If you’re anything like me (and I assume you probably are because you clicked on this article), then the first thing you want to do when you find out a book has been banned is read it. Welcome to the club.
So how do books get banned in the US and who does the banning?
The US government itself has only engaged in a relatively small amount of book banning in its history. For most books that face bans or challenges, it happens on a much more local scale.
First, a book is “challenged.” A challenge is an attempt to ban a book from a library, organization, retailer, publisher, school district, or institution based on its contents. Challenges can then go one of two ways: the book is banned (effectively removing it from that organization or institution) or the challenge is overturned and the book stays in circulation.
“Why does it matter?” I hear you ask, “I can still order it online.” That’s fair and exactly what would-be book banners argue. But it’s only true for those with the financial means to do so. For many, particularly children of color living in poverty, schools and public libraries are the only way to access books.
A book ban is also significant because it restricts access to ideas, based on another person or entity’s often ideologically or politically motivated objection.
Banning books is a form of closing down civic space — and it’s part of a worrying trend in which we’re seeing the global space for people to speak out, organize, and take action shrinking.
In fact, almost 97% of the world's population are now living in countries with restrictions to their fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression to influence the political, economic, and social structures around them.
The cumulative effect of book bans in the US, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, is significant damage to open discourse and learning across the country.
So how far back does this thinly-veiled thought control exercise go? As is often the case, there’s more than one potential answer. But one of the leading contenders is a 1637 indictment of the Puritans by Thomas Morton.
Morton, an English lawyer, arrived in Massachusetts in 1624 and wasn’t exactly enamored with the Puritans’ conservative and insular way of life. The book he wrote about them, New English Canaan, was a caustic satire, which, among other things, compared the Puritan leaders to crustaceans. A first edition of Morton’s tell-all sold at auction at Christie’s in 2019 for $60,000. How’s that for the power of words?
Since then, many classics from the literary canon such as A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Ulysses by James Joyce, and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. have seen challenges with varying degrees of success.
Today, however, book bans are on the rise in the US. The American Library Association (ALA) keeps track of challenges and bans across the country, and the most recent data is, frankly, 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 because many challenges are never reported. Book banning also has a halo effect, resulting in what Jonathan Friedman, director of Free Expression and Education at the nonprofit PEN America, has called “soft censorship.” This is when librarians or school officials preemptively pull titles from the shelves they worry might spark controversy. The practice could even ricochet back all the way to authors, making them, in Friedman’s words “shy away from controversial topics and stifle their creativity.”
Here’s the list of the US’ top 10 most challenged books of 2021 so you can add them to your cart immediately:
1. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
2. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
3. All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
4. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
8. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
9. This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
10. Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin
I decided to investigate what the fuss was all about. What explosive material did these books contain that people were trying to pull them off shelves, and in some cases, going so far as to call the police to report them? Did they promote self harm? Did they teach people how to build explosives? How to participate in fraud? Or how to hide a body?
In a nutshell: no.
The bans in the US mostly target books that focus on race and LGBTQIA+ issues, and a large proportion of the banned books are authored by non-white or LGBTQIA+ writers.
Of the banned titles, 41% included protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are people of color and around 22% directly address issues of race and racism, while 33% explicitly address LGBTQIA+ themes, or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQIA+.
So what did I learn from reading them?
The LGBTQIA+s Are Brainwashing Our Children.
In case it wasn’t obvious, that header you just read was sarcastic. But this is exactly the kind of rhetoric used in attempts to ban LGBTQIA+ reading materials, described as “propaganda brainwashing the young,” that steers children away from “normal sexuality.”
And it was all going so well!
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that federal same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional.
Then, in 2015, the moment for full marriage equality in the US finally arrived when the Supreme Court struck down all state bans on same-sex marriage, legalized it in all 50 states, and required states to honor out-of-state same-sex marriage licenses in the case Obergefell v. Hodges.
Widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage, as well as transgender people serving in the military followed suit.
As recently as 2020, Virginia became the first state in the American South to offer legal protections in employment, housing, and public accommodations to LGBTQIA+ citizens.
Yet, since the start of 2022, those victories have come under threat as the US has witnessed a resurgence of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation.
The most high-profile of these anti-LGBTQIA+ laws is Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which bans “sexual orientation and gender identity” issues from classrooms.
This slew of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation is mirrored by the fact LGBTQIA+ books accounted for a third of all attempted bans between July 1, 2021 and March 31, 2022. In fact, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a gripping graphic novel about the protagonist’s journey grappling with their gender identity was the most banned book in the country.
One Florida school board member went so far as to call the police and file a complaint as a result of George M. Johnson's All Boys Aren’t Blue, a young-adult memoir for Black queer boys.
Sex Is Immoral.
A hangover from the pious Puritan days that Thomas Morton ridiculed perhaps, but the association of sex and immorality in the US persists.
Many of the books were banned on the grounds that they contain “sexual content.” But after reading those books, it’s hard not to see that most of them disproportionately feature LGBTQ+ characters or storylines. Coincidence? I think not.
This crossover reminds us of age-old tendencies to conflate sexual nonconformity with sexual obscenity, says Friedman. Indeed, a third of Americans believe gay or lesbian relations are “morally wrong.”
To be gay or lesbian, in book banners’ eyes, is to be innately sexualized and a threat to innocence in a way that being straight is not.
What’s more, the research shows that comprehensive sex education does not increase sexual activity, or sexual risk-taking behaviour. So why would books about two young men falling love?
White Fragility Is Alive and Well.
In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, books that offer critical views on topics such as US history and race gained new prominence as anti-racist reading lists were shared far and wide.
But the backlash has been severe.
A spate of classroom censorship bills have aimed to restrict or erase discussions about race around the country. State legislatures claim these discussions would result in students feeling uncomfortable on account of their race or sex.
The world of book banning followed suit. “Challenges to books, specifically books by non-white male authors, are happening at the highest rates we’ve ever seen,” according to PEN.
Critical race theory — an academic and legal framework focused on how systemic racism is deeply ingrained in and shapes our society — has been the target of many would-be book banners. In fact, books that touched on race were among the most challenged and The Hate U Give, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, was among the most-challenged chart-toppers.
@blairimani#SmarterInSeconds: Critical Race Theory for #July4th featuring @iyeloveslife @kahlilgreene ♬ original sound - Blair Imani
But having a discussion around race that might make a student uncomfortable is a far cry from the systemic violence that some communities face on a daily basis.
As Ibram X. Kendi and others have written, anti-racist work isn’t meant to be comfortable; it’s hard. But if we ever want to see the dream of the UN’s Global Goals come to life, from eradicating poverty to tackling climate change, it’s imperative that we do it.
If you’re horrified by book bans and challenges being particularly focused on LGBTQIA+ and race narratives, join Global Citizen and take action to raise your voice for equality and equity for all people.