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Banned Book: Anne Frank's Diary

BY STEVE NUZUM


Disclaimer - The views expressed in all CEWL Views articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The SCEA or NEA. We encourage you to share your comments and feedback.


where they burn books,

they will ultimately burn people as well.

-Heinrich Heine, 1820


While book challenges and bans in the US have become disturbingly frequent in recent years, the list of books that are most frequently challenged is relatively short— a product of a coordinated (and often lazy) effort to target specific kinds of books, often more to make a political statement than out of genuine concern for children.


One book that often appears on this list is Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, by Ari Folman and illustrator David Polonsky, a close— at times word-for-word— adaptation of The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. Perhaps most recently, the book was included on a spreadsheet of 673 book challenges filed by a community member in South Carolina’s Dorchester School District 2.


The Author


Frank entered hiding with her family in Amsterdam in 1942, at the age of thirteen, after her sister was “called up” (ordered to go to a labor camp) by the Nazi Party. Frank began her diary shortly before the family entered the “Secret Annex,” where they would remain until their capture by the Nazis in 1944. Frank died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at fifteen. The only inhabitant of the Secret Annex to survive the war was Otto Frank, Anne’s father; he would eventually publish an edited version of her diaries and start the foundation that eventually published later versions.


Challenges against Anne Frank’s writing deserve special scrutiny right now, in an era of rising and dangerous rhetoric and violence against two groups represented in both the text and in Frank herself: Jewish people and LGBTQ+ people. Anti-Jewish hate crimes have been on the rise in the US for a while, with record numbers recorded in recent years; since the outset of violence in Israel and Gaza, there has been a further increase in violence against Jews and Muslims in the United States. Similarly, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people—in particular, transgender individuals—have reached crisis levels in recent years.


So while much of the overt language used to challenge the adaptation of Frank’s book has been focused on its so-called “sexual content,” the cultural context surrounding these challenges is extremely worrisome, especially as US book challengers have disproportionately targeted books by, about, and for minority groups. Frank’s book is also an instructive text for considering the dangers of state censorship, dealing as it does with life during the Nazi genocide of minority groups— including, of course, Jewish and LGBTQ+ people.



From Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation.


Frank’s diary has been published in at least four editions, which have variously added and removed content for a number of reasons. Otto Frank’s version removes some “sexual content” (although there is no actual sex in any version) and also aspects of Anne’s original journals that would likely not be targeted by general censors. Frank removed these more for personal reasons–although he did consent to have them published after his own death.The Graphic Adaptation, based explicitly on the most recent “definitive” version of the diary, keeps much of the material removed by Otto Frank for the initial publication. 


The fact that Anne revised her own journals, anticipating publishing them one day, complicates matters further, as there are indications that she intended to remove some, but not all, of the material her father would later remove. The Graphic Adaptation leaves completed journal entries, for example, about Anne’s parents’ marriage, as well as other elements that Otto Frank removed.


The complex publication history makes it impossible to choose a version which neatly preserves the historical accuracy and scope of what Anne Frank was trying to create, while also satisfying those who are offended that a teenage girl wrote and thought about her body and her sexuality. 


Censorship


In any case, the various versions have a long history of challenges and bans in the United States.



In 1982, parents in Wise County, Virginia, challenged the use of the book in school and asserted that Anne's discussion of sexual matters was "inappropriate" and "offensive" and that the criticism of her mother and of the other adults "undermines adult authority." Others have objected to the discussion of "the mistreatment of the Jewish people," and one parent of Arab ancestry objected to the portrayal of a Jewish girl. In 1983, four members of the Alabama Textbook Commission wanted to reject the title for use in the schools because it was "a real downer."


In 2013, according to the Christian Science Monitor, a “Michigan mom” formally challenged the “definitive version,” primarily because of a scene where Anne gives a fairly clinical description of female genitalia. The book had already seen dozens of challenges at that point, and the “definitive version” had already been removed from Virginia schools. And in 2019 (again according to Bloom’s), a parent again challenged the book due to the so-called sexual content.


