by Maya Pottiger
From bills banning the teaching of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye being pulled off shelves, book bans across the United States are increasing at an unprecedented rate. In the past two years, most bans have targeted books about the LGBTQ+ experience and race in America.
And the upswing in the book bans doesn’t stop. A record number of books have already been targeted this year — 1,651 unique titles from January 2022 to August 2022, according to a new report from the American Library Association. This surpasses the 2021 record of 1,597 banned titles, which was the highest number of challenges or bans ALA has seen in its more than 20 years of tracking.
Banning books is tantamount to wanting to control a frame of thought, whether for specific people or topics or ideas, says Dr. Fedrick Ingram, Secretary and Treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. This is not fair to young people and creates an uneducated population, which is not good for democracy.
“Our public schools and libraries need to be protected,” says Ingram. “We need to expand access to universal books and give our students a comprehensive view of the world and its history and what they can actually become by reading everything so that they are independent thinkers.”
AFT’s Reading Makes the World campaign is helping to increase access to books by giving away 1 million books across the country. The ongoing bans have not affected the campaign, but they do have a “deterrent effect” on teachers. Ingram mentioned classics like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” – classics that are now banned in some states.
“Laws have been passed that teachers are hot on their heels,” says Ingram. “They can no longer teach books that have been taught as part of the English curriculum for years.”
Which books are banned?
The American Library Association isn’t the only group pursuing book bans. PEN America, an organization dedicated to protecting free speech, has compiled a database of book bans in libraries and classrooms from July 1, 2021 to March 31, 2022. In those nine months, the organization counted 1,586 bans against 874 authors and 1,145 books.
These bans span 86 school districts in 26 states, affecting 2,899 schools and over 2 million students.
The report found that 72% of banned titles are fiction, 47% are young adult fiction and 18% are children’s picture books. And the content of the books in this database reflects the attacks across the country on books dealing with race and racism, LGBTQ issues and sex education.
In the database, 41% of banned books have protagonists or prominent supporting characters of race, and 22% address race and racism directly, the report found. It’s not just fiction that’s being banned, either. PEN America found that 16% of banned books are history books or biographies and 9% have rights and activism themes.
The LGBT memoir Gender Queer tops the list with 30 bans during this period, followed by George M. Johnson’s Black Queer autobiographical essay collection All Boys Aren’t Blue with 21 bans. From PEN America’s database, only six books have received more than 10 bans, and four of those are race-related.
Three prominent black children’s authors – Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas and Jerry Craft – are no strangers to book bans. Thomas and Reynolds are consistently included in the American Library Association’s annual top 10 list of most challenged books. And despite writing the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Award, Craft’s “New Kid” has struggled with claims that he espouses a critical theory of race.
The National Council of Teachers of English has created a database of banned books and is offering help to educators who need to write a formal ‘justification’ in order to teach the books. However, you must be a member of NCTE to view them.
“Students have the right to read material that interests them,” says Emily Kirkpatrick, executive director of the NCTE. She says recognizing Banned Books Week this year “is a reminder for everyone to remain vigilant, to continue to advocate for access to all types of materials that appeal to the interests of students and, much broader, readers of all ages . ”
How do these bans affect schools?
Despite widespread bans, books by Reynolds, Thomas, and Craft remain popular with teachers. From the 2020-2021 to 2021-2022 school year, all three authors saw large requests for their books through DonorsChoose. There was a 58% increase in Craft books, a 29% increase in Reynolds books and a 20% increase in Thomas books.
DonorsChoose works with schools and districts nationwide, categorizing them as equity focused and non-equity focused. It defines equity focus schools as those where at least 50% of the student body is Black, Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander or mixed race and at least 50% of the students qualify for a free or reduced lunch.
In the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, there were nearly equal numbers of requests for these books from both equal opportunity and non-equal opportunity schools, with only about 300 additional requests from equal opportunity schools each year.
In the 2021-2022 school year, there was a slight increase in requests for these books in schools without a gender focus, with requests increasing by 13%. However, schools with a focus on justice saw a 55% increase in requests for books by these authors.
Craft in particular is seeing huge growth for New Kid each year, showing that trying to ban a book can popularize it. From 2019-2020 to 2020-2021, DonorsChoose saw a 213% increase for his book after his virtual appearance at a Texas school was canceled because parents claimed his book supported critical race theory.
While book bans are often counterproductive because they increase a book’s sales, this is not true for all authors of banned books. Breanna McDaniel’s 2019 text Hands Up! – a picture book for children – has been banned or challenged in some states. As a result, sales of her book plummeted, McDaniel says.
“People are very sensitive about messaging very young children,” says McDaniel, also a program manager at the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. “Because picture books are aimed at this audience, picture books are tricky.”
Book bans send message
Banning books from schools and libraries has many implications. You’re missing out on “certified classics,” says Ingram, including Pulitzer Prize-winning books and others that have stood the test of time. For people to formulate their own ideas, they need access to the entire story, Ingram says.
“Unfortunately, our students don’t receive the full service of our schools, our libraries, our curriculum and, unfortunately, their own knowledge,” says Ingram. “These are things that do not bode well for an educated population in this democracy trying to make this a fairer game.”
Nowadays, banning a physical book from a physical place only gets so much. Books can be purchased, accessed online, or borrowed from another library. But the act of prohibition still sends a message to students.
In a recent interview with Reader’s Digest, Ibram X. Kendi, author of the frequently banned or contested book How to Be Antiracist, said books that challenge notions of black inferiority are viewed as indoctrination, but books that do nothing Saying about black people or not reinforcing the idea of black inferiority is considered education.
This message of inferiority means black and brown students are more likely to see, hear, and feel the effects than their peers.
“It’s unfortunate because we live in a society where black and brown students already have to deal with overt racism, they already have to deal with politicians talking about their home country and they already deal with all the cynical kinds of politics we see,” says Ingram.
NCTE launched a campaign called This Story Matters in May 2022 to combat ongoing censorship for saying something “very dramatic and very disturbing” about the banned storylines, says Kirkpatrick.
“When students identify with a story or a character, the ultimate message that’s been conveyed is that you don’t matter,” says Kirkpatrick.