In this article:
- 2,532 individual books were banned from July 2021 to July 2022.
- Books are being banned in Texas schools for obscenity. Under the constitution, the government cannot ban books, but school districts can.
- Many of these “obscene” books depict minorities.
Students are beginning to lose access to perhaps the most important learning material…books.
PEN America reported that from July 2021 – July 2022, 2,532 individual books were banned. These decisions impacted 1,553 creators.
The content of these books includes:
- 41% LGBTQIA+ characters or themes
- 40% Characters of color
- 22% Sexual content (Including learning material about puberty, sex, and relationships, as well as teen pregnancy, sexual assault, and abortion)
- 21% themes of race and racism
- 10% themes of activism
- 4% characters of religious minorities
40% of these bans are connected to proposed or enacted legislation or political pressures.
Though some topics may not be appropriate for younger children, many of these banned books are intended to be learning material for teens and young adults who are seeking to be supported in who they are and the thoughts and experiences they have.
Top 5 Books Banned in America
“Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe – Oni Press
In “Gender Queer,” Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir) navigates the typical experiences of young people, from hopeless crushes to the woes of dating to menstruating as nonbinary.
Despite the awards and being nationally proclaimed, the groups banning these books attempt to do so through claims that the content of the book is “pornographic.” Though the book does feature sex scenes, the attack seems to be regarding the fact that it is queer sex, rather than the traditional heterosexual sex pushed in mainstream media through almost every PG-13 movie.
Regardless of the sexual content, it is by definition NOT pornography. Although the book has illustrations, the intent is completely different from pornography, as the definition of the latter is “printed or visual material…intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.”
“Gender Queer” was created to provide queer content to those who seek it out. These readers are not looking for stimulation, but education and literary entertainment.
GOP lawmakers are some of those speaking on banning “Gender Queer,” such as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. In a letter written to the South Carolina Superintendent of Education, Molly Spearman, McMaster specifically names “Gender Queer,” saying the book “contains sexually explicit and pornographic depictions, which easily meet or exceed the statutory definition of obscenity.” McMaster then calls on Spearmen to “promulgate statewide standards and directives to prevent pornography and other obscene content from entering our State’s public schools and libraries and to identify any such materials that may already be available to children.”
Backlash aside, “Gender Queer,” is a 2020 ALA Alex Award Winner, which is awarded to books that are written for adults but resonate with younger readers, ages 12-18. Kobabe was also awarded the ALA Stonewall Book Award in 2020, given to LGBTQIA+ related books.
“Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison – Algonquin Books
This semi-autobiography by Jonathan Evison follows Mike Muñoz, a young Mexican American who works in a landscaping crew as he navigates classism and racism in the journey to explore his sexual identity.
The reasoning for this book banning is “sexually explicit material,” and depictions of pedophilia, as claimed by a woman at a school board meeting, but Evison responds that although the language of the scene was crude, it was purely the adult reflecting on a memory he had as a teen with another teen and that the content was misconstrued.
Evison then goes on to say that the ban is “atrocious and an insult to the First Amendment,” an argument that many have. While he admits he “wanted to take a good hard look at the state of America, at wealth and equity and the perils of late capitalism, racial assumptions, and the moribund American dream,” he wasn’t looking to “rattle” the metaphorical pornography cage.
Evison acknowledges that the book wasn’t written for the woman’s 10-year-old son who got his hands on a copy, but that he’s sure that no one who is working to ban the book has read more than a few out-of-context passages. Bombarded by attacks on his character because of the pedophilic claims was met with the emphatic response of Evison saying, “That’s what we’re still up against today. A streak of anti-intellectualism that runs so deep in America that people feel they no longer need to inform themselves before they make the decision to ban a book or seek to destroy the reputation of a father of three.”
Regardless of the intensive comments regarding how appropriate the book may or may not be, Evison was awarded the ALA Alex Prize in 2019.
“All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson – Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
In a series of essays, this memoir manifesto shares the joys and challenges are being black and queer, while navigating serious trauma, including molestation by a family member.
The powerful story has made a significant impact on readers and scholars, having an impressive awards roster including:
- New York Times and Indie Bestseller
- Amazon Best Book of the Year
- CNN Summer Read Pick
- Recommended read for Teen Vogue and Buzzfeed
- Best Book of 2020 for the New York Library, the Chicago Public Library, and Kirkus Reviews
- ALA’s Rainbow List
- Publisher’s Weekly Anti-Racist List
- 2021 Texas Topaz Nonfiction Reading List
In spite of its long list of awards, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” has been targeted for LGBTQIA+ content, profanity, and once again “sexually explicit” material.
One school board member went as far as filing a criminal report, claiming that having the book in school libraries would be a violation of obscenity laws.
Johnson however argues that even despite the content, its purpose is to be open enough to provide content that may help others through similar situations.
“Students … have publicly said on record that works like mine have saved their lives, works like mine have helped them name their abusers, works like mine have helped them come to terms with who they are and feel validated in the fact that there is somebody else that exists in the world like them,” Johnson said. “And you want to remove that from them. I just think it’s sad.”