These removals reveal a fundamental absurdity about book bans in the information age: books can be, and often are, assigned without requiring students to read every passage, and there is an argument to be made that children of a certain age could or should skip some passages in Frank’s diary. But the idea that students in 2013, or 2019, or 2024, wouldn’t be able to access this kind of material online simply because they don’t have a physical copy of the book is fairly ridiculous.


And book-challenge legislation often leans into this absurdity: for example, South Carolina’s proposed instructional materials censorship regulation (which the State Board passed, and which now goes to the legislature for approval) requires the ban of an entire book if the book contains any “sexual content” (very broadly defined).  No excerpts of the book would be allowed. In this view of the world, a book is either Good or Bad, and certain categories are Always Bad  (unless, of course, that content exists in a book the book-banners don’t want to ban, like the Bible or Shakespeare-- texts which, nonetheless, have been repeatedly challenged and banned under similar censorship rules).


The Graphic Adaptation, itself, has seen challenges across the country, and book-banners have challenged or banned it in multiple states, including Kentucky, Texas (where a teacher in one district was fired for teaching it), Virginia and Florida.  


In Florida, the Moms for Liberty chapter which challenged the book released a statement that speaks to the bizarre reasoning behind many objections to the book:


Jennifer Pippin, the chair of the Indian River chapter of "Moms for Liberty," told WPTV that she and her group opposed the book because it contains a scene in which Anne Frank asks a friend to expose themselves to each other. She complained that another scene features Anne Frank walking near sexually explicit nude statues.


“We think true history absolutely needs to be taught, the Holocaust, the Anne Frank diary,” she said, but objected to the visual depiction of sexuality in the graphic novels.



This is a group which claims it would like to teach “true history” but which will erase the compelling firsthand account of one of history’s most famous victims of the Holocaust because a girl talks about breasts (no human breasts are ever shown in the book) and because she sees “sexually explicit nude statues."


And the phrase “sexually explicit nude statues,” itself, suggests that almost anything involving the human body can be somehow “sexually explicit” (and the Diary is not a one-off: Pippin has also called Maurice Sendak’s The Night Kitchen “pornographic”). 


This image, adapted from Frank’s diary (in a scene that is slightly more sexually-charged in the original “definitive edition,” but still far from explicitly sexual) represents a colorful and nostalgic break from the increasingly grim reality of life in the Annex. The words are Anne’s, translated from the authenticated manuscript of her diary, while the images serve to translate what she might have been feeling into images. It seems clear that what censors found “explicit” was not the statues, which are not engaged in any sexual acts, but the words, which suggest that Anne may have been romantically attracted to other girls. 


It should also be noted that while Pippin did say Moms for Liberty believed “true history absolutely needs to be taught, about the Holocaust,” she also appeared on TruTV, an outlet founded by antisemitic conspiracy theorist Rick Wiles, saying, “That's the way the Jews work... They are deceivers. They plot, they lie, they do whatever they have to do to accomplish their political agenda.” Moms for Liberty chapters have also come under fire in the past for featuring Hitler quotes in a newsletter and have been labeled an “extremist group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.


While it’s hard to know if the group’s central ideology is antisemitic (especially given the fairly loose structure of local chapters which often seem to ignore or butt heads with national leadership), it’s clear that there is an underlying belief system driving many of these bans that surface-level complaints about “sexual content” seem intended to obscure.



…you can’t separate out a Jewish Anne from a queer Anne. She’s all one person. Whether you target her for one identity the Nazis despised or for another identity the Nazis despised, you’re still targeting the same girl the Nazis murdered.


The graphic novel includes a number of scenes from Frank’s diary which speak to the dangers of censorship directly.


Very early in the book, Anne writes, “Nazis burned down synagogues and Jewish-owned shops, and smashed their windows… They also burned books that were written about Jewish culture or written by Jews” (9). This overt censorship of books targeting a specific group is not just a prelude to the genocide of the Holocaust, but is part of that overall plan of genocide.


