The erotic trilogy Fifty Shades of Grey has earned a prominent place on the American Library Association’s annual list of most challenged books.

E.L. James’ multi-million-selling novels placed No. 4 on the ALA list, released Monday. The group annually releases a ranking of books that faced the most requests for restriction or removal from library shelves.

At the top was Day Pilkey’s children’s book Captain Underpants and second was Sherman Alexie’s award-winning novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, both of them frequent nominees to the banned and challenged books list.

There was public debate over whether Fifty Shades, which depicts the sex life of a naïve young woman and a young billionaire who practices bondage and S&M, was appropriate for libraries. After the book became an international phenomenon, some libraries rushed to stock it, while others faced questions over its graphic sexual content and offensive language.

The Titusville Public Library in Brevard County, Florida faced a major media backlash after deciding not to stock the book and was forced to reverse its decision in response to public demand.

Barbara Jones, executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, appeared on NBC Nightly News to support libraries buying the book, which was derided as "mommy porn," saying, whatever the quality of the book, she upheld the freedom to read it. 

Top 10 challenged books

  1. Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey (offensive language, unsuited for age group).
  2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie (offensive language, racism, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group).
  3. Thirteen Reasons Why, by Jay Asher (drugs/alcohol/smoking, sexually exp licit, suicide, unsuited for age group).
  4. Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James (offensive language, sexually explicit).
  5. And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (homosexuality, unsuited for age group).
  6. The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini ( homosexuality, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit).
  7. Looking for Alaska, by John Green (offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group).
  8. Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz (unsuited for age group, violence).
  9. The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls (offensive language, sexually explicit).
  10. Beloved, by Toni Morrison (sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence)

The ALA counts any formal, written complaint filed with a library or school to restrict a book over its content as a "challenge" to that book. The office received 464 challenges last year, a jump of more 25 per cent from 2011, but still low compared to the 1980s and '90s. The association believes that for every complaint registered, four or five go unreported by libraries.

 "One reason we think the number went up in 2012 is that we made challenges easier to report by including a portal on our web page," Jones said.

Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Beloved turned up at No. 10 on the list, cited for its violence and sexually explicit scenes. Newcomers to the list include young adult books 13 Reasons Why and Looking for Alaska

The Captain Underpants books have long been debated because of their toilet humour and irreverent attitude toward authority. The title character is a superhero devised by two young students about their grouchy principal, Mr. Krupp.

"I don't see these books as encouraging disrespect for authority. Perhaps they demonstrate the value of questioning authority," said author Pilkey. "Some of the authority figures in the Captain Underpants books are villains. They are bullies and they do vicious things."

Pilkey said his characters are based in part on teachers and principals he had as a child, some of whom were villains who got away with it.

"None of the children in my school, including me, thought to question them," he said. "So, I do feel there is real value in showing kids that not all authority figures are good or kind or honourable."

Many parents say the books are an effective way to get young boys reading.

The ALA noted there was a jump in objections toward books with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender story lines during the period leading up to November 2012 election.

Among the cases that made the news:

  • A Utah school board withdrew copies of Patricia Palacco’s In Our Mother’s House until the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit.
  • In Illinois, The Family Book by Todd Parr was removed from a curriculum about tolerance and diversity.
  • In Missouri, picture book Uncle Bobby’s Wedding by Sarah Brennan was challenged before the library board.
With files from The Associated Press