When considering banned books, many notable classics may come to mind. From George Orwell’s 1984 to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye, literature is challenged for an array of reasons, including vulgar language, the occult, racial slurs and human sexuality. In the last year, book challenges and bans have risen exponentially, with an increase of over 60% in reported formal book challenges and bans based on data from the American Library Association (ALA).
Many experts suggest that periods of division and conversation surrounding social issues are major motivators for spikes in book bans and challenges, especially on an institutional level.
“People [are] unsure if their values are being transmitted to the next generation,” University of Illinois professor Emily Knox states, after interviewing parents across the political spectrum. Many parent organizations have specifically targeted books discussing topics like critical race theory, police brutality and LGBTQIA2S+ content. Unsurprisingly, this trend has significantly impacted marginalized authors and stories.
A 2021 report published by the American Library Association notes that books by diverse authors make up a mere 15% of the literature available to students, despite a 34% increase in books published by these authors last year alone.
“When the vast majority of stories being censored and being called […] ‘dangerous’ tell the stories of historically marginalized communities, that directly reflects on students,” Nora Pelizzari, director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship, states. “That [portrays that] their own stories and their own lives aren’t fit for consumption, either.”
In this article, I will delve into three commonly banned and challenged books; The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, geared towards high school aged students, Drama by Raina Telgemeier, with an intended audience of middle school aged students, and Something Happened In Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Ann Hazzard, and Marietta Collins, targeted to children four to eight years old.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give follows 16 year old Starr Carter as she grapples with the death of her childhood friend, Khalil. When Khalil and Starr are stopped by a police officer leaving a neighbourhood party, Khalil is fatally shot after the officer mistakes a hairbrush for a gun. As the primary witness in the fatal shooting, Starr asserts herself as the face of protests across her neighbourhood, advocating for justice while navigating the divide between her poor neighbourhood and the preppy private school she attends. The book explores a variety of socially relevant topics, including police brutality, racism and white privilege.
The Hate U Give sparked nation-wide discussions upon its publication in 2017, and was adapted into a major motion picture the following year. However, like many stories exploring race and the experiences of marginalized individuals, Angie Thomas’ bestselling novel has faced its share of challenges. ALA president Deborah Caldwell-Stone attributes this to the implementation of bills in nearly thirty states that impose limitations on education about race and discrimination, arguing that these lessons encourage critical race theory.
“There [is] a real focus on books that dealt with Black American history, the experiences of Black persons that talked about racism, the history of racism and slavery in the United States, all under the claim that they dealt with critical race theory,” Caldwell-Stone continues. Ultimately, these new laws are keeping books by and for marginalized individuals off the shelves.
The Hate U Give has made the American Library Association’s Top 10 Banned and Challenged Books List three times since its publication in 2017, and has arguably only gained relevance since it was released — especially considering the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. As a result, the novel was deemed too socially and politically contentious considering recent social movements by many school boards.
Educators are often accused of pushing a political agenda onto students. Many experts argue that a lack of diverse reading material ill-prepares students to understand the complex, nuanced realities of the world around them. The Hate U Give tells a story all too familiar for many Black teens, and explores topics that can generate valuable discussion and learning in the classroom. Avoiding these incredibly relevant topics, especially in an intensifying political climate, removes critical educational resources from the classroom, and silences the voices of marginalized individuals when they are most longing to be heard.
Drama by Raina Telgemeier
Drama by Raina Telgemeier follows middle school student Callie. Callie loves the theatre and is a set designer on the stage crew for her school’s production of Moon Over Mississippi. Throughout the graphic novel, Callie grapples with challenges both in and outside of the theatre, including discussions about sexuality and her feelings for a close friend of hers named Jesse. Eventually, Jesse confides in Callie that he is gay, and the book concludes with a chaste kiss between Jesse and another boy during the performance of Moon Over Mississippi.
