This week we celebrate Banned Books Week, sponsored by the American Library Association and others to celebrate our freedom to read and bring awareness to challenges of materials in schools, libraries, and bookstores. This past year has seen a huge number of challenges in local school districts; the ALA recorded 729 challenges last year, compared to 156 challenges in 2020 and 377 in 2019 (pre-pandemic).
You may notice some trends in the top ten challenged materials this year: sex and LGBTQ+ content. Nine out of ten books fall into one of these categories. There has been a huge push by conservatives, fueled by social media use, to paint these books as pornographic or grooming or indoctrinating children. You can see this in the language they use in their complaints below: “woke” “indoctrinating” “critical race theory” “Marxist” In school board and library board meetings across the country, people have stood up to read explicit passages (out of context) from books found in school libraries to try to shock the community into having them removed from libraries and class syllabi.
Of course, not every book is appropriate for every child at every point in their development. But I reject the premise that any inclusion of sex, racism, gender dysphoria, etc. is automatically harmful. The context is important as well, and the whole point reading literature in school is to teach children to think critically. For my children, I would rather have them reading and struggling with tough concepts in an age-appropriate way, with the guidance of their teachers and myself, rather than shelter them. Books help expand one’s worldview; it’s not always a pretty picture but sometimes we find something that really resonates with us and helps us grow. Here’s a thoughtful Twitter thread from author Shannon Hale that speaks to this:
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe has been the subject of much controversy since its release in 2019. It was recently the subject of a lawsuit in Virginia in which two Republicans requested a restraining order against Barnes & Noble to prevent them from selling Gender Queer and A Court of Mist and Fury to minors, claiming they are obscene. A judge recently dismissed the case, ruling that the plaintiffs had failed to establish that either book was obscene and further that “Virginia Code § 18.2-384 is unconstitutional on its face.” However, Virginia Beach City schools did remove all copies of Gender Queer from their libraries. Gender Queer is a 2020 winner of the ALA’s Alex Award and has a 4.35 star rating on Goodreads.
The #2 title, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, was the subject of some local controversy here in Northeast Ohio. After some parents in Hudson, Ohio complained about a prompt in a book used for a college-level course (which involved the mayor threatening the school board with charges of child pornography), one parent went further to complain about Lawn Boy being available in the library, citing inappropriate sexual content. It was eventually returned to shelves after a review. Lawn Boy is a 2019 winner of the ALA’s Alex Award and has a 3.83 rating on Goodreads.
Jumping down a few to #5 is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which is the only book on this list that I have read. And I do not hesitate to say that it is a book all teenagers in America should be reading. It has been nominated for/won more awards than I have room to list and has a 4.5 star rating on Goodreads. It is gripping, compelling, and entertaining while being an educational experience; it deals with justice and morality without being preachy; it is both timely and a classic. Starr is a wonderful protagonist that I would love for all teens to meet.
Fight book banning on a local level
If you’ve made it this far in this post, you have seen how censorship is taking place on a local level, in school districts and city libraries. While I have voted in local elections all my adulthood, this past year has really hammered home to me how critical these elections are. Pay attention to the positions of the candidates for school board in particular. Since my children are not in public schools, I never concerned myself about these elections too much. But now I understand that I want to live in and foster a community that sees diverse literature for young adults as a tool for growth and self-discovery. Vote for library levies and utilize library resources; librarians are the ones on the front lines of the fight for freedom in reading. Practice thoughtful reading in your own home. When I find problematic things in children’s books (typically sexism in older books) for my four-year-old I try to mention them and give my thoughts. As he gets older, I’ll ask more for his thoughts as well.
What are your favorite banned books? How do you celebrate your freedom to read? What are you reading right now?