Americus: A Graphic Novel Centered Around Book Banning

Remember when the Harry Potter books were still in their prime and you’d hear about those Christian parents trying to ban the series from local and school libraries? What do you do if those are your parents? Or your best friend’s parents? And how do you go about changing their minds?

That’s the crux of the conflict in a fantastic graphic novel called Americus (First Second Books, 2011) by MK Reed with illustrations by Jonathan David Hill:

The story centers around 14-year-old Neil Barton, a shy kid living in Americus, Oklahoma. He loves the fictional fantasy series “The Chronicles of Apathea Ravenchilde.” It’s really popular, but, you know, it features witches and magical spells and talking dogs so it must be anti-everything-good-and-right-with-the-world. His best friend Danny loves the books, too, but Danny’s mom is leading the charge to get them banned:

During an argument, Danny tells his mom a secret that gets him sent off to military school and she channels her frustration into getting the city council to ban the books from a local library.

The non-essential characters don’t have a lot of depth to them and neither do most of the side-stories, but there’s enough material to flesh out these ideas in future books if the author ever wanted to do so.

There’s some criticism that the Christian mother is a “Bible-thumping caricature,” too stereotypical, too one-sided, too bats hit crazy, but I don’t buy that. Let’s face it: These people really exist. And Reed makes it clear that the mother loves her kids and wants what’s best for them… she is just completely misguided in how she goes about it. You wish her husband would get the courage to stand up to her, but he never quite gets there in the book.

The other characters include Neil’s single mother, a boy who helps Neil discover new music, girls in Shop class who have to put up with sexist shit from their male classmates (but who take a liking to Neil), and a wonderful librarian who has to deal with the book banners and tries to fight back against them:

The book is aimed at younger kids, but I still liked it. It was a quick read and a nice story focusing on a topic we (unfortunately) still have to deal with today. If enough people had the strength and courage to fight against censorship — and Neil is learning how to do just that throughout the book — maybe events like Banned Books Week would become superfluous.

(Images reprinted with permission from First Second Books)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    This will be much a more interesting story after the inevitable irony – when this book about book banning gets banned.
    .
    Fahrenheit 451 has already reached this apogee of self-relevance.
      Mississippi school district bans Fahrenheit 451

    • Anonymous

      seriously, they banned it?  I remember it being required reading for me in 9th grade!

    • Alex

      That’s kind of like Amazon deleting copies of Orwell’s 1984 from Kindles remotely a few years ago due to some copyright crap.

  • http://twitter.com/0xabad1dea Melissa E

    Yes, mothers like that are absolutely, undoubtedly, irrefutably as real as the keyboard I am typing this on.

    Incidentally, I have a light-up rainbow keyboard, I am sure somewhere, there is a Concerned Parent willing to lead the charge to get it banned as promoting the homosexual agenda :)

  • Michael

    *bat shit crazy…   :  )

  • observer

    My dad has said that the reason Christians dislike the Harry Potter series is because it’s more popular then the Bible. Though, I think it’s more likely the fact that kids can read about morals (among other values) from the HP books better then the Bible, when it’s “suppose” to be the Bible that is “supreme” with human values.
    Hmm, though, perhaps it’s more of a matter of embarrassment; it’s a sad case when you can learn to be a better Christian from non-Christian books.

    • Anonymous

      Though I would tend to take them at their word that they don’t want “witches and warlocks”, there is another element to the later books that would be worrying to any authoritarian. SPOILER ALERT!!!!!

      Without going into too much detail, in later books it’s shown how people in positions of authority and power that are supposed to help you can be undoubtedly evil. It shows how inquisitions and an obsessions with rules can lead to a final result that is as evil as any demon. I can’t imagine that would be a message they want “god fearing” kids to hear.

      • http://twitter.com/0xabad1dea Melissa E

        And even that the greatest paragons are deeply flawed.

        Speaking of which, also, Dumbledore is teh gays oh noes, even if it’s so softly, gently hinted at in the books themselves that almost no-one noticed until Rowling said so after the publication of the last book.

  • Daniel

    They most certainly exist; I used to live in a small suburb of L.A. that had a parent successfully keep Harry Potter from being taught at one of its middle schools.  I guess under the argument that you can’t teach grammar, point of view, characterization, theme, plotting, etc. from a fantasy novel?  

    Sadly, I didn’t hear about it until after the case, or I would have raised a huge ruckus.

    I am currently teaching 7th grade English and using A Wizard of Earthsea.  :D

    And yes, there is a sizable Native American student population and  I started off by talking about Ishi.

  • Ashley Will

    I read this book a while back soon after it came out when a coworker loaned it to me. I greatly enjoyed it.

  • Garren

    Part of the problem is that American librarians put all responsibility for material selection on parents, then make it very difficult in practice for parents to limit their own kids.

    It would be like removing content rules for broadcast TV, telling parents to mind their own kids, then putting TVs in public school libraries. Concerned parents are forced to homeschool or try to ban TVs in schools for everyone.

    • walkamungus

      Huh? Where are these librarians, that “put all responsibility for material selection on parents”?

      • Garren

        According to the ALA, librarians are suppose to pick quality, diverse materials, but not choose what is or isn’t content or expression appropriate for minors. So suppose a parent doesn’t want their kid exposed to religious advertising in fourth grade. Too bad. If it’s in the public school library, the parent can’t exercise any right to screen books.

