- More books are being challenged or banned than ever before.
- LGBTQ books account for a third of all attempted bans.
- Some conservative politicians are leading the attack.
- 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 is endangering books about racism, sexuality and gender identity in public schools and libraries.
A dramatic increase in the number of challenged books in the past year, and an escalation in censorship tactics, have regularly made headlines in attempts to ban books. Potential book banners claim that readers can still buy books they can no longer access through public libraries, but that only applies to those with the financial means to do so. For many, especially children and young adults, schools and public libraries are the only way to access literature.
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What is a book ban?
When a book has been successfully “banned,” it means that a book has been removed from school curricula and/or public libraries because an individual or group has objected to its content.
Attempting to remove a book is called a challenge. Most public schools and libraries have boards composed 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 important because it restricts others’ access to books and the ideas in those books, based on other people’s often ideologically or politically motivated objections.
Are book bans rising in the US?
Yes. The American Library Association (ALA) is tracking the challenges and bans across the country, and the latest data is alarming. In 2021, the ALA registered 729 book challenges, targeting 1,597 titles. That’s more than double the 2020 figures and the highest number since the organization began logging data in 2000.
The actual numbers are likely much higher: some challenges are never reported by libraries, and books preemptively retrieved by librarians for fear of 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.
These are the 10 most challenged books of 2021, according to the ALA:
- “Gender Queer”, by Maia Kobabe
- ‘Lawn Boy’, by Jonathan Evison
- “All Boys Are Not 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 eventually became literary classics that are still taught in modern classrooms. According to the ALA, often 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 bans made headlines this year when the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted 10-0 to remove from the curriculum Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir “Maus,” about his parents’ experiences of the Holocaust. .
Since then, there has been a largely conservative push to remove certain titles from schools and libraries, in some cases with politicians in charge, including:
Glenn Youngkin: During his successful campaign for governor of Virginia last fall, the Republican nominee ran a controversial ad featuring a mother who objected to her teenage son Toni Morrison’s being assigned “Beloved” in English class. In April, Governor Youngkin signed a bill requiring schools in Virginia to notify parents when their children are assigned books that contain sexually explicit content.
Henry McMaster: South Carolina’s Republican governor supported a school board’s decision to remove “Gender Queer,” calling the book “obscene.”
Ron DeSantis: Florida’s Republican governor also criticized “Gender Queer” and signed a law this year requiring schools to make all books and materials more transparent so that parents can “ring the bell.”
What is being done to combat book bans?
American Library Association: Every year at the end of September, the ALA and libraries across the country celebrate Forbidden Books Week. The Week of the Forbidden Books runs this year from September 26 to October 2, with the theme ‘Books unite us. Censorship divides us.”
Brooklyn Public Library: Earlier this year, the Brooklyn Public Library gave teens across the US access to its collection of hundreds of thousands of e-books with a special “Books Unbanned” e-card. At the end of June, more than 4,000 cards were distributed to young people aged 13 to 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 to celebrate the “right to read.”
Margaret Atwood: Author of the oft-banned dystopian feminist novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” promoted the auction of a specially commissioned non-combustible edition of her book made from Cinefoil by unsuccessfully attempting to burn a prototype with a flamethrower. The stunt raised $130,000, with the proceeds going to PEN America.