And while it might be going too far to tie books removals from schools to literal book-burning, it’s probably not as much of a stretch as we’d like. For example, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (also a book dealing with the atrocities of World War II, including quasi-autobiographical details from the author’s own time in the military during the firebombing of Dresden), was banned and then literally burned in a school furnace on the orders of a school board in 1973. Vonnegut’s book remains one of the most frequently-challenged in America, and was one of the books banned by the Island Trees School District in 1982, leading to the famous Island Trees v Pico Supreme Court case which guides our modern legal understanding of the legality (or lack thereof) of school districts censoring texts. And it is conspicuously one of the few older works on the BookLooks list— appearing both in its original form and in graphic novel form— a list otherwise dominated by Young Adult literature.


More recently, a candidate for Missouri Secretary of State burned books with a flamethrower. In a post dated February 6, 2024, she says that the books she was burning “come from a Missouri public library” and that she will “ban the grooming books.”


“Age-appropriateness”



Screenshot from BookLooks showing its “content-based rating system”.


As with many other popularly-challenged books, the Graphic Adaptation appears on the Moms-for-Liberty-affiliated “BookLooks” website, which categorizes books on a fairly arbitrary scale of “appropriateness”.


One of the major limitations of BookLooks and similar websites is that they provide very broad and subjective categories for deeming content “appropriate” for different age groups. A complex library of human thoughts and experiences becomes a checklist of “content.” Presumably, the Graphic Adaptation gets a 2 (for “Teen Guidance”) because it contains “moderate violence”—in the sense that it alludes to the Holocaust frequently—as well as “Non-Sexual Nudity” and perhaps “Explicit Gender Ideologies” (an almost comically fear-mongering term that, if it means anything, seems to reference the “belief” that LGBTQ+ people exist). I would argue that the book does not include any explicit violence or explicit sexuality, so it seems like it’s the statues with breasts that landed it in this category.  


But Frank’s diaries deal directly with questions of censorship and age-appropriateness, as well. For example, early in the Graphic Adaptation, she writes, “Dearest Kitty, I’ve been allowed to read more grown-up books lately. Eva’s Youth by Nico van Suchtelen is currently keeping me busy” (36).


In the “definitive version,” the Frank describes the book in greater detail:


I don’t think there’s much of a difference between this and books for teenage girls. Eva thought that children grew on trees, like apples, and that the stork plucked them off the tree when they were ripe and brought them to the mothers. But her girlfriend’s cat had kittens, and Eva saw them coming out of the cat, so she thought cats laid eggs and hatched them like chickens, and that mothers who wanted a child also went upstairs a few days before their time to lay an egg and brood on it…


In the graphic novel, one series of panels shows a cartoony story of a girl realizing babies aren’t laid as eggs.


Yet Diary of a Young Girl does not appear on the BookLooks list in any other version, which speaks to both the impossibility of compiling a complete list of forbidden books, and the preference book-banners often seem to have for graphic novels, which can be more easily boiled down to a single, out-of-context image (and which don’t require would-be book-banners to actually read).


On one level, images like a girl laying an egg are clearly innocuous and unlikely to scar children or rob them of their “innocence”— and they are important for maintaining the complex tone of Frank’s original work, which is at times lighthearted and deliberately silly, at times dark and deadly serious. But on the other hand, because the image demonstrates “excretion,” it could easily be the target of bans under many states’ legislation and regulations, including the current language of the SC regulation. 

Another passage that provoked the ire of Moms for Liberty (and which is included in BookLook’s list of Naught Passages) involves Anne mentioning the reality of sex work in 1940s Holland. In fact, Frank’s original diary is more explicit than the graphic novel, which simply mentions that “Some women have to sell their bodies on the streets to make money” (36).


There are a handful of other examples like this in the graphic novel. And parents do have the right to object to their children reading certain content if they choose, but as Frank wrote in her diary, “If mothers don’t tell their children everything, they hear it in bits and pieces, and that can’t be right.” Writing in 1944, she also pointed out that “Instead of telling their sons and daughters everything at the age of twelve, they send their children out of the room the moment the subject arises, and leave them to find out everything on their own.”


