This year was not your standard Banned Book Week; it was Banned Book Week on steroids.
Every September the American Library Association (ALA) hosts an annual event when libraries, bookstores and bookish media around the country trot out the list or lists of what is currently twisting the panties of the local Watch and Ward Societies. If you’re looking for what set people off this year you won’t go wrong if you answer sex, gender and race related fiction and non-fiction targeting young teens.
The ALA reported 729 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2021, resulting in more than 1,597 individual book challenges or removals. This represents the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling these lists 20 years ago. Most targeted books were for a teen audience and were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons.” (That acronym keeps getting longer; the initials stand for: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual. To that designation some have added “2S+” for “two spirits” - so now it’s sometimes written LGBTQIA2S+, an even bigger mouthful.)
It’s old news that some people out there want to ban books, but what’s new this year is the drive to censor, limit, burn and criminalize certain kinds of content has reached new and epic proportions with the focus on teen and young adults. Another leading bone of contention is teaching about race and slavery. Anything that even remotely references those topics is labeled CRT (Critical Race Theory). To the surprise of no one, Texas leads the way to cleanse the shelves, followed by all the usual suspects in all the other usual states. Click on the video links at the end of this article to view some of the specifics.
It is doubtful that a lot of of the people demanding the withdrawal of certain titles or genres have even seen, much less read, the material they are so loudly condemning, especially since few of the books cited in the ALA top ten are ranked higher than #1,000 on the Amazon best seller lists and some are ranked as low as #3,982,570. What is new news is that those who oppose these and other books are doing it in an organized, systematic and ideological fashion.
As PEN America points out, this isn’t about books, it’s political. “The surge in book bans is a result of a network of local political and advocacy groups targeting books with LGBTQ+ characters and storylines, and books involving characters of color,” said Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America.
"While we think of book bans as the work of individual concerned citizens, our report demonstrates that today's wave of bans represents a coordinated campaign to banish books being waged by sophisticated, ideological and well-resourced advocacy organizations."
PEN’s lengthy report concludes: “The unprecedented flood of book bans in the 2021–22 school year reflects the increasing organization of groups involved in advocating for such bans, the increased involvement of state officials in book-banning debates, and the introduction of new laws and policies. More often than not, current challenges to books originate not from concerned parents acting individually but from political and advocacy groups working in concert to achieve the goal of limiting what books students can access and read in public schools…”
While statements from organizations like ALA and PEN America give a broad overview of the situation, they miss much of the more personal narratives and the impact that these culture wars collisions have on individual librarians and teachers. One well reported situation in Louisiana portrays librarians Cara Chance and Amanda Jones entangled in a long running battle with their local library board. It’s not just their jobs, but also their reputations and even personal safety that has been drawn into the fray.
A recent NPR story quotes Jones’s testimony at a board meeting,’"Hate and fear disguised as moral outrage have no place in Livingston Parish,"’ she said
According to NPR,“Though 19 other people spoke up against censorship at the meeting, Jones's speech got all the attention. She's won several national Librarian-of-the-Year awards and is currently president of the Louisiana Association of School Librarians. But she was completely unprepared for what happened.
‘"A few days later,"’ she said, ‘"I open the internet and there were pictures of me, awful memes, saying I advocate teaching erotica and pornography to 6-year-olds. It gave my school's name. None of that is true. I gave a blanket speech on censorship. And they decided they wanted to make me a target."’
"They" is Citizens for a New Louisiana — the same group behind the conservative takeover of the Lafayette library board. The group has harshly criticized Jones on its Facebook page — which has 19,000 followers — for defending books they consider obscene and inappropriate for children.”
The same kind of stress is noted by the Guardian, in a September article it wrote: “For many librarians, the stress has become unbearable. Increasing numbers are complaining of sleepless nights, quitting their jobs and setting their social media accounts to private in order to protect themselves from the deluge of harassment and humiliation tactics. More than two-thirds of respondents to the 2022 Urban Library Trauma Study said they had encountered violent or aggressive behavior from patrons at their library.”
The Guardian piece goes on to say: “The proliferation of book challenges across the nation is partly because anti-book activists’ rallying cries are easier than ever to heed. Moms for Liberty, one of the conservative parent groups that arose during the pandemic to fight mask mandates, maintains a website with a step-by-step guide for challenging books, called its “Guide to Defending Your Child”.
“Moms for Liberty member Emily Maikisch also started the website BookLooks.org, where parents can find reviews of supposedly offensive materials that can be copied and pasted into emails to school principals. The homepage features an illustration of a rosy-cheeked teenage girl levitating in a trancelike state as she reads a book. Titles that have received a mini-review include Slaughterhouse-Five (“This book contains explicit violence including animal cruelty; inexplicit sexual activities including beastiality [sic]; sexual nudity; profanity; and inflamatory [sic] religious commentary”) and Lolita (“contains sexual activities involving pedophilia; sexual nudity; and mild profanity”).
“Such materials enable conservative activists to submit multiple challenges to multiple institutions, sometimes across state lines.’“Their infrastructure has grown exponentially,”’ Peter Bromberg, associate director of EveryLibrary, said of the cluster of conservative organizations behind the movement. ‘“All it takes is three parents who connect on Facebook and say: ‘We’ll go to the library meeting and present a list of 325 books that need to be pulled immediately.’”
