- Book bans and challenges doubled from 2020 to 2021, according to the American Library Association.
- LGBTQ books account for one third of all attempted bans.
- Some conservative politicians are leading the charge.
- Libraries are fighting back and expanding access to books.
Banned books are not new, but they have gained new relevance in an escalating culture war that puts books centering racism, sexuality and gender identity at risk in public schools and libraries.
A dramatic uptick in challenged books over the past year, and an escalation of censorship tactics, has regularly put book banning efforts in news headlines. Most recently, at Wisconsin English class became a national talking point after Muskego-Norway School District leaders said staff had to reconsider their selection of Julie Otsuka’s “When the Emperor Was Divine,” a book that delves into the US incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Would-be book banners argue that readers can still purchase books they can no longer access through public libraries, but that is only true for those with the financial resources to do so. For many, particularly children and young adults, schools and public libraries are the only means to access literature.
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What is a book ban?
When a book is successfully “banned,” that means a book has been removed from school curriculums and/or public libraries because a person or group has objected to its content.
An attempt to get a book removed is called a challenge. Most public schools and libraries have boards made up of elected officials (or people appointed by elected officials) who have the power to remove books from the schools and libraries they oversee.
Why it matters: A book ban is significant because it restricts others’ access to books, and the ideas contained within those books, based on another person’s often ideologically or politically motivated objection.
Are book bans on the rise in the US?
And it is. The American Library Association (ALA) keeps track of challenges and bans across the country, and the most recent data is alarming. In 2021, the ALA recorded 729 book challenges targeting 1,597 titles. That’s more than double 2020’s figures and the highest number since the organization began recording data in 2000.
The actual numbers are likely much higher: Some challenges are never reported by libraries, and books preemptively pulled by librarians out of fear for their jobs are not included.
What are the most banned books?
A recent analysis by PEN America found that many challenged books focus on communities of color, the history of racism in America and LGBTQ characters. In fact, one in three books restricted by school districts in the past year featured LGBTQ themes or characters.
Here are the 10 most challenged books of 2021, according to the ALA:
- “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe
- “Lawn Boy,” by Jonathan Evison
- “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson
- “Out of Darkness,” by Ashley Hope Perez
- “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas
- “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie
- “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Jesse Andrews
- “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison
- “This Book Is Gay,” by Juno Dawson
- “Beyond Magenta,” by Susan Kuklin
Many books that were historically banned ended up becoming literary classics that are still taught in modern classrooms. Accordingly to the ALA, frequently banned classics include:
- “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee
- “The Catcher in the Rye,” by JD Salinger
- “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck
- “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker
- “1984,” by George Orwell
- “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley
- “Native Son,” by Richard Wright
- “Slaughterhouse-Five,” by Kurt Vonnegut
- “A Separate Peace,” by John Knowles
- “The Lord of the Flies,” by William Golding
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Who bans books in the US?
book banning made headlines this year when the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted 10-0 to remove Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir “Maus,” about his parents’ experience of the holocaust, from its curriculum.
Since then, there’s been a largely conservative push to remove certain titles from schools and libraries, in some cases with politicians leading the charge, including:
Glenn Youngkin: During his successful run for Virginia governor last fall, the Republican candidate ran a controversial ad featuring a mother who objected to her teenage son being assigned Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in English class. In April, now Governor Youngkin signed a bill requiring Virginia schools to notify parents when their children are assigned books that contain sexually explicit content.
Henry McMaster: The Republican South Carolina governor supported a school board’s decision to remove “Gender Queer,” calling the book “obscene.”
Ron DeSantis: The Republican Florida governor also criticized “Gender Queer” and this year signed into law a bill requiring schools to make all books and materials more transparent so parents can “blow the whistle.”
What’s being done to combat book banning?
American Library Association: Every year, the ALA and libraries across the country celebrate Banned Books Week at the end of September. This year’s Banned Books Week runs Sept. 26 through Oct. 2, with the theme “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”
Brooklyn Public Library: Earlier this year, the Brooklyn Public Library gave teens anywhere in the US access to its collection of hundreds of thousands of e-books with a special “Books Unbanned” e-card. As of late June, more than 4,000 cards were given out to youth ages 13 through 21.
Nashville Public Library: This Southern library protested banned books this year with a limited edition library card with the special message: “I read banned books.” The bright yellow cards are part of the library’s Freedom to Read campaign celebrating the “right to read.”
Margaret Atwood: Author of the frequently banned dystopian feminist novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” promoted the auction of a specially commissioned unburnable edition of her book made of Cinefoil by unsuccessfully attempting to incinerate a prototype with a flamethrower. The stunt brought in $130,000, with proceeds going to PEN America.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism