This year’s Banned Books Week theme is Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us. I personally find this to be a universal truth. With a book I can be a cyborg Cinderella on the run in a dystopian future, a Latinx brujo helping a recently dead boy figure out what happened to him, or an Inuit shaman forging an unlikely alliance with a Viking warrior and going on a quest to save our peoples. Books can open your eyes, if only you are willing to look. I hope you’ll pardon the Disney reference, lyrics from a certain Aladdin song feels appropriate here.
“A whole new world (don’t you dare close your eyes)
A hundred thousand things to see (hold your breath, it gets better)
I’m like a shooting star, I’ve come so far
I can’t go back to where I used to be
A whole new world
With new horizons to pursue
I’ll chase them anywhere
There’s time to spare
Let me share this whole new world with you“
To be clear, by “banned book” I mean to say that the particular title has been in the news because multiple groups decided or attempted to take it off their shelves for very specific reasons. Publishers stopping publication or authors pulling their own titles do not count.
We at RPL are constantly evaluating our collection, making sure our patrons have access to the most accurate and recent information. We use the CREW (Continuous Review Evaluation and Weeding) method when deciding to take books off our shelves, also known as weeding. The three main things that we look at are its appearance (is it worn, shabby, ripped pages?), its use (has it checked out in the last 3-5 years?), and its content (does it have inaccurate or harmful information? is it racist or sexist? is it outdated or obsolete?). Other factors apply, but those are the first considerations.
Now, let’s go over the top 10 most challenged books from 2020, breaking it down, book by book.
1. George by Alex Gino
Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community”.
My summary/thoughts: George is the story of a trans girl who really wants to be Charlotte in her school’s play of Charlotte’s Web. She makes a plan with her best friend to do so as well as show everyone who she really is, plain and simple. It’s short and sweet and straight forward enough for anyone to understand. Trans people (of every age) exist and it’s only right for them to see themselves in stories.
2. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Banned and challenged because of author’s public statements, and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people.
My summary/thoughts: This not history history book (as it refers to itself) is a refreshing look at how racism and antiracism have played a huge rule in our nation’s history. By refreshing I mean clear, concise, and engaging. As a person with a background in mostly southern education and a history major degree, it soon became clear that there were many major points left out of the education system as a whole. Sure, it doesn’t cover racism against brown people and only touches on the biases against women and queer people but if it did all of those, the book would be way too big! It has a recommended reading list at the back which shout out two more books on this list. Can you guess which? (it’s #3 and #10)
3. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism, and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now”.
My summary/thoughts: Firstly, it is very much “a sensitive matter right now”, which is why it’s all the more helpful to read. I didn’t personally notice a high amount of profanity, though the presence of alcohol was noted. It shows the point of view where someone you know does something you thought they’d never do. Life sometimes throws you curves, learning how to keep living is essential.
4. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint and it was claimed to be biased against male students, and for the novel’s inclusion of rape and profanity.
My summary/thoughts: At first, I had a hard time understanding what was going on. I didn’t know why Melinda wasn’t/couldn’t speak. Once it became clear that it was due to trauma from being raped, 1000% empathy for her. I know what it’s like to be so terrified and paralyzed that words just won’t come out and you wonder what the point is of even speaking. Every 68 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. And every 9 minutes, that victim is a child. This is a reality that too many people have to face. Better to understand how rape can mentally and physically effect someone via a book than in real life.
5. Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author.
My summary/thoughts: This book is about a young man who has the courage to hope for better things in his life, which in his case need to happen off the reservation, or rez. He is ridiculed growing up for numerous reasons, most of which are outside his control like the shape of his head or a stutter/lisp. His decision to switch schools and stick to his resolution said great things about his strength of character. Most of the story is just chronicling the big events leading up to and during his first years at the new school. Masturbation is mentioned, but it doesn’t go into any details so I wouldn’t call it explicit. I imagine very few high schoolers don’t know what that is at that point in life so it’s not a big deal to me (as a parent of middle and high schoolers). There’s a curse word here or there but again, high schoolers. *shrug*
6. Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story of Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, Illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin
Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views.
My summary/thoughts: I have no idea what they consider “divisive language.” I found none in here. As much as parents would like to keep their kids from all the negativity in the world, it’s nigh impossible to achieve. Kids hear things, from their classmates, neighbors, or even just passersby in a store. It’s best to meet their questions (or start the conversation!) yourself and respond at their level of maturity. Even 5-year-olds have a basic understanding of fairness. Talk to your kids (if you have them) and help them understand how they can contribute to making the world around them a better place by being accepting of others as they are, humans like you and me.
7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience.
My thoughts/summary: I personally think this book has had its heyday and there are several newer books that can give similar perspectives that are more palatable for this day and age. It shouldn’t be taken off shelves, just replaced in curriculums with more modern takes, IMHO.
8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students.
My thoughts/summary: Similar to above, I think this book has had its era and it’s time to move on to fresher things. It’s short and that makes it easier to digest, but I think there are better interpretations out there that can teach similar lessons.
9. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Banned and challenged because it was considered
sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse.
My summary/thoughts: I’ll admit, this is my first Toni Morrison book. It was hard for me to read. The flow of language is different than my usual book picks. Just because it was not my cup of tea doesn’t make it any less useful to others. It does depict what the challenge says but just as in Speak, these aggressions do happen far too often. We can’t ignore their presence by ignoring the book. I can see why others have recommended it to me. A person could find strength and beauty in how it was written. It gives insight into how different people are treated and how their reaction to that treatment can effect generations. It encourages you to question who you see as beautiful or ugly and how belief can transform you. Very thought-provoking.
10. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message.
My summary/thoughts: I can’t disagree, it does have a lot of profanity. However, as I mentioned earlier, high schoolers know it and speak it so no biggie in my mind. I would personally call this book anti-discrimination, not necessarily anti-police. Starr learns that her voice is her most powerful weapon—to continue speaking up, and continue doing the right thing. She sees her friend murdered in front of her eyes by a cop at a traffic stop on the way home from a party. Being the only witness, she shows bravery by coming forward so that the whole community knows what happened.
To conclude, most of these books have been on the top 10 most challenged book list for multiple years. A couple of these books I was assigned in high school, a couple were on my seemingly-mile-long TBR list for a few years, and some I had never heard of before preparing for this post. Just because these are the top 10, doesn’t mean they are the only challenged books. ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) tracked 156 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services, affecting 273 books in 2020 alone. The office also noted a focus on demands to remove books that addressed racism and racial justice or those that shared the stories of Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Take that as you will.