- 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.
A dramatic uptick in challenged books over the past year, an escalation of censorship tactics, and the coordinated harassment of teachers and librarians has regularly put book banning efforts in news headlines.
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.
Banned books in the news
Summer Boismier, a former high school teacher in Oklahoma, resigned in opposition to a new state law that bans certain race and gender concepts from schools. Oklahoma Secretary of Education Ryan Walters has called for her teaching license to be revoked.
- Tennessee schools removed more than 300 books from library shelves as as state legislators made proposals for banning LGBTQ books, including books the district labeled “Black Lives Matter.”
- A west Michigan’s only community library might close in a battle over LGBTQ books. After library staff refused to pull queer-themed books from shelves, Jamestown Township residents voted to defund their only library.
- Librarians are becoming targets. When Amanda Jones, a middle-school librarian in Livingston, Louisiana, spoke up against book banning at a local library board meeting, she became the target of an online harassment campaign calling her a “pervert” and “sick pig.”
- A Texas school district pulled all books from library shelves and classrooms that were challenged by parents, lawmakers and other community members in the last year — including the Bible. Keller Independent School District removed 41 books while they undergo a review.
- A Pennsylvania school district isinstituting a controversial library policy giving any district resident the ability to challenge books available in schools.
- A small-town Iowa library briefly closed its doors and was without a director following a string of resignations and criticism over the hiring of LGBTQ employees and certain books in the library.
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 U.S.?
Yes. 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
What is Afrofuturism? And why should you be reading it? We explain.
Who bans books in the U.S.?
Book banning first made major 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 in September. This year’s Banned Books Week runs Sept. 18-24 with the theme “Books unite us, censorship divides us.”
Foundation 451: A fundraiser in Florida to buy challenged books and distribute them to students spawned thousands in donations and has morphed into a nonprofit organization. The organization has distributed books at about a dozen events, setting up tables at festivals, churches and local businesses.
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.