Library study finds 'challenged' books soared in 2021
New York — Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, has never been so busy.
“A year ago, we might have been receiving one, maybe two reports a day about a book being challenged at a library. And usually those calls would be for guidance on how to handle a challenge or for materials that support the value of the work being challenged," Caldwell-Stone told the Associated Press. “Now, we're getting three, four, five reports a day, many in need of support and some in need of a great deal of support.”
“We're on the phone constantly,” she added.
Accounts of book bannings and attempted book bannings, along with threats against librarians, have soared over the past year and the ALA has included some numbers in its annual State of America's Libraries Report, released Monday. The association found 729 challenges — affecting nearly 1,600 books — at public schools and libraries in 2021, more than double 2020's figures and the highest since the ALA began compiling challenges more than 20 years ago.
The actual total for last year is likely much higher — the ALA collects data through media accounts and through cases it learns about from librarians and educators and other community members. Books preemptively pulled by librarians — out of fear of community protest or concern for their jobs — and challenges never reported by libraries are not included.
The number could well grow again in 2022, Caldwell-Stone said, as conservative-led school boards and legislatures enact more restrictions. Last week, the Georgia legislature passed a bill that would accelerate the process for removing books seen as “harmful to minors.”
“Nothing would surprise me,” Caldwell-Stone says.
The two most challenged books on the ALA's top 10 list have been in the news often: Maia Kobabe's graphic memoir about sexual identity, “Gender Queer,” and Jonathan Evison's “Lawn Boy,” a coming-of-age novel narrated by a young gay man. Both have been singled out by Republican officials.
Last fall in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin backed a local school board's banning of the two books during his successful run for governor. Around the same time, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster supported a school board's decision to remove “Gender Queer.”
In Florida recently, Gov. Ron DeSantis criticized “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” upon signing a law that would force elementary schools to provide a searchable list of every book available in their libraries or used in instruction and allow parents, DeSantis said, “to blow the whistle.”
Kobabe and Evison noted during recent interviews an irony of their books being targeted: Neither set out to write a story for young people. But they gained a following among students with the help of the American Library Association, which has given each book an Alex Award for works “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18."
“I think a big part of our books getting so much attention is that they're award winners and ended up being purchased by libraries all over the country,” Kobabe said.
Others on the ALA list, virtually all cited for LGBTQ or racial themes, include Angie Thomas' bestselling “The Hate U Give,” centered on a police shooting of a Black teen; George Johnson's “All Boys Aren't Blue,” Juno Dawson's “This Book Is Gay” and Susan Kuklin's “Beyond Magenta.” Two older works that have been on the list before also appear: Sherman Alexie's autobiographical novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison's debut novel “The Bluest Eye."
The library association defines a “challenge” as a “formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” The ALA doesn't keep a precise figure for how many books have actually been removed, but cases have come up routinely over the past year. Last December, a school district in San Antonio, Texas, pulled hundreds of library books to "ensure they did not have any obscene or vulgar material in them.”