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Banned Books Week is More Necessary Than Ever
Book banning is having quite a moment, and little is being done to stop it.
It's Banned Books Week once again, the annual anti-censorship event organized by the American Library Association to celebrate the freedom to read and raise awareness about censorship in schools, libraries, and bookstores.
As you likely know, book banning has been on the rise in recent years. What you may not know is how significant this rise has been. Take, for example, this graphic from ALA's “Censorship By The Numbers” report, which shows a fairly steady baseline of about 200-300 challenged books per year from 2003 through 2020, and then a sudden jump to 1,858 in 2021 and 2,571 in 2022.
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Between January and August 2023, 1,915 books have been challenged, putting it on pace to obliterate the 2022 numbers. Not good!
But let’s rewind for a second and talk about what it means for a book to be banned or challenged.
Here’s how the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom explains it:
A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.
So basically, a challenge is the attempt to get a book removed from a library or curriculum; a ban is when a challenge is successful. You can quibble with whether or not “ban” is the right word or not (I’m predicting a fair number of emails along the lines of, “Um, actually, since this book is still for sale on Amazon, having every copy of it removed from my local library isn’t a ‘ban.’” Okay, take that up with the ALA.), but the fact is that censorship is on the rise.
Here are the 13 most challenged books of 2022. See if you can spot a trend.
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe - Reasons: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson - Reasons: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison - Reasons: depiction of sexual abuse, claimed to be sexually explicit, EDI content
Flamer by Mike Curato - Reasons: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit
(TIE) Looking for Alaska by John Green - Reasons: Claimed to be sexually explicit, LGBTQIA+ content
(TIE) The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky - Reasons: Claimed to be sexually explicit, LGBTQIA+ content, depiction of sexual abuse, drugs, profanity
Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison - Reasons: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie - Reasons: Claimed to be sexually explicit, profanity
Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez - Reasons: Claimed to be sexually explicit
(TIE) A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas - Reasons: Claimed to be sexually explicit
(TIE) Crank by Ellen Hopkins - Reasons: Claimed to be sexually explicit, drugs
(TIE) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews - Reasons: Claimed to be sexually explicit, profanity
(TIE) This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson - Reasons: LGBTQIA+ content, sex education, claimed to be sexually explicit
Notice anything? “LGBTQIA+ content” is listed as a reason for seven of the challenges. What’s that mean? It could be that a character is gay. It could be that the author is trans. It could be that it’s based on the life of a historical figure who had a crush on one of her friends. “LGBTQIA+ content” is an extremely vague category.
Anti-LGBTQ activist organizations and politicians are leading the charge.
Republican politicians and anti-LGBTQ activist organizations like the misleadingly named Moms for Liberty have been leading the charge to restrict what children and young adults should be able to read. This is being carried out under the guise of “parental rights,” but the only parents who have “rights” in these scenarios are ones who agree with the right-wing anti-LGBTQ, anti-“Critical Race Theory” (it will never stop annoying me that a bunch of people on the right started falsely calling any mention of race and its role in shaping society and our history “Critical Race Theory,” and people just went along with it) agenda.
If you’re the parent of a trans kid? Tough luck. Expect books that might resonate with your child to be pulled from the shelves. A family with two dads? Good luck getting to the school library before they throw the only representation of your family in the trash.
It’s bad news. The loudest voices on the right are being given veto power over what other people’s children should be allowed to read. One tactic being used on the right is to claim any LGBTQ representation is equivalent to “pornography.” No one blinks an eye when a story involves a prince and a princess living “happily ever after,” but make that a story about two princes and you’ll have the likes of Ron DeSantis accusing you of trying to promote “pornography” to minors.and have been on this story for a while:
Just last week, Legum reported on a particularly evil bit of book banning happening in Charlotte County, Florida, where a school superintendent ordered the removal of any and all books featuring LGBTQ characters from grades K-12. Seriously! Just look at the document:
And again, this is K-12. This is saying that high school libraries where students can be 17 or 18 years old, cannot have books with LGBTQ characters in them. That is nuts.
Faux “free speech absolutists” will point to protests on college campuses as attacks on free speech, but ignore actual attempts to ban certain ideas.
I’ve pointed to this before, but it seems worth re-upping again: for all the pearl-clutching that goes on about “cancel culture” and a “campus speech crisis,” the real, significant threats to speech come from right-wing politicians. Unfortunately, state-sponsored censorship doesn’t get the loudest voices in that debate as riled up as some story about a student who protested a speech at some random college. For instance, Matt Yglesias has shrugged off book bans as “identity politics for librarians,” while signing on to letters claiming, “If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”
Well, Matt, you’re not defending the very thing on which your work depends. Seems it’s only when someone says, “Hey, please don’t be racist,” or “That’s kind of transphobic” that you all get into full “Free speech is under attack” mode, and that says quite a bit.
If you care about free speech and censorship, you can’t ignore what’s happening in public libraries, school libraries, and school curricula.
When Florida first proposed its “Don’t Say Gay” law, people argued that it didn’t really matter much as it only affected grades K-3. That wasn’t quite true at the time, and others pointed out that it was built on a framework that would allow them to expand it to K-12. And then, Florida did exactly that.
Free speech is under attack, censorship is on the rise, and it’s the people who pride themselves on being “free speech absolutists” who are allowing it to happen relatively unchallenged. They either need to show some sort of actual commitment to the cause they claim to champion or admit that they’re fine with censorship, so long as it’s censorship of ideas they don’t personally like.
Learn more about Banned Books Week here.
That’s it for me today. I hope everyone’s having a good start to their week.