And that is one of the key components in banning books. Without context these books may seem to have sexual or “inappropriate” content for students, however, the context creates a much bigger purpose than entertainment. Historically, there has been a focus on heterosexual themes and content in mainstream media, much of which has not been challenged. The question then is, are these instances of book banning just an attack on the LGBTQIA+ community?
“Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Pérez – Lerner Publishing Group
The worst school disaster in American history, the 1937 New London explosion, is used as a backdrop for this piece of historical fiction. A black boy, Wash Fuller, and a Mexican-American girl, Naomi Vargas, fall in love while being forced to navigate classism and racism leading up to the explosion. Though being a fiercely brave example of storytelling, there are of course critics, ones who are set on banning it for good.
Claims of there being “sexually explicit” content spurs up once again, this time accompanying depictions of abuse. The examples of vulgar language are taken completely out of context as Pérez explains, “Those words are from the voice of the racist boys, objectifying the main character, laying claim to her and her sexuality. The book is actually critiquing all of that. I was including the reality of what the (Mexican-American) character has to navigate.”
Once again, these authors with banned books explain their view, saying that the content is meant to educate, and usually is taken wholly out of context. Those on the side of book banning take LGBTQIA+ and race themes and automatically define them as being inappropriate, perhaps lacking the education and information viewpoint.
“Out of Darkness,” won the Michael L. Printz awards in 2016 for literary excellence in young adult literature.
It was also awarded the 2016 Tomás Rivera Mexican-American Children’s Book Award, in the Works for Older Readers Category. The award was created at Texas State University College of Education in order to “honor authors and illustrators who create literature that depicts the Mexican American experience.”
“The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas- Harper Collins
In this 2018 Coretta Scott King Honor award-winning book, 16-year-old Starr Carter becomes an activist following the death of her unarmed friend, Khalil, by a police officer.
The book comes with an anti-racism guide and has in turn been challenged for profanity, violence, and having an anti-police agenda.
School officials in Katy, Texas banned “The Hate U Give” in late 2017, officials claiming there was “inappropriate language,” as well as “pervasive vulgarity and racially-insensitive language.” However, a teen in the district, Ny’Shira Lundy, gathered over 4,000 signatures in support of putting the book back on shelves, a petition that was eventually approved.
Students are required, however, to obtain parental permission in order to check the book out.
Some parents are pushing bans because they don’t believe their children should be exposed to such violence. Thomas responds to this fear with a very raw, and factual, response.
“The fact is, black parents are [needing] to have these conversations with their 9-and 10-year-olds about the subject matter in this book. I need white children to be aware of that,” Thomas remarks. Statistics have shown that black children are six times more likely to be shot to death by police than white children.
Though the content in “The Hate U Give,” may be difficult to hear, the fact is, children and young people alike live in a world where these topics have to be discussed for their and their peers’ safety.
“The Hate U Give” has won multiple awards, including:
- Goodreads Choice Awards Best Debut Goodreads Author (2017)
- Goodreads Choice Best Young Adult Fiction (2017)
- Goodreads Choice Awards Best of the Best (2018)
The big question many ponder is whether book banning is unconstitutional or not. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. There are categories of speeches that are not protected under this amendment, including incitement, defamation, fraud, obscenity, child pornography, and threats. It also forbids government censorship of books, magazines, newspapers, art, film, and music.
The main argument then for banning a book is if proof of obscenity and the previously mentioned categories can be provided. Recent attempts to introduce legislation in Oklahoma, Indiana, Idaho, and Iowa, include Oklahoma “prohibiting certain schools and libraries from maintaining or promoting certain books,” while Iowa created a “criminal penalty for public or school librarians for distributing obscene materials to minors.”
The Legalities of Book Banning
There have also been several notable court cases regarding the right to reading material starting with Evans v. Selma Union High School District in 1924. These court cases have challenged books such as The King James Bible, Oliver Twist, Slaughterhouse-Five, Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy’s Roommate, and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Erica Goldberg, a Professor of Law at the University of Dayton, explains that the reason why the legality of book banning is so complicated is that the interchangeable term for “book banning” is “censorship” which is not a legal term. This then brings the conclusion that censorship and book banning only violates the Constitution if the government imposes the ban. Something the government can do, however, is “enact reasonable regulations that restrict the ‘time, place, or manner’” of the speech.
There are gray areas everywhere when discussing book banning, because “decisions made in public schools are analyzed by the courts differently than censorship in non-government contexts,” says Goldberg. Control over education is primarily given to state and local authorities, allowing them to take some control over curriculums as long as it doesn’t infringe on students’ right to speech.
The few exceptions include when the Supreme Court ruled the state government banning a teacher from teaching evolution unconstitutional, as well as any cases violating religious freedom.
On the opposite side of things, there have been a few attempts by liberals to remove books that “marginalize minorities, or use racially insensitive language,” like “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and books written by Dr. Seuss, though banning claims are few and far between.
The topic of censorship has been largely transformed into a type of political wildfire that rapidly spreads whether or not the bans are constitutional or valid. At the end of the day, children, teens, and young adults are being cut off from resources that may be vital to them and the lives they lead. It is then an attack on not just freedom of speech but also access to educational resources that could make a difference in the lives of readers.