Drama caused much uproar among parents; it made the Texas ACLU List Of 2015-2016 School Bans and Challenges for “politically, racially, or socially offensive” content. Telgemeier’s bestseller has made the ALA Top 10 Banned Books List three times since its publication in 2012, and is often targeted for its inclusion of LGBTQIA2S+ characters. Many parents made arguments regarding sexually explicit and otherwise inappropriate content, stating that Telgemeier’s Drama is misleading, as it has different themes from her previous original graphic novels; Sisters, Smile, and Guts. Some parents also point out that the book jacket contains no parental warning for LGBTQIA2S+ content, and shared that the novel forced them to have conversations with their children they were not ready to have.
Despite parental concerns, many individuals argue the opposing side, questioning if these limitations will stunt students’ curiosity and ability to think critically. Jason Reynolds, an author whose novel All American Boys is a regular contender for the ALA Top 10 Banned Books List, notes that “the one thing [young people] hear every day is that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.”
He argues that book bans promote the idea that there are some topics, typically ones that have accumulated much political discourse, that kids should not ask questions about. “[This] doesn’t mean that everything in these books has to be agreed upon. But your question deserves to live in the world,” Reynolds says.
In addition to these concerns, placing blanket bans on all LGBTQIA2S+ content, language and representation in literature within the classroom can send a damaging message to children. Last year, a Pennsylvania school district requested that all books “referencing gender identity” be removed from schools. The report went on to discuss policies related to mental health, teen pregnancies and other issues, instructing faculty to not “discuss or use terms related to LGBTQ+” when navigating these situations. Explicitly refusing to acknowledge LGBTQIA2S+ individuals in schools not only eliminates crucial educational and mental health resources, but also leaves a heavily damaging impression on children struggling with their identity or sexuality.
Something Happened in Our Town by Ann Hazzard, Marianna Celetto and Marietta Collins
Something Happened in Our Town by Ann Hazzard, Marianna Celetto and Marietta Collins is a picture book geared towards children ages four to eight discussing the police shooting of a Black man in a small community. The story circulates throughout schools in the community and on news outlets nationwide, and two young children, Emma and Josh, struggle to comprehend the event after hearing about it from older peers. The book includes an additional note for educators, parents and caregivers, outlining “guidelines for discussing race and racism with children; and [including] child-friendly definitions and sample dialogues.”
The award-winning story was published in 2018 and has been challenged for “divisive language” and for promoting anti-police views. After being named the April book of the month on the website of a New York elementary school, Something Happened in Our Town was attacked by a police advocacy group, arguing that “the language in this book works to undermine public safety and will leave children with the impression that they cannot trust the police.” The Binghamton City School District in New York even issued a formal apology to local law enforcement for their use of the book in their schools. The New York Times bestseller was also featured in the American Library Association’s Top 10 Banned Books List in 2020.
Many parents and police advocacy groups protested Something Happened in Our Town for its subject matter and messaging, but experts offer an alternate perspective. Psychologists suggest that conversations about racism work to socialize young children, and prevent them from developing biases from observing racist attitudes and media representation. When individuals demanding the removal of Something Happened in Our Town attack the book for forcing their children to begin to confront and process the realities of racial inequity, they simultaneously deny the experiences and realities of children of colour.
The additional note for parents included in Something Happened in Our Town prompts parents to properly address their child’s questions about race, and to not “ignore or side step them with blanket reassurances.” In addition, they promote “encouraging multi-dimensional views of others.” Thoroughly researched by three psychologists, Something Happened in Our Town has the potential to be a valuable and informative resource when implemented into schools.
Literature is an imperative component of education, allowing children to see themselves and others in a variety of roles and situations. Books teach, inspire, motivate and serve as windows into millions of worlds. Within schools, book banning has seen rapid increases, despite warnings of the detrimental effects from an array of experts. Although book banning’s may preserve the comfort of some, they continue to pose a serious threat to our society, simultaneously silencing the realities and voices of others.