Many people today believe so-called “social justice warriors” are threatening freedom of speech, getting people “canceled” in the name of “political correctness.” Is this really the case, though? When we look at what books schools and libraries are most often ban, we see a very different picture.
What Gets Books Banned?
Every year, the American Library Association demonstrates its opposition to censorship and support of free access to information by releasing a list of the top 10 books most frequently challenged the previous year in communities around the country. Along with each title, the ALA publishes the reasons why the book was found to be objectionable.
A “challenge” refers to an attempt to remove or restrict materials in a library or school based on the objections of a person or group. If the materials are actually removed, they are considered “banned.”
Some of the reasons books are challenged are quite laughable. For example, the “Harry Potter” series, which was number nine on 2019’s list*, has been banned and even forbidden from being discussed “for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use ‘nefarious means’ to attain goals.” Also, the “Captain Underpants” series (number three on 2018’s list) has been challenged for “encouraging disruptive behavior.”
Other books, however, have been challenged or banned for reasons that reveal deeply harmful and bigoted mindsets.
LGBTQ Books are Frequently Challenged
In 2019, eight of the ten most frequently challenged books had LGBTQ content listed as at least one of the reasons they were challenged. For instance, the children’s novel “George,” which tells the story of a closeted trans girl who finally gets the opportunity to show her true self when her school puts on a production of “Charlotte’s Web,” topped both 2019 and 2018’s lists of challenged books. Among the reasons for the challenges were “including a transgender character” and “conflicting with a religious viewpoint and ‘traditional family structure.’”
Similarly, the children’s book “Prince & Knight,” a twist on traditional fairy tales where a prince falls in love with a knight, came in at number five on 2019’s list. It was challenged for “featuring a gay wedding” and “for being ‘a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children.’”
Discussion of Sex is Also a Big No-No
Another common reason books are challenged is for including sexual content. For instance, “Fifty Shades of Grey” was number two on 2015’s list of most frequently challenged books.
That book is arguably a bad influence, since it romanticizes a toxic relationship where a man tries to pressure his partner into participating in a kink she doesn’t share. However, books with much more normal and healthy depictions of sexuality are also frequently challenged. For instance, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” number nine on 2018’s list, was challenged in part because it contains depictions of normal teenage sexuality, like discussions of masturbation and erections.
Even books that discuss sex in an educational context appear on the list. For instance, number four on 2019’s list, “Sex is a Funny Word,” has been challenged, banned and relocated because it provides children with sex education.
Similarly, “It’s Perfectly Normal,” which also teaches children about sexual health, has repeatedly appeared on the list. This particular book has a special place in my heart, as it provided me with much of my own sexual education. Seeing people working to make sure other children can’t similarly benefit from it is both infuriating and heartbreaking.
Are There Any Other Harmful Reasons Books are Banned?
Yes. For instance, “The Hate U Give” was number four on 2018’s list. One of the reasons it has been frequently challenged and banned is that it is considered “anti-cop” because of its discussion of police brutality. This sends the message that discussion of Black Americans’ experiences and how the police have negatively impacted their lives is offensive and unwelcome.
Also, “The Kite Runner,” which tells the fictional story of one man’s experiences during a tumultuous period in Afghanistan’s history, was number four on 2017’s list. It has been challenged and banned because it “was thought to ‘lead to terrorism’ and ‘promote Islam’” since it contains references to the Islamic faith. This suggests that Islam is inherently pro-terrorism and should never be discussed.
So Who is Challenging These Books?
In 2019, the plurality (45 percent) of challenges were initiated by library patrons. Eighteen percent were initiated by parents, 13 percent by school boards and administrations, eight percent by librarians and teachers and one percent by students. Most disturbingly, 12 percent of challenges were initiated by political and religious groups, and three percent were initiated by elected officials.
Why are Books About LGBTQ People, Sex and Minorities Being Banned?
While some are claiming that it is “traditional values” that are being censored in America today, a look at which books are most frequently challenged or banned suggests the opposite is the case. Just look at the language being used in the challenges: Books about police brutality are “anti-cop.” Books about Muslims “lead to terrorism.” And books about LGBTQ people “indoctrinate young children.” It is clear that such notions are deeply rooted in bigotry: the idea that Muslims are by definition terrorists, the idea that gayness is a disease that can be caught and the idea that police never do anything wrong and every Black person who is brutalized by a cop must have done something to deserve it.
But such language also reveals that the straight White majority fears any perspective that may challenge its narrative. This is also reflected in the banning of books because of sexual content. Books that portray sex and sexuality as healthy and normal are considered “inappropriate” because they are perceived as challenging traditional values.
What is the Impact of Banning Books for “Harmful” Reasons?
It is unfortunate that some of the books people (especially young people) need to read the most are the ones most often challenged and banned from libraries and schools. Books with LGBTQ content or characters can help LGBTQ children learn about themselves and understand they are not alone, and they can teach other children to be more accepting. Books that contain healthy depictions of sex can help young people to understand their own developing sexuality, and sex education books can give them vital information, especially in places where the schools don’t teach comprehensive sex ed. And books like “The Hate U Give” and “The Kite Runner” allow minorities to see themselves and their stories in literature, and they allow others to understand experiences that differ from their own. None of this can happen if people are unable to read such books.
Furthermore, banning books about LGBTQ people or minorities further stigmatizes marginalized groups and tells them their experiences and perspectives are not welcome. And deeming books about sex inappropriate adds extra shame to an already taboo topic, chilling important conversations about health.
The American Librarian Association is correct: free access to information is absolutely essential. Censorship must be opposed, especially when it harms people’s health and well-being.
*Most of the books mentioned in this article are listed with their position on the most recent list they’ve appeared on. Many of them have appeared on lists for multiple years.