have been getting really upset about books.

Classics like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "Slaughterhouse-Five," "Invisible Man," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Bluest Eye"? All radically important books that are still being censored in some parts of America.

That's why the American Library Association created Banned Books Week — to celebrate the stories that endured after someone tried to stifle them.

The fact is that we're still living in a time where school administrators, public servants, and community leaders who think there's value in protecting people from ideas or images that they might not agree with.

But they are unequivocally wrong. (I learned that word in a book.)


Photo by San José Library/Flickr.

Books have been scientifically proven to make us better people.

This is partly to do with their supernatural ability to translate ideas and experiences directly into our brains.


But banning books doesn't just shut down ideas — it blinds us from the beauty of the world around us.

As MacArthur award-winning author Junot Diaz once said, "If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves."

Books are powerful artifacts. Stories reflect our lives — and lives, in turn, reflect our stories. Stories make it easier for us to empathize with others who are different from us and help us understand the world we're living in. So let's embrace our own reality and become better people instead of making monsters. I prefer my monsters to stay fictional anyway.

Here's an infographic about banned books from the American Library Association:


Image courtesy of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. Used with permission.

More

Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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