Having unrestricted access to information is one of the most essential characteristics of a free society and free expression. Unfortunately, 2022 has seen more challenged or banned books than years past due to complaints of racism, sexually explicit content, offensive language, or sexual orientation themes.
Every year, the American Library Association compiles a list of books banned in the US. Here are thirteen examples of challenged books, some of which have also appeared on ALA’s list of banned books.
1. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
Kobabe’s graphic memoir depicts the author’s life as a non-binary person with a focus on the adolescent years. Many fans praise the book for its open discussion of gender identity, with many trans and non-binary teens relating to the author’s early experiences. For this reason, the book is included in several school libraries across the US. However, several attempts at banning the book have already taken place due to its LGBTQ+ content.
Today, books with LGBTQ+ themes are some of the most restricted types of books, making up about 33% of targeted books. In response to the bans, Kobabe has spoken about the importance of LGBTQ+ media for trans youth with an opinion piece in the Washington Post. In the opinion piece, the author argues that the most positive role models for trans youth are found in books.
2. Lawn Boy by Jonathon Evison
Like Gender Queer, Jonathan Evison’s coming-of-age novel about a minority, working-class protagonist has been targeted for its LGBTQ+ themes, along with profanity and some sexually descriptive content.
The novel’s main character is Mike Muñoz, a twenty-two-year-old landscaper with aspirations of achieving more. His story is told in a series of episodic vignettes as a general commentary on racism, minority stress, and the cycle of poverty. The book is most criticized for a scene in which an adult male reminisces on a childhood sexual encounter with another boy. Some proponents have interpreted the scene as a single touchstone in the protagonist’s navigation of his sexual identity. On the other hand, challengers accuse the content of glamorizing pedophilia.
In 2021, Lawn Boy and Gender Queer were pulled from school libraries in Fairfax County, VA.
3. All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
Johnson describes this title as his “memoir-manifesto,” documenting his experiences as a gay youth growing up in the black community. The topics covered include consent, rape, masculinity, and police brutality, which are portrayed through the lens of a queer black perspective. Gay, black voices are particularly underrepresented in media, which can only be remedied by improving access to LGBTQ+ stories for the younger generations.
Still, this hasn’t stopped attempts at banning All Boys Aren’t Blue in schools and libraries. In Utah’s Alpine School District, the book is currently forbidden, along with several others, for containing “pornographic content.” The ban was initiated to comply with a new 2022 state law concerning sensitive materials in schools.
4. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Originally published in 1970, The Bluest Eye is a narrative tale about a young black girl living in a post-Depression America. In the novel, Pecola Breedlove prays for blue eyes after experiencing years of bullying due to her dark skin. The book has consistently appeared on the ALA banned books list since its original publication due to depictions of racism, child sexual abuse, and offensive language.
Beloved, another novel by Toni Morrison, is frequently targeted in book bans. The most notable case happened in 2017 when a Fairfax County mother objected to her son being assigned to read the book for a high school class. Footage of the mother’s public banning attempts was later used in a 2021 campaign ad for Glenn Youngkin when he ran for governor of Virginia.
In April 2022, Governor Youngkin signed a bill requiring schools to notify parents if their children have been assigned books deemed to be “sexually explicit,” such as Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Beloved.
5. Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin
“Beyond Magenta” features photographs and stories of six trans and nonbinary teens, paying particular attention to coming out, transitioning, and finding acceptance. The author has taken special care to select individuals representing different racial, socio-economic, and gender spectrum identities, providing a diverse sampling of experiences.
Like many other books featuring LGBTQ+ stories, Beyond Magenta was swiftly targeted for banning. Within one year of its 2014 debut, the book became the number four most challenged book in the US, according to the ALA.
6. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Angie Thomas’s award-winning novel was initially conceived as a short story written for her senior college project. Several high-profile police shootings against black men inspired the plot’s elements.
The story is ultimately told through the eyes of a black teen named Starr Carter, the only witness to her friend’s death via police shooting. Starr attends a predominantly white high school in an affluent community but lives in a poor black neighborhood. Thus, she finds herself pulled between both of these worlds as she endures her situation’s political and emotional ramifications.
Despite the Black Lives Movement, which brought systemic racial injustice to the forefront of the public eye, The Hate U Give continues to be challenged for the alleged promotion of anti-police attitudes and is one of the most common books banned in the US.
7. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale, one of the best books of all time, depicts a post-democracy society where women are the lowest social class. Furthermore, fertile women must devote their lives to producing children for this society’s elite men. The book’s most contested aspects include its sexual overtones, contempt for religion, and criticism of theocratic society. In particular, the emphasis on fertility and reproduction is falsely interpreted as sexually explicit content.
Interest in The Handmaid’s Tale spiked after the 2016 presidential election, inspiring new attempts to ban the book in classrooms. For the first time in years, The Handmaid’s Tale appeared in the top ten of the ALA list of banned books for 2019.
8. Maus by Art Spiegelman
Maus is a graphic novel memoir about the Holocaust with illustrations depicting Jews as mice and Germans as cats. In 1992, it won a Pulitzer Prize in the Special Awards and Citations category. The book took shape from a collection of interviews between Art Spiegelman and his father, a Polish immigrant and Holocaust survivor. The book explores slavery, oppression, suicide, and intergenerational trauma.
Understandably, these heavy themes are accompanied by graphic language and images, which inspired a recent ban by the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee. Maus is both challenged and defended for its frank portrayal of the horrors that occurred during the Holocaust. Art Spiegelman himself has mixed feelings about whether or not his book is appropriate for young readers but stresses the importance of accurately portraying these experiences.
9. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie’s novel is narrated from the perspective of an Indigenous teen named Junior. Junior lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation but attends a nearly all-white high school. Due to the subject’s life circumstances, the book references poverty, alcoholism, racism, and masturbation.
The book has also been interpreted as having anti-colonialist, anti-Christian themes because of its Indigenous point-of-view. For these reasons, The Absolutely True Diary is one of the most frequently targeted books banned in the US.
10. 1984 by George Orwell
This dystopian staple cautions society against the consequences of fascism, totalitarianism, and the surveillance state. The hero of the story is Winston Smith, who is, at first glance, an obedient citizen under the Party’s oppressive regime. However, he secretly resents the government and harbors rebellious, revolutionary attitudes.
Originally published in 1949, the novel is now considered a literary classic and has been devoured by generations of readers worldwide. Despite this, 1984 continues to be challenged for its supposed pro-communist leanings and graphic content. This shows that even well-respected classics can potentially join the ranks of other books banned in the US.
11. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
Out of Darkness is a young adult love story set against the backdrop of 1930s New London, Texas, culminating in the infamous New London school explosion. The romantic hero and heroine are a Mexican-American girl and an African-American boy who fall in love when racial barriers are rarely crossed.
The story stays true to its historical roots as it is furnished with the reality of life as a minority living in poverty. Some of these raw details include mentions of child abuse, violence, and sexually explicit language. Just like All Boys Aren’t Blue, Out of Darkness is one of the fifty-two books the Alpine School District banned.
12. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a contemporary novel about two high school seniors who befriend a teen with leukemia. Its honest, stream-of-consciousness voice makes it an approachable book for reluctant readers. Thus, the book is a common sight in classrooms and school libraries. However, it uses explicit language in its portrayal of realistic twenty-first-century adolescents, making it a popular target for banning. In 2021, it ranked seventh in the ALA list of most challenged books in the US.
13. This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson
This Book Is Gay is a manual of sorts intended to address the dearth of non-heteronormative sexual education. As such, opponents have accused the book of grooming children by providing information about safe sex and the frank description of certain body parts. Defenders of the book have pointed out that traditional, heteronormative sex ed uses similar language and depictions of body parts without issue.
Since its debut in 2014, This Book Is Gay has become a regular sight among the cast of books banned in the US. This includes the 2022 removal of the book from the library of Hart High School in California because it supposedly teaches children “how to engage in gay sex.”
Book Bans in the US
What US State Has the Most Book Bans?
By far, Texas has the most book bans compared to other US states. From July 2021 to March 2022, Texas banned 713 books. In comparison, Pennsylvania is in second place with 456 banned books during the same time period.
What Is the Purpose of Banned Books Week?
Banned Books Week occurs annually to draw attention to banned and challenged books. This promotes public awareness of censorship, highlights marginalized voices and defends intellectual freedom.
Who Initiates Book Bans?
Parents, school board members, or school districts can initiate book bans based on what they deem appropriate for students. Political figures and state officials can also endorse them. According to Pen America, 644 individual books were restricted in the past year due to the influence of an elected official (lawmakers). This accounts for 41% of the books banned in the US. These politically-driven book bans raise concerns about restrictive access to information in schools.
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