The American Library Association’s “challenged book” list for 2020, censoriousness of the Right, and much more about race and less about LGBTQ issues than previously

April 12, 2021 • 10:00 am

The American Library Association (ALA) issues a yearly list of “most challenged” books: those books that people most often ask to be removed from schools or libraries. This year’s list (2020) showed only about half the number of challenges than the year before, but a much higher concentration of books dealing with racism than with LGTQ issues compared to the 2019 list. This shows that race has not only become a much bigger flashpoint of censorship than sexuality, but that the challenges seem to come largely from the Right, so that the Left has no monopoly on these attempts at censorship.

The ALA keeps track of these requests to demonstrate what people want to censor, though the number of challenges is relatively small (156 last year and 377 in 2019). Further, the ALA suggests that most book challenges—estimates range between 82% and 97% of them—are never reported. Apparently there is no efficient reporting mechanism for these challenges; the ALA says that “lists are based on information from media stories and voluntary reports sent to OIF [the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the ALA] from communities across the U.S.”

Below are the last two lists (with the reasons given for the attempted banning), followed by my assessment of which end of the political spectrum objected.

Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020

Find more shareable statistics on the Free Downloads webpage.

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 156 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2020. Of the 273 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

      1. George by Alex Gino. Reasons: Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community”
      2. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. Reasons: 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
      3. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. Reasons: 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”
      4. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Reasons: 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
      5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author
      6. Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin. Reasons: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views
      7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience
      8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students
      9. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse
      10. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Reasons: Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message

Of these books, I’d say only two would represent challenges by the Left (To Kill a Mockingbird for use of the “n-word” and Of Mice and Men for “racist stereotypes”). Challenges from the Right would seem to be involved in the other eight, given that their content is anti-racist, anti-police, or pro-LGBTA. Eight of the ten were challenged at least in part because they deal with race, two of them (noted above) for being racist and the other six for, surprisingly, being anti-racist. This represents palpable pushback against anti-racism.

While I’ve read only one of the books singled out for antiracism (The Bluest Eye), I found it not only good, but also not anti-racist of the Critical Theory genre. I of course don’t favor attempts to censor any of these books. All should be available at libraries and schools, though librarians or teachers may want to put age limitations on them. Censorship is never justified, and thank Ceiling Cat for the good librarians who realize that.

Here’s the list from 2019, which is substantially different from last year’s:

Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2019

View the Censorship by the Numbers infographic for 2019

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 377 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2019. Of the 566 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

      1. George by Alex Gino. Reasons: challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden to avoid controversy; for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion”; for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and “traditional family structure”
      2. Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin. Reasons: challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, for “its effect on any young people who would read it,” and for concerns that it was sexually explicit and biased
      3. A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss, illustrated by EG Keller. Reasons: challenged and vandalized for LGBTQIA+ content and political viewpoints, for concerns that it is “designed to pollute the morals of its readers,” and for not including a content warning
      4. Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth. Reasons: challenged, banned, and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content; for discussing gender identity and sex education; and for concerns that the title and illustrations were “inappropriate”
      5. Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis. Reasons: challenged and restricted for featuring a gay marriage and LGBTQIA+ content; for being “a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children” with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint
      6. I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas. Reasons: challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content, for a transgender character, and for confronting a topic that is “sensitive, controversial, and politically charged”
      7. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Reasons: banned and challenged for profanity and for “vulgarity and sexual overtones”
      8. Drama written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier. Reasons: challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and for concerns that it goes against “family values/morals”
      9. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. Reasons: banned and forbidden from discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use “nefarious means” to attain goals
      10. And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson illustrated by Henry Cole. Reason: challenged and relocated for LGBTQIA+ content

In contrast to last year, 8 of the ten were challenged for their LGBTQ content, almost certainly by the Right (these books clearly are not anti-LGBTQ people!). I’m not sure who would object to The Handmaid’s Tale, but almost certainly the Right because it’s an anti-patriarchal book. And then there’s Harry Potter, a series again is more anathema to the Right than the Left. (Witchcraft and wizardry, oh my!)

Again we see concrete attempts to censor from the Right, showing that, at least in this smallish sample, the Right has its own “cancel culture”.

All of this goes to show that freedom of speech is not an issue of either Right or Left, because both sides, had they the power, show a censorious streak.  It also shows that, probably because of the George Floyd killing, race has come much more to public attention this year, but in this case the reaction has been to call for removal of antiracist books. Again, while I may object to what’s in some of them, I would never call for their banning or removal.

The Guardian‘s article on this year’s list gives more detail about attempts to censor the books. I read it after I drew the conclusions above, but those conclusions are so obvious that the Guardian and I reached them independently:

“Two years ago, eight of 10 books were challenged for LGBTQ concerns,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, OIF director, told School Library Journal. “While George is still No 1, reflecting the challenges to LGBTQ materials that we see consistently these days, there’s been a definite rise in the rhetoric challenging anti-racist materials and ideas … We’re seeing a shift to challenging books that advance racial justice, that discuss racism and America’s history with racism. I think the list is reflecting the conversations that many people in our country are having right now, and it’s a reflection of our rising awareness of the racial injustice and the history of racial injustice in our country.”

