The 10 most targeted books for banning in 2021

Book banning efforts surged in the US last year, focusing on black and LGBTQ+ stories

Attempts to ban books in the United States surged in 2021 to the highest level since the American Library Association began tracking book challenges 20 years ago, the organisation said Monday.

Most of the targeted books were by or about black and LGBTQ+ people, the association says.

Book challenges are a perennial issue at school board meetings and libraries. But more recently, efforts fuelled by the country’s intensely polarised political environment have been amplified by social media, where lists of books some consider to be inappropriate for children circulate quickly and widely.

Challenges to certain titles have been embraced by some conservative politicians, cast as an issue of parental choice and parental rights. Those who oppose these efforts, however, say that prohibiting the books violates the rights of parents and children who want those titles to be available.

Librarians say that just the spectre of having to defend against charges, or to withstand such a public spectacle, is likely to have a chilling effect

“What we’re seeing right now is an unprecedented campaign to remove books from school libraries but also public libraries that deal with the lives and experience of people from marginalised communities,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom. “We’re seeing organised groups go to school boards and library boards and demand actual censorship of these books in order to conform to their moral or political views.”

The library association says it counted 729 challenges last year to library, school and university materials, as well as research databases and e-book platforms. Each challenge can contain multiple titles, and the association tracked 1,597 individual books that were either challenged or removed.

The count is based on voluntary reporting by educators and librarians and on media reports, the association says, and is not comprehensive.

Librarians and free speech advocates have also noticed an increase in heavy-handed tactics, including high-profile political pressure against certain books and legal threats against librarians responsible for choosing reading material – and even against the books themselves.

Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, a Republican, ran a campaign ad featuring a mother who did not want Toni Morrison's Beloved to be a part of her son's high school curriculum. Another Republican, Henry McMaster, the governor of South Carolina, asked for an investigation into what he called "obscene and pornographic" materials in the state's public schools, specifically mentioning the book Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, which the library association says was the most frequently challenged book in the country last year.

Jonathan Evison says he has received death threats as a result of the campaigns to ban his book

A county prosecutor's office in Wyoming considered criminal charges against library employees for stocking books such as This Book is Gay and Sex Is a Funny Word. A school board member in Flagler County, Florida, filed a complaint with the sheriff's department against a book called All Boys Aren't Blue.

Law enforcement officials determined there was no basis for a criminal investigation in either instance. But librarians say that just the spectre of having to defend against charges, or to withstand such a public spectacle, is likely to have a chilling effect, discouraging library employees from ordering certain books in the first place.

Here are the 10 most frequently challenged books of 2021, according to the library association.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

1 In this 2019 illustrated memoir, Kobabe, who is nonbinary, explored questions surrounding sexuality and gender identity and the process of coming out as gender nonconforming. Most objections to the book, which has been pulled from school and public libraries across the country, point to brief references to masturbation and an illustration based on an erotic image of an older man and a boy depicted on a Greek urn. But Kobabe and others note that many of the challenges stem from the memoir's frank discussion of gender fluidity.

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison

2 Evison's 2018 novel follows a young Mexican American man who works as a landscaper and is coming to terms with his sexual identity. While it was written for adults, the novel found an audience with teens and won an Alex Award, a prize given by the Young Adult Library Services Association to books written for adults that hold appeal to young adults. Critics seized on a scene that describes a sexual encounter between two boys.

Evison says he has received death threats as a result of the campaigns to ban his book.

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M Johnson

3 Johnson's memoir earned glowing reviews for its unflinching and at times exuberant look at the challenges and joys of growing up black and queer. The book, which includes scenes that depict oral and anal sex and sexual assault, has been challenged in school libraries across the country.

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez

4 Set in 1930s Texas, Out of Darkness centres on a romance between a Mexican American teenage girl and a black teenage boy. The novel has been widely challenged, including by a parent at the Lake Travis Independent School District in Austin who complained about a passage where teenage boys make explicit sexual and racist comments about a Mexican American girl. Perez has argued that her novel deals with racism and sexual abuse because those are issues that young people confront in their own lives.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

5 Thomas's young adult debut novel centres on a black teenage girl whose friend is shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. A bestseller, it helped stir conversations about police violence, but has been challenged across the country for what critics say is profanity, violence and an "anti-police" agenda. "There's the assumption that it's an anti-police book, when the fact is it's anti-police brutality," Thomas said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

6 Based on the author's own experience, this young adult book follows a boy on the Spokane Indian Reservation who attends an all-white school where the only other Native American is the school mascot. It won a National Book Award in 2007 in the Young People's Literature category.

The library association says it has been targeted for banning because of sexual references, profanity and the use of a derogatory term.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

7 A novel about an awkward boy named Greg who hopes to make it through high school by keeping a low profile; his friend, Earl; and a girl who has cancer, whom Greg's mother pushes him to befriend. A New York Times bestseller, it was made into a movie written by Andrews and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.

The book has been challenged because it was considered degrading to women and sexually explicit.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

8 Published in 1970, Morrison's debut novel is considered a canonical work of American fiction. Narrated by a black girl in Ohio, the book follows a tragic heroine who believes that she is ugly, and prays for blue eyes.

The book has been challenged because it depicts child sexual abuse and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.

This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson

9 A nonfiction exploration of growing up as LGBTQ+, this title addresses a variety of issues including sex, politics and stereotypes. The book has been challenged because of its LGBTQ+ material and themes, and for "providing sexual education," the library association says.

Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin

10 This book profiles the lives of six transgender or gender-neutral teenagers, largely in their own words. The book was challenged for its LGBTQ+ content and because it was considered sexually explicit, the association says. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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