From Harry Potter to ‘Blubber’: 100 books make list of most challenged of the ’90s

Thursday, July 20, 2000
Matthew Dockery, 7, reads the latest book in the Harry
Potter series — Harry Potter and the Goblet of
Fire — at a bookstore in Las Cruces, N.M., on July 8. The
Harry Potter books are on the American Library Association’s list of the 100
most-challenged books of the 1990s.

Harry Potter.

To some, the name refers to a magical world of adventure and
imagination — and a book, especially the latest,
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,
released July 8, that has broken sales records in bookstores across the

To others, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are just plain witchcraft
and should be burned at the stake. They were the
most frequently challenged of 1999,
and among the 100 most frequently challenged books of the decade, according to
a list recently released by the American Library
Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

Authors of the 10 most frequently challenged books from 1990-99 are:
Alvin Schwartz, Michael Willhoite, Maya Angelou, Robert Cormier, Mark Twain,
John Steinbeck, Judy Blume, Katherine Paterson, Leslea Newman and J.D.

Some of the authors on the list, as well as free-speech advocates, say
parents are wrongly censoring books that were written for children, not adults.
The authors and advocates also stress that, while parents have the right to
control reading by their own children, they do not have the right to make
decisions for the children of others.

The most common reasons given for
challenging the 10 most frequently challenged books from 1990-99:

Scary Stories
(series) by Alvin Schwartz — scary, violent, occult

by Michael Willhoite — promotes homosexuality, age

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
— sexually explicit, specifically graphic depictions of molestation and

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier — offensive
language, sexually explicit

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by
Mark Twain — offensive language, racist, especially frequent use of

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck — offensive

Forever by Judy Blume — sexually explicit,
profanity, morality (pre-marital sex)

Bridge to Terabithia by
Katherine Paterson — offensive language, fantasy (references to

Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman —
promotes homosexuality, age inappropriate

The Catcher in the Rye
by J.D. Salinger — offensive language, sexually explicit

Beverly Becker, associate director of the American Library Association’s Office
for Intellectual Freedom

The Top 100 list was compiled from 5,718 challenges to library books
reported to or recorded by the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom from
1990-99. Over the decade the number of reported challenges has declined
significantly — from a peak of 762 challenges in 1995 to 472 in 1999.

But Beverly Becker, associate director of the Office for Intellectual
Freedom, warned against talking solace from this decline.

“Nobody should be complacent in thinking that books are safe from
censorship attempts,” she said. “Research shows that reported challenges
represent only 20 to 25 percent of all challenges made. The fact that every
challenge is an attempt to make ideas inaccessible to their intended audience
is even more troubling than the numbers.”

So why are the Harry Potter books so controversial anyway?

Chris Finan, president of the American
Booksellers For Free Expression, said most of the people who protest the
Harry Potter books believe that the Bible brands all witchcraft as evil and
won’t accept that it can be good. Finan’s group supports
Muggles for Harry Potter, a
group that opposes censorship of the Harry Potter books.

But the principal reason given for challenging any book — 1,446
challenges — is that it is too sexually explicit.

For this reason, one of the most popular of contemporary children’s
writers, Judy Blume, appears on the Top 100 list five times, more than any
other author. Her books often are criticized for their sexual content, dealing
with issues of puberty and sexual awakening. The five most frequently
challenged Blume books are Forever (No.
7), Blubber
(30), Deenie
(42), Are You There, God? It’s Me,
Margaret (
Tiger Eyes (89).

In a statement, Blume said she didn’t understand why people think her
books are so controversial.

“I don’t think of my books or characters as controversial,” she said.
“What exactly is controversial about my books anyway? Puberty? It’s normal,
it’s healthy, it’s a fact of life. Why hide from it?

“If those of us who care about making our own decisions about what to
read and what to think don’t take a stand, others will decide for us,” Blume
said. “I’ve never been one to let others decide what’s right for me or my

Another controversial subject is homosexuality — with 497
challenges. Michael Willhoite, second on the Top 100 list for his book
Daddy’s Roommate, recalls the first
time he found out his book about a child with a gay father was banned.

After publishing his book in the fall of 1990, he came home after the
Christmas holidays to a message his cousin had left on his answering machine
about a Newsweek article reporting
that his book had been banned.

Willhoite said he was flattered.

“The enemies that I have made with this book are exactly the enemies I
would prefer to make,” the 54-year-old author told
The Freedom Forum Online.
“I’m not out to hurt children. Traditional families just can’t accept
homosexuality or anything different from the norm.”

Both Willhoite and Blume say they wrote their books to help children
cope with their lives, whether it is dealing with sexuality or homosexuality.
Aside from the harsh criticism from the conservative right, both say they have
received positive feedback.

“From what my early readers (now in their 20s and 30s) tell me, I
guess I should be pleased,” Blume said. “They say I helped them develop a
healthy attitude toward their own sexuality at a time when no one was talking
to them about their feelings or answering their questions. If my books have
helped them become sexually responsible adults, good. If my books have given
young women permission to celebrate their sexuality in a healthy way, better

Willhoite agreed: “(Readers) embraced (my book) wholeheartedly because
they finally saw their lives addressed. No child should be ashamed of his or
her parents.”

Finan of the American Booksellers for Free Expression says he agrees
that that people have every right to be offended.

“Our role is to defend the principle (of free speech),” he said.
“People have a right to tell their children not to read certain books. Our
position is that people don’t have the right to make that decision for other
people’s children.”

Charles Suhor, field representative on matters of censorship for the
National Council of Teachers of English,
echoed Finan’s sentiments, but noted that sometimes books should be banned from
school libraries.

“Not every book-banning is necessarily a bad one,” he said. “One must
look at the context. We don’t knee-jerk into every situation that is brought to

He described an instance in which a teacher called for NCTE’s support
to put in the school library a book on homosexuality intended for adults. That
book was a “how-to” book, which was not age-appropriate for public school
libraries, and so NCTE did not provide the requested support.

However, banning a book like Willhoite’s Daddy’s Roommate is a different situation, Finan
said, because the book was written for children, and there is no reason it
should be included in the adult section of a public library or banned

“These aren’t adult books,” Finan said. “This is children’s literature
intended to guide children.”

Ultimately, educators should be given the responsibility to choose
age-appropriate books for the children to read in school, Suhor said.

“Teachers should look at an array of materials and choose which ones
should serve an educational purpose and have an inclusive view of the world,”
he said.

Willhoite said he would like to tell opponents of his book to “get
over it. Gay families are a fact of life; gay men have always been around.
We’re like everyone else. We have our flaws. We have our virtues.”

In the future, people may accept books like Willhoite’s, but other
books will offend, Finan said. The fight against censorship seems

“There’re always going to be parents who think teachers are teaching
the wrong book,” Finan added. “There’s always going to be some books that
parents find offensive… . The desire for censorship always exists in a
democratic society. It’s a fact of society that people raise objections and
demand something to be done about them. This requires us to be remain vigilant
about demands and fight them when they censor.”

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