find your freedom to read graphic

Banned Books Week is almost upon us, and Tyler Libraries are gearing up to celebrate some of our favorite banned books: the ones people try to say are verboten and request that libraries remove from their collections. It may seem strange and unusual, but the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom receives reports from libraries, schools, and the media all the time regarding attempts to challenge or ban books in communities across the country. Many different groups try to challenge or ban books, but according to the ALA, parents challenge books more often than any other particular population. (A quick note, dear reader: there is a difference between a ban and a challenge. A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict a book, usually based on the objection of a person or group. A ban is the actual removal of those materials.)

So, why are books challenged and/or banned? Usually, it’s because the challenger wants to protect others (often children) from difficult ideas and information. At times, it’s done with the best intentions, but it could be also be argued that not exposing children to difficult topics hinders their growth both intellectually and as a human being. Obviously, exposing a fourth grader to the themes and topics within Alice Walker’s The Color Purple would be highly inappropriate, and it would be understandable if a parent challenged its inclusion in an elementary age curriculum. However, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which is much more appropriate (both in reading level and in content) frequently finds itself on the ALA’s list of top banned/challenged books of the year.

Ultimately, the reason a book is banned of challenged comes down to three themes:

  1. The book contains material that is considered to be “sexually explicit”
  2. The book contained language that was considered “offensive”
  3. The book was not suited to “any age group”

The above three reasons are not the only reasons books are banned or challenged. Other reasons a book may be banned or challenged include (but are not limited to):

  • LGBTQIA+ content
  • Encouraging disruptive behavior
  • Addressing teen suicide
  • Violence
  • Drug use and/or underage drinking
  • Gambling
  • Religious viewpoints/occult/Satanism
  • Being considered anti-family
  • Political viewpoints

As you can tell, there are a wide variety of reasons a book can get banned or challenged. What’s interesting, though, is looking at the trends in the reasons why books are banned or challenged. For example, per the ALA’s website on banned and challenged books, sexually explicit material remains a consistent reason for why someone might challenge a book. However, while LGBTQIA+ material was challenged on occasion in the past, it wasn’t until recent years that it started being regularly cited as a reason for a book to be challenged. To put this into perspective, in the list of the Top Most Challenged Books of 2014, it was cited once as why a book should be banned (for And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell). Five years later, in the Top Most Challenged Books of 2019, LGBTQIA+ content was listed eight times as to why a book was challenged. It’s important to note, too, that these lists only contain ten books. LGBTQIA+ content made a major leap from 10% to 80% in just five years.

Speaking of 2019: Which books did the ALA report as being most frequently challenged? One might expect the list to contain mainly books geared more towards a high school curriculum. However, that was not the case this past year. Seven of the included books were more appropriate for an elementary school curriculum (or possibly a middle school curriculum for two of the books). So which books were the most challenged?

top 10 challenged books

  1. George by Alex Gino (LGBTQIA+ content, sexual references, conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure”)*
  2. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin (LGBTQIA+ content, concerns it was sexually explicit and biased)
  3. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller (LGBTQIA+ content, political content, concerns it is “designed to pollute the morals of its readers,” and does not a content warning)*
  4. Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth (LGBTQIA+ content, discussing sex education, concerns the title and illustrations were “inappropriate”)*
  5. Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis (LGBTQIA+ content and conflicting with a religious viewpoint)*
  6. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas (LGBTQIA+ content, containing subject matter that is “sensitive, controversial, and politically charged)
  7. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (profanity, vulgarity, and sexual overtones)
  8. Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier (LGBTQIA+ content and going against “family values/morals”)
  9. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (references to magic and witchcraft – including containing actual curses and spells – and characters who use “nefarious means” to achieve their goals)*
  10. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson, illustrated by Henry Cole (LGBTQIA+ content)*

*Books with an asterisk by them were also hidden, relocated, restricted, vandalized, and in the case of the Harry Potter series, forbidden to be talked about

This shift to more elementary-age books being challenged is interesting, as in previous years, the list had either been fairly evenly split between elementary-age books and middle-to-high school-age books or had leaned more heavily towards the latter. It leads one to wonder: what changed to make the list shift like it did? And how is the COVID-19 pandemic going to affect the list for 2020, if it does at all? Indeed, this whole concept of banned and challenged books is an interesting commentary on the many facets of society, sometimes leading to more questions than answers.

As you can tell, banned books are a topic that many people – both librarians and regular citizens – feel strongly about, and this blog post hardly scratches the surface of it. Over the course of the next week, Tyler Libraries staff (and even Virgil the Library Skeleton!) will be sharing some of their favorite banned books, as well as tidbits of trivia on the library Instagram page (have you followed it yet? No?! What are you waiting for? Find us @jtcclibrary) Want more information now? Check out the library’s research guide on banned books. Want to read a banned book? Place a request or stop by and we’ll be happy to pull one for you.

The weather is getting cooler and the days are getting shorter, but that just means it’s the perfect time to curl up with a book (especially one that’s got a bit of scandal attached to it, in the humble opinion of this author). So stand up (or perhaps sit down) for your right to read!

Author’s note: All graphics and information presented in this blog post are from the American Library Association’s website on Banned Books Week. This site can be located here.

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