Censorship of books has been discussed at record levels from Facebook groups to local government forums. Forty years after Banned Book Week began, the American Library Association (ALA) noted that 1,597 books were banned in 2021, the highest annual number to date. September 18-24 marked Banned Books Week, which the ALA said began with the purpose of raising awareness of the harms of censorship. The first change and the censorship have been discussed together in these forums and groups.
“Across the country, people routinely question the existence or availability of books they don’t like,” said Michael Raleigh, DePaul’s assistant instructor. “Usually when people challenge a book, they don’t just do it for its own sake, they want to make it inaccessible to other people.”
PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to defending free speech, has documented problems with books in 32 states, with Texas and Florida having the most books that are more likely to be censored.
“Why is it threatening?” said Michelle Mirando, professor and chair of the English department.
The reasons for the book ban range from content to author and location.
“What could possibly be ominous about the way LGBTQ people exist or that our country is based on a system of slavery that has enabled economic development? I don’t understand,’ Mirando said.
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe was the most banned book of 2021. Gender Queer, a graphic novel memoir exploring gender identity and sexuality, was banned due to its LGBTQIA+ content and was believed to be sexually explicit contains images.
“One thing that’s happened in the last 20 or 30 years is that publishers were happy to publish books that they weren’t comfortable publishing, particularly about sexuality,” Raleigh said. “So in a short amount of time we have a lot of books about non-binary sexuality and sexual freedom. People who are still concerned about this are really rejecting these books.”
According to PEN America, 22% of banned books contain sexual content, including stories about sexual assault and abortion, and informational books about sex and puberty.
“There’s this pressure to stop giving everyone rights. And that parents should have the right to dictate what their children learn,” Mirando said.
No Left Turn in Education is a national political group fighting for state-level book bans. One of their goals is: “Support parents in taking action in their local schools to eliminate all school curriculum and activities designed to politicize and indoctrinate students.” No Left Turn In Education is one of many groups fighting to ban books by supporting parents in local schools.
“To put the toothpaste back in the tube in relation to things like LGTBQ awareness and Black Lives Matter,” Marando said.
On Wednesday, September 21, the DePaul Library hosted the City Lit Theater for “Books on the Chopping Block,” a performance featuring selections from some of the most popular banned books of 2021.
Book titles selected included readings from the ALA, the ten most challenged books such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The performance was followed by a Q&A session led by the CityLit actors.
“[CityLit] I’ve been doing this for 17 years,” said performer Noreen McGrath. “We work with a number of different libraries in the area. With the pandemic, we did a lot more digital productions.”
CityLit performed at several local libraries across Chicago during Banned Books Week, and videos of their performances can be found on their Website.
According to PEN America, at least 50 book ban groups have played instrumental roles in banning at least half of the books nationwide in the 2021-2022 school year. Of these 50 groups, some are identified as distinct religious conservative political groups. Many include local Facebook parent groups that operate at the local, state, and national levels.
“They come from organized groups that are deliberately targeting books,” said DePaul librarian Jill King. “It kind of reflects the polarization of politics in this country.”
According to the ALA, individuals can speak out against the book ban by staying in the loop, speaking up, writing letters to the editor, organizing a Banned Books Week program, and helping spread the word.
“Probably one of the most important things we can do is vote,” King said. “Find out about the candidates, especially in local elections. Vote for candidates who will make the decisions we want to see.”