        • walkamungus

          “According to the ALA, librarians are suppose to pick quality, diverse materials, but not choose what is or isn’t content or expression appropriate for minors.”

          Wow, where’d you read that? Certainly “what is or isn’t content or expression appropriate for minors” is typically a stumbling block: speaking back to authority figures; bullying without consequences for the bully; positive portrayals of homosexuality; profanity, sexual situations, violence, and so on. Generally public and school librarians select age-appropriate materials for children’s collections. Public libraries’ general collections, though, are not sanitized for kids. 

          I don’t know exactly what you’re referring to as “religious advertising” — a copy of the Bible? a retelling of a Bible story? the Book of Mormon? — so help me out. (And I’m confused about how this fits into librarians putting responsibility for material selection on parents.) Parents can generally request that the school board or library board review materials in the library to see if those materials are appropriate for the intended audience. Parents can screen books by keeping track of what their kids bring home.The great virtue of the modern library, however, is that it provides a generally private, non-judgmental place where people can find all kinds of information for free, and read any materials they can find there; with occasional limits, this freedom is extended to children as well as adults.  

          • http://wordsideasandthings.blogspot.com/ Garren

             “Generally public and school librarians select age-appropriate materials
            for children’s collections. Public libraries’ general collections,
            though, are not sanitized for kids.”

            There isn’t supposed to be any sanitizing for children’s collections at public libraries or school libraries either.

            “Constitutionally protected speech cannot be suppressed solely to protect children or young adults from ideas or images a legislative body believes to be unsuitable for them.”
            from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/librarybill/interpretations/freeaccesslibraries

            “I don’t know exactly what you’re referring to as “religious advertising” — a copy of the Bible?”

            http://www.amazon.com/What-Savior-Jennifer-Kimbrell/dp/1463707185/ for example.

            “Parents can generally request that the school board or library board
            review materials in the library to see if those materials are
            appropriate for the intended audience.”

            That’s basically a run-around to give complaining parents the appearance of being heard out. If it’s not illegal for adults, then the ALA line is that it’s appropriate for kids.

            “Parents can screen books by keeping track of what their kids bring home.”

            That’s after-the-fact, if the kids even let on what they’re reading.

            “The great virtue of the modern library, however, is that it provides a
            generally private, non-judgmental place where people can find all kinds
            of information for free, and read any materials they can find there;
            with occasional limits, this freedom is extended to children as well as
            adults.”

             That _is_ the great virtue of libraries, but extending that freedom to children removes the ability for parents to limit what their own kids are exposed to in a library. Heck, I might be _for_ that if the ALA admitted what they’re doing, but to claim that parents have rights in theory while denying them such rights in practice is dishonest policy-making. And…to my original point: it’s why parents are feeling the need to remove books from libraries entirely that they don’t consider appropriate for their children.

    • Daniel

      If you’re talking public libraries, you need to show residency to get a library card – i.e. the parent needs to get the card and the kid needs the parent’s card or have the parent get them their own.  Making it very easy to supervise what kids read.  It is, of course, possible for a young kid to find some erotica and read it, but really only if the kid is A) a pretty good reader and navigator of the Dewey decimal system to find the stuff and B) unsupervised in the library.  I really don’t think that parents that don’t supervise their kids have much room to gripe about what their kids do.

      If you’re talking school libraries, there is usually a lot of self-editing (head to your local middle school and ask for some Anais Nin if you doubt me).  Yes, if you are in a high school library (or some middle school libraries), it is quite possible you will encounter books with themes of war, sex, and/or drugs.  Oh, and of course, dragons and witches, which seem far more contentious.  If your kid checks one of those out, yes, you have no way to know what they are reading unless you ask them or look at what they are reading.

      Fun fact – A few years ago I was in a district had a form for making complaints about books.  It asked for three things.  The page of the objectionable material.  The quote.  Why the material in question was not appropriate.  Occasionally, we would give a form to an objecting parent.  We never got one back.

  • Rt

    Meh, look interesting but its no Toshokan Sensou. Why would go read about a “war” over banning library books when you could read about a “war” over banning library books… where the libraries have actual frigging armies! It just goes to prove, again, that every bit of American fiction is better in the original manga or anime.

    • Heartfout

      Reminds me of Read Or Die, where the British Library RULES THE WORLD!

  • http://rosalarian.com Rosalarian

    Looks fantastic! Have added it to my wish list of books and I’ll get it on my next graphic novel spree.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    People who enjoy this might also enjoy Duck Egg Blue, about a boy creating a diorama of the Grand Canyon whose father objects to the labels that show the canyon is millions of years old, when everyone knows the Earth was only created a few thousand years ago.

  • Korou

    Somebody call Rex Lirbris! He’d sort them out quick enough!
    http://www.jtillustration.com/rex/

  • Alex

    Am I the only one who thought of Chick tracts looking at this? :)

    Granted, this is much more thought through and relevant than Chick’s drivel, but something reminds me of it.

    (ducks and covers)

  • PragmaticOptimist

    I attended a christian school and had a teacher confiscate a library book solely because it had the word “dragon” in the title.  She didn’t read the book, she didn’t know anything about the series but she believed that the word dragon was enough to know that satan was trying to get my soul and that apparation was devil’s work.

    The examples shown above are not as extreme as I’ve seen.

  • http://annainca.blogspot.com/ Anna

    For those interested in other children’s books about censorship:

    http://www.amazon.com/Ban-That-Book-Censorship-Struggles/lm/2IQ9LX670ZORV


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