“Conservative parent groups such as Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education and Parents Defending Education aren’t the only ones invested in the fight against books by Black and LGBTQ+ authors. Rightwing extremist groups have also adopted the cause. Proud Boys have taken to storming into Drag Queen Story Hour events, for instance, causing serious fear for patrons and librarians.
‘“There’s all this pent-up anger, and it’s gotten scarier,”’ said Natalie Brant, a reference librarian at the state library in Salem, Oregon. Brant has seen an influx of visits from sovereign citizens, an anti-government movement rooted in conspiracy theories. Members frequently request enormous stacks of materials pertaining to the history of laws that they are looking to challenge. ‘“They come with requests that can help them make up lawsuits or just clog up everyone’s time and energy and create chaos,”’ Brant said. “My anxiety is growing but I feel worse for my colleagues. We recently had active shooter trainings.”’
‘“The stress level is at its apex,”’ said Jesse O’Dunne, a Seattle youth services librarian. ‘“There’s a rise in rhetoric of librarians as villains. Conservatives are casting the profession as people who are out to promote critical race theory or the evils of transitioning.”’
O’Dunne says his cohort was already under duress from working on the frontlines during the pandemic, putting their safety at risk and facing a rise in patrons who require help with substance abuse and mental health issues. “There’s a social work component folded into the job that we weren’t formally trained for,” said O’Dunne.
“Nor were they trained to face the tide of anti-book activists. ‘“At library science school, I learned about intellectual freedom and book policies and selection policies, but it’s all theory-based,”’ said Conrrado Saldivar, president of the Wyoming Library Association.‘“These classes don’t teach us how to deal with the emotional impact of being at a public meeting that is being recorded, or dealing with what happens [when] somebody will walk in with a list in their hands and go searching for the titles and take pictures of supposedly offensive or harmful materials.”’
So what are these incendiary books?
There are the regular garden variety banned books such as: The Color Purple,The Great Gatsby, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Maus and the ever popular, ever controversial To Kill a Mockingbird. All old hat in the current scheme of things. And then there is the current ALA Top Ten with a heavy emphasis on the sexuality and gender identification of teens and young people.
The Current Top Ten Challenged Books for 2021
According to the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. The best seller rankings are from Amazon.com and can be found for each title in the “Product Detail” section. Some of these books have multiple editions and formats and their rankings may vary from what is shown here. These ratings were compiled on September 22, 2022 and may have changed somewhat since then. Here is the ALA release with reasons why the 10 books on the list were challenged.
1. Gender Queer (2019)
Best Sellers Rank: #1,126 in Books
2. Lawn Boys,(2019)
Best Sellers Rank: #3,581 in Books
3. All Boys Aren’t Blue, (2020)
Best Sellers Rank: #1,522 in Books
#16 in Censorship & Politics
4. Out of Darkness (2015)
Best Sellers Rank: #65,394 in Books
5. The Hate You Give (2022)
Best Sellers Rank: #2,225 in Books
6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2009)
Best Sellers Rank: #1,018 in Books
#9 in Children's Social Skills
7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2012)
Best Sellers Rank: #1,436,156 in Books
#2,218 in Teen & Young Adult Friendship Fiction
#22,424 in Contemporary Literature & Fiction
8.The Bluest Eyes (1994)
Best Sellers Rank: #3,982,570 in Books
9. This Book is Gay (2015)
Best Sellers Rank: #266,713 in Books
10. Beyond Magenta (2014)
Best Sellers Rank: #196,606 in Books
#301 in Teen & Young Adult Biographies
#11,228 in LGBTQ+ Books
Fortunately a few cooler heads are around to offer alternatives to all the sturm und drang. One notable and creative work-around came from the Brooklyn Public Library ; its Books-Unbanned campaign offers free access to its collection and waives the non-resident fee for any young person nationwide who might want to access its collection for these and other titles.
Other fight back actions come from sites like bookriot.com. Here, somewhat edited, are some of their suggestions:
1. Show up to your local public library and borrow — and read — books that have been banned in the last year…Once you read one of these books, leave a review on as many consumer-facing sites as possible. Books like these are being bombed by censors; this is an easy and effective way to push back.
2. Request your public library purchase books that are about subjects that interest you including those that deal with race, gender and sexuality. Most libraries have a form on their website or at the reference desk to do this.
3. Plan to attend your local school board meeting and speak in support of books that represent your values.
4. Write a letter to your local newspaper and lawmakers opposing the banning of books and supporting first amendment rights to free speech.
5. Find out when school board and library board elections are in your area and make a plan to vote. Research the candidates and if you are unsure where they stand on issues of censorship, reach out to their campaigns and ask.
6. Make a monetary donation to organizations that oppose censorship.
Here are a few videos vividly showing dramatic current trends:
This YouTube from Idaho has the chilling title: “Armed Activists Show Up to Library and Demand They Ban Books.” CNN ran this report in Sept. 2022; it got over a million views.
Here’s a video from a Virgina school board meeting in mid-2021 titled “Pandemonium in Virginia” where parents vocally protest that their children are being indoctrinated with the dreaded CRT virus. Imagine the idea that that racism in America is structural and that teaching the history of slavery and its repercussions will damage their young? A longer clip from Vice News emphasizes just how widespread and coordinated the banning activities have become.
And finally, an even longer and detailed segment from Daily Show. Host Trevor Noah provides many specifics while at the same time giving the situation a humorous spin, but you know, it really isn’t funny. It’s ten minutes, but worth your time to watch.
Reach RBH writer Susan Halas at email@example.com