The theme of this year’s Banned Books Week is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” This week is meant to call attention to and celebrate the books that have been challenged and banned in libraries and schools. Librarians, teachers, writers, and readers unite to expose the harm and absurdity of removing literature from shelves because of what some people consider to be inappropriate, divisive, or not reflective of “family values.” This censorship doesn’t just divide us, it removes marginalized people and important discussions that shine light on truth and injustices that many people would rather not talk about, if they even admit to their existence.
For folks who are adamant about their right to free speech, they’re very quick to demand that speech be limited when it interferes with their religion, politics, or “beliefs.” Let’s take a look at some of the most challenged books and why they were censored, and acknowledge that the reasons are bullshit. For a full list of the most challenged and banned books over the years, check out the American Library Association’s compilation.
The #1 most banned book of 2020 was George by Alex Gino. It’s been #1 for the last three years. The book is about a transgender 4th grader, Melissa, who is known as George to friends and family until she comes out. The book has been consistently banned for a number of inconsistent reasons: the talk of dirty magazines (by Melissa’ older sibling), the fear of children being encouraged to change their bodies with hormones, and because of the general offense of the LGBTQIA+ content. I have yet to see those same people who want the book banned be outraged by the bullying that Melissa (and other transgender youth in real life) deals with, or the anxiety and terror she carries because she knows the expectation of being cisgender.
In an interview Gino says, “When I write a book about someone who is transgender…just simply someone who is transgender — they’re not doing anything, they just are transgender — and that book gets banned? That is my existence being so scary and so reprehensible and so monstrous, that I cannot be shown to children.” Gino is nonbinary and speaks openly about their identity and the need to provide representation. They recently announced that George can and should be renamed to Melissa’s Story to honor the main character’s true self.
Half of the banned books in the last 10 years have contained LGBTQIA+ themes and characters. Eight of the top 10 books of 2019 had queer content. Books aren’t banned because they’re controversial; they’re banned because they challenge ideologies held by people who want to maintain power. Books are banned or challenged when they amplify the voices of marginalized people. If enough of us receive support and empathy through our writing, then change can be made to systems that uphold heteronormativity, cisnormativity, racism, and xenophobia.
People don’t ban books that support a patriarchal, heteronormative, white society. People ban the books that challenge the privilege of this society. White privilege has always been front and center, but the continued number of Black lives killed by the hands of police provided momentum for more people to support Black people and check their own biases. Books by Black authors filled the top of the New York Times’ bestsellers lists as people raced to educate themselves while supporting Black voices.
With the addition of these book came new titles added to the banned and challenged book list. Because bigots can’t focus on more than one topic at a time, they decided to focus more on banning books that challenged their racist viewpoints in 2020. The folks who believe all lives matter were not excited to read about the Black lives that matter.
Stamped (for Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds was the second most banned book of 2020. The book is for middle schoolers and offers an honest look at how race was created and how racism still exists and what we can do to recognize the racist thoughts we have in everyday life. Stamped was banned because of “selective storytelling incidents” and the lack of coverage of racism against all people. In other words, people don’t believe Black people and look for any excuse to discount their experiences
All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely was #3 on the list. The authors, who told the fictional story of police brutality against a Black teenager, were said to have promoted anti-police views and divisive topics. Sure, white people. I think the message is anti-violence against Black bodies; it’s okay to be uncomfortable, but it’s sure as hell not okay to let your discomfort get in the way of examining your sensitivity to these topics.
And rounding out the top 10 is once again Angie Thomas’ book The Hate U Give. Her book has been one of most banned books in three of the last four years because of “anti-cop” messages, drug use, profanity, and references to sex. Thomas seems unbothered by it though.
When books are taken off of shelves and out of the hands of students and community members, the goal is to silence the people who desperately need to be heard and seen. Challenging or banning books is equivalent to erasing the people who are telling the stories of their lived experiences or of those of their characters.
Instead, buy the book. Read the books. If you can afford to buy an extra, donate a banned book to a teacher or librarian. Ask that challenged books are displayed and readily available for all students.
My ten-year-old daughter told me that her class talked about Banned Books Week in school today, and when I asked her how the librarian explained it she said, “If you don’t like the book or if it feels too scary don’t read it. But don’t try to make it unavailable for people who do want to read it.”
If a 5th grader can understand the ridiculousness of banning these books, then so can you.
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