I would advise parents to remember that other children, not to mention the Internet, will continue to exist regardless of whether or not Anne Frank’s thoughts about breasts are available to them in print. The choice, in my experience, is not whether children will access information, but about where they’ll access it.


Anne’s Humanity


By removing the book, in its various forms, book-banners deny students a powerful opportunity to connect with someone like them who lived through a vitally important (and unfortunately increasingly relevant) part of history. Frank’s book makes the Holocaust and its victims real because it expresses the feelings of many adolescents; for example:


Everyone thinks I’m showing off when I talk, ridiculous when I’m silent, insolent when I answer, cunning when I have a good idea, lazy when I’m tired, selfish when I eat one bite more than I should, stupid, cowardly, calculating, etc.


If that doesn’t powerfully describe the emotional state of many adolescents in a way that makes history real, I don’t know what does. 


Again, most challenges against the graphic novel focus on the scene where Frank mentions, in a single panel, suggesting to a female friend that they show one another their breasts. The original diary is only slightly more descriptive here, describing a yearning to touch her friend’s body. 


The scene is realistically reflective of how confusing adolescence can be: what does Frank mean by “girlfriend,” here? At the beginning of the next entry, she describes wanting someone to talk to, and deciding on Peter, the only person her age in the Annex other than her sister, as a person to whom she can direct her attention. 


This blending of crushes and socializing happens in adolescence, and acknowledging that in a non-explicit way is not “pornographic” by any reasonable definition of the term. Part of what likely appeals to readers of all ages about the diary is that it is a window into a secret life— the same kind of secret life that all adolescents have— that also happens to be a ground-level window into a great historical atrocity. It brings the war and the Holocaust back to human scale, back to a terrifying reality that could happen again, back to a background to real human lives full of complexity, joy, confusion, and pain. 


If we are to retain any literature that deals honestly with the human experience, the question can’t be whether it contains any one of a series of bluntly-rendered content topics, but whether the context justifies the content for whatever purpose we’re “using” the literature. Frank’s diary is famous and beloved and widely-read because it presents the experiences of a human being and a child who experienced, suffered, and ultimately died because of a genocidal campaign.


In the end, objections to Frank’s book don’t really seem to be about nudity or even “obscenity.” Censors seem to be upset, instead, that a teenage victim of the Holocaust wrote about feelings of same-sex attraction or interest in her diary. The book-ban movement has become so unwholesomely fixated on a surface-level crusade to control the sexuality of developing children that it has become their sole way of framing reading instruction and reading in general: learning nothing from the fact that the book begins with Nazis destroying the culture and literature of their political enemies— including through the banning and destruction of Jewish literature— the lesson they take away is that the real crime is women’s bodies, and a developing girl’s feelings. 


Teaching Difficult Content


While I haven’t used Frank’s book with high school students, we did read a number of books-- like First They Killed My Father and Persepolis-- which dealt with similar difficult themes, and were arguably more explicit and violent. 


With these books, I tried to be very thoughtful about potentially upsetting content. Both books address sexual violence as a means of torture during war. The absurdly reductive language of many book censorship laws would— appallingly— label some of this content as “pornographic,” although obviously their purpose is the opposite of that of pornography. These are disturbing scenes that serve to ground the reader in the horrors of war; like Frank’s own diaries, they are explicitly intended to allow readers to learn from and avoid the mistakes of history, and discomfort is key to the rhetorical purpose.


But each student is an individual, with their own histories and experiences, and, like most teachers, I didn’t force anyone to read these passages, because for some students, no reminder of the horrors of violence are necessary, and for them school may be a refuge from that kind of content. The fundamental flaw of book-banner logic is that it relies on a false view of children as fundamentally blank slates, vehicles for adults to preserve their specific “ideologies,” and of the ideal school as simply a kind of playback device for approved beliefs and slogans. But effective teachers do their best to meet each student where the student lives, and so blanket restrictions or requirements about specifically-codified, neat little boxes of “content” don’t serve students, or democratic societies more broadly.


Blanket censorship serves to eradicate ideas that don’t serve the group in power; that is, as the Nazis and their victims understood, its purpose.

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