The ALA’s Annual Banned Book List: A Sobering Snapshot of American Censorship
Parents and school boards still want to pull titles from shelves
Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests spawned a slew of antiracist reading lists for kids. Nine months later, the American Library Association’s newest Banned Book List shows just how threatening those titles were to some parents.
The ranking from the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which it released April 5, includes some perennials. Alex Gino’s George, a novel about a young transgender girl, marks its third year in a row as the most-challenged book.
New to the list and ranking second is Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, the 2020 young-adult “remix” of Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning Stamped From the Beginning, from Kendi and National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds.
Stamped topped the New York Times best-seller list and collected 25 best-of-the-year kudos from critics. But some parents claimed it deployed “selective storytelling.” In Berlin, N.J., parents asked that schools remove the book, and they harassed a teacher by email and phone, eventually leading to that teacher’s resignation. In the suburbs of Austin, Texas, parents pushed back on the book’s inclusion in middle-school curriculum all the way to the Round Rock school board.
All-American Boys, Reynolds’ Coretta Scott King award-winning collaboration with Brendan Kiely, ranked third. Complaints said the 2015 novel, which follows a Black and white teen after their paths cross during an arrest at a neighborhood bodega, was too “divisive” and raised issues that were “too much of a sensitive matter right now.”
Something Happened In Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice ranked sixth. It’s a picture book that centers on two families – one Black, one white – after a police shooting. Many of the complaints about books with antiracist themes also overlapped with worries about depictions of police, like All-American Boys and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, which ranked 10th this year.
Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson’s award-winning novel about the aftermath of sexual assault, ranked fourth, cited for its profanity, discussion of rape and “anti-male” viewpoint.
“21 years after pub, Speak is still being banned. Most of the other books in the Top 10 are censored for discussing racism,” Anderson tweeted after the list’s release. “Seems like book banners want to hold on to systematic racism & rape culture, doesn’t it?”
Notably, a few books made the list due to challenges over racist depictions. In Burbank, Calif., the school board weighed whether to remove Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (#7 on the list) and John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (#8), among others, from the curriculum in response to Black parents’ complaints citing the effects of racial slurs and “white savior” storylines on their children. The debate captured headlines, with the superintendent eventually removing the books from mandatory-reading lists but keeping them as an option for independent reading.
The overall number of complaints dropped this year. The OIF tracked 156 challenges covering 273 books in 2020, compared with 377 challenges to 566 books in 2019. Officials said physical closure of libraries and pandemic-related disruptions to reporting channels likely played a role.
Even so, the Banned Books List report noted, “surveys indicate that 82-97% of book challenges … remain unreported and receive no media.”