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During Banned Books Week, Readers Explore What It Means To Challenge Texts

Emily Bogle

The Catcher in the Rye. A Brave New World. Lolita. Lady Chatterley's Lover.

These are some classics that pop into many minds when considering books that have been banned from home and school libraries over time.

But there's been a "notable shift" in the subject matter of books now being challenged in the U.S. When the American Library Association released its list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2020 in April, the books that received the most challenges to libraries and schools dealt with "racism, Black American history and diversity in the United States," says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

And Caldwell-Stone says in 2018 and 2019, the Banned Books list was made up "almost exclusively" of books dealing with LGBTQ concerns.

"I think that we're seeing a response in many ways to some of the conversations, the challenges that we faced as a society since the murder of George Floyd last year," she says.

The theme of this year's Banned Books Week is "Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us." Public events include a Dear Banned Author Letter-Writing Campaign and Stand For The Banned Read-out, an opportunity for people to submit videos of themselves reading books from the list.

Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2020

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"

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

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"

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

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

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

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

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas Reasons: Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message

Author Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give has made the banned books list before. Since making the list often boosts sales, Thomas tweeted her gratitude: "Happy #BannedBooksWeek! I remember the time a Texas school district banned The Hate U Give, and I sold tens of thousands of copies in a week in that same district. Keeping banning my books. I have a second home to buy."

Bestselling author Jason Reynolds, the "Banned Books Week 2021 Honorary Chair," has two books on the most recent list: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, co-written with Ibram X. Kendi and All American Boyswith Brendan Kiely.

In a Facebook Live conversation on Tuesday, Reynolds disagreed with the mantra that making the list is a "badge of honor" or like belonging to "a special club" for authors. "I don't feel that way. I actually think it's a bigger slap in the face," said Reynolds, "It's painful to me because what I know is that when these books are banned, there are going to be thousands and thousands of young people who will not get these books."

Still, nothing says "read me" like the words "banned" or "censored."

In Pennsylvania, the Central York School Board recently tried to halt the use of a "Diversity Committee Resource List" that included books by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Malala Yousafzai. A robust student protest ensued and the decision was reversed. There have been similar outcries in Texas where the Leander Independent School District pulled six books including The Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault.

In Tennessee, a local chapter of Moms For Liberty (MFL) deemed a number of books as inappropriate for second graders, including Martin Luther King, Jr and the March on Washington and the picture book Ruby Bridges Goes to School, about the six year old who became the first African American to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans.

In a letter to the Tennessee Department of Education, the Williamson MFL chair Robin Steenman writes: "The classroom books and teacher manuals reveal both explicit and implicit Anti-American, Anti-White, and Anti-Mexican teaching. Additionally, it implies to second grade children that people of color continue to be oppressed...and teaches that the racial injustice of the 1960s exists today."

But Steenman claims they are not seeking to ban books. She says MFL has heard complaints from parents in the community, including people of color, about the manner in which certain books are being taught to second graders. "How it's presented to the children really does alienate some," she says, and "divides children up" based on their skin color. "It's very focused on racial injustice," she says, "instead of talking about the strides that our country has made."

Caldwell-Stone says she finds the challenge to Ruby Bridges Goes to School "just incredible." Written by Bridges herself, Caldwell-Stone says the book is "age appropriate, developmentally appropriate" and received "excellent reviews" for introducing the topic to children.

During the Facebook Live conversation with Jason Reynolds, he was asked "What do you think people are afraid of?" when they ban books. Reynolds responded: "There are many, many adults who are terrified of being challenged...because what happens is we will then be forced to grapple with our own biases, to grapple with our own ignorance." Later in the conversation he added, "You've got to trust your kids a little more."

Meghan Collins Sullivan edited this story.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.