Well, it’s more than a reflection of “conversations” and “rising awareness”: it’s an attempt to stifle conversation, especially conversations that call people’s attention to bigotry. We can’t have a conversation if you can’t access books by one side of the issue.

Fie on all these censors; let a thousand books line the library shelves!

h/t: Ginger K

17 thoughts on “The American Library Association’s “challenged book” list for 2020, censoriousness of the Right, and much more about race and less about LGBTQ issues than previously

  1. It’s been a few years since I read Alexi’s book. I truly think the reason the Right dislikes it/him is because he’s a Native American, and he has”risen above his assigned place” in our caste system not to mention he’s a better writer of both prose and poetry than a lot of the white people who dislike him. Personally, I think that book should be REQUIRED reading for all 9th graders or they don’t graduate. Whatever the language is in it is nothing kidlets haven’t heard at home and or on tv and or on the school grounds.

  2. It’s frightening that so many of these challenges aren’t even reported. It makes one wonder how many are actually being complied with by libraries.

    1. I’m a recently retired public librarian, having spent almost 35 years in the book business. There are few challenges to materials in public libraries, as public librarians and governing boards strongly support and defend the First Amendment, oppose censorship, and adopt policies in line with the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read and Freedom to View statements, q.v.,
      Thus, most challenges/bans come from school libraries, since both public and private schools have the legal authority to act in loco parentis and so school boards can restrict access to books with more impunity than public libraries, though not without any opprobrium. Perhaps this opprobrium is what’s preventing some challenges from being reported.

  3. “Fie on all these censors; let a thousand books line the library shelves!” This retired librarian applauds and seconds this!

    1. I thought “P” was already in use – standing for “Person”, regardless of whom they would like to rub mucous membranes with next. And, of course, nobody is bound to choose the same mucous membrane twice in a row (Mormon and other “submissive” wives excepted – who don’t get choices).

  4. Censorship is something that never makes sense because there is no consensus on who the Censor should be.

  5. “containing actual curses and spells” 🤣

    I wonder how reality feels like when you are convinced Satan, witches and spells are real, as evidently quite a few Americans believe is the case. I curious how especially not totally loony Americans see things, with satanist forces affecting reality.

    1. Yes, don’t they understand Harry Potter is bloody fiction? The folk fairy tales by Grimm are even ‘worse’!

    2. I wonder how reality feels like when you are convinced Satan, witches and spells are real

      That calls out for an experiment. Take one Satan-believer, one Empire state Building (other tall buildings are available) and one prompt card reading “arresto momentum” ; give the believer the card, check that they can read it (an important check, otherwise the ethics of the experiment become questionable); position them on the parapet of the building ; explain that the spell on the card will stop their movement on being read out, and then record the time until they step off the edge.
      Double points if you get them before they reproduce – for the classic “Full Darwin” award.
      Keep the address of those who have a good landing – you now have a list of genuine believers in the reality of Satan. Also, JKR’s publishers might want to enroll them into a book club or something.
      EDIT – I forgot the “Overhead Work” warning tape. And allow for windage.

  6. And then there’s Harry Potter, a series again is more anathema to the Right than the Left.

    Well it was, up until JKR’s comments on Maya Forstater and trans ideologies.

  7. “Of Mice and Men” by the Nobel laureate John Steinbeck? Was that a racist book? I remember I was moved to tears when I read it as a teenager, and again when I reread it ten years later. It was -well is- very powerful, but I can’t remember it was racist. (Of course it showed racism that was present, but the book is not racist at all, rather realist, if I remember correctly).
    I consider it one of the top twenty fiction books ever written.

    1. The only black character I recall from the novella is “Crooks,” the stable-hand so-named because of his disfigured back. He’s kind of hard-bitten and cynical, mainly because he’s isolated from the others due to his race, but he takes a liking to George and Lenny and offers to go in with them on their plan to leave the ranch to go raise rabbits.

      The only thing that might be considered vaguely racist is that at one point Curley’s wife makes a passing threat to have him lynched (which reflects more on her vacuity than on any theme within the story).

      Anyway, Steinbeck himself was an old-school Depression-era and anti-HUAC leftist.

    2. I also read it as a teenager…then I read it again as soon as I finished it the first time, twice in one day. One of the finest books (novellas, really, I guess) that I’ve ever read.

    3. I can’t help.wondering if the novel’s portrayal of what we now call “learning difficulties” is actually more of a problem?

    4. I hated it (mainly because of the animal deaths). But like you, I don’t remember the book promulgating racist messages.

  8. It was hard to tell from the summaries – were any of those books non-fiction? (Most “biography” is hard to distinguish from fiction.)

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