Throughout history, people have attempted to ban books that they felt were inappropriate or controversial. We seem to have an unstoppable delusion that we have a right to make decisions about what other people can do, say, read, or think based on our own biases.
“Ulysses” by James Joyce was banned in 1921 because customs officials thought that it might cause readers to harbor “impure and lustful thoughts.” With an ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) challenge in 1933, the ban was lifted. How many banned books have your read? “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, “1984”, “Tropic of Cancer”, “Lolita”, “The Naked Lunch”, “Catcher in the Rye”, “Beloved”, “The Color Purple”, “Kite Runner”, or “Lord of the Flies”? Books are banned for various reasons, but many that were and are deemed objectionable are by and about marginalized groups, including people of color and the LGBTQ community.
PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression in literature, released a report in September, 2022, that shows that during the 2021-22 school year 1,648 titles were banned in 5,049 schools with a combined enrollment of nearly 4 million students in 32 states. This organized effort to search out and list books with certain content is led primarily by a number of conservative advocacy groups that believe parents should have more control over what their children are learning.
Students aren’t always taking it lying down, objecting to the classroom censorship that restrict students and educators from discussing race, gender, and sexual orientation in K-12 classrooms and universities. Meet Elia Scott, who started a Banned Book Club in Vandegrift High School in Texas with her friend, Alyssa Hoy, when they found out there was a list of books that were banned from the library shelves and from reading or discussion in English classes. They started organizing by asking people they knew to join them. The word spread, and the club grew, meeting twice a month in the library to read the books on that list. They posted a wish list for books because they couldn’t get them through the school or public library. “It shows just how many people are passionate about their right to read and their right to education,” she said, adding, “A lot of people preach their opinions at school board meetings, but our focus really is making sure that every student has the ability to access and discuss these books. The best way to fight censorship is to get students involved in the conversation that adults say we shouldn’t be having.”
With young people like Elia and Alyssa paying attention and standing up for their rights, along with the educators and librarians supporting them, our future may just be in very good hands. For your reading pleasure, here are the top ten currently banned books:
1. “The Bluest Eye” (1970) byToni Morrison, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Racism and sexual abuse of 11-year old protagonist in 1940s. Has been a repeated target of bans due to content: sexually explicit material, disturbing language, and an underlying socialist-communist agenda.
2. “Heather Has Two Mommies” (1989) by Lesléa Newman. One of the earliest books in children’s literature concerning LGBTQ+ issues and inclusion. Recently a superintendent at Pennridge School District in Pennsylvania requested its removal from elementary school library shelves along with other books for “referencing gender identity.”
3. “All Boys Aren’t Blue” (2020) by George M. Johnson, a prominent journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist, tells his stories growing up as a black, queer boy in New Jersey and Virginia. Considered a primer for teens who want to be allies and reassuring testimony for young Black queer men.
4. “Gender Queer” (2019) by Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir pronouns) wrote this comic style book charting eir journey of self-identity as nonbinary and asexual. Described as “a useful and touching guide on what gender identity means and how to think about it for anyone who wishes to better understand,” by publisher Simon and Schuster. Pulled from Fairfax, VA high school library shelves for graphic sexual content.
5. “Melissa” (2015) by Alex Gino, (they/them/their pronouns). Formerly published as “George” until 2022. Protagonist Melissa is a 4th grader coming into her own identity as a trans girl. Frequently challenged for conflicting with “traditional family structure,” the book was recently pulled from libraries in Polk County, Florida, along with others highlighting themes of race and LGBTQ issues.
6. “Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You” (2021) A National Book Award winner by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. The authors describe it as a “book about race to help us better understand why we are here.” They weave past with present to inform young readers “how to stamp out racism in their daily lives and why there is hope for an anti-racist future.”
7. “All American Boys” (2015) by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. A young adult novel with themes of racism and police brutality as told by two teenagers, one black and one white. Complaints about the book include the use of profanity and messages described as “anti-police, divisive, or too sensitive.”
8. “Lawn Boy” (2019) by Jonathan Evison. A semi-autobiographical story about a young Mexican American coming of age in Washington state dealing with issues of poverty, sexuality, and self-identity. It has been targeted for content described as homoerotic. Pulled from the Fairfax, VA, high school library shelves and one of the books involved in the ACLU’s lawsuit in Missouri against Wentzville R-IV School District, filed in February, 2022.
9. “The Hate U Give” (2017) by Angie Thomas, a New York Times best seller young adult best seller for 50 weeks. The story of a 16-year-old from a low-income community who is a student in an affluent prep school. She witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood friend by the police. It has been targeted by bans for its profanity and anti-police messages, banned in Texas and Illinois, and in Pennsylvania students needed parental consent to read it.
10. “Between the World and Me” (2017) by Ta-Nehisi Coates New York Times bestseller, National Book Award Winner, NAACP Image Award winner, Pulitzer Prize finalist and named one of the ten best books of the year by multiple publishers. Written as a letter to his adolescent son, the author attempts to answer the questions of how to live in a black body given the burden of history weaving reimagined history and personal experience to “offer a transcendent vision for a way forward.” Texas Rep. Matt Krause included this book in the ongoing debate about banning “critical race theory” from classrooms.
Adding to the confusion and disagreement is a lack of understanding by the public of the roles and limitations of the responsibilities of school boards, administrators, teachers, librarians, and parents. Also fueling a lot of flames is a complete lack of understanding of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which in fact is only taught at a graduate level, but the name is bandied about to cause alarm and dissension.
From ACLU.org: “The ACLU actively pursues litigation to block government action that bans books from library shelves. Students have the right to receive an inclusive education free from censorship or discrimination, and book bans infringe on that right. As we continue to fight these unconstitutional laws and policies in court, you can also join the fight by supporting students’ right to learn and read the books being banned.”