This week is Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of the freedom to read. But this year’s campaign, which runs from September 17 through 24, comes amid a dramatic uptick in the number of challenged and banned books across the country.
More than 1,600 books were banned in over 5,000 schools during the 2021-22 school year, according to a report by PEN America, but that may not give us the whole picture. Surveys conducted by the American Library Association found that 82-97% of book challenges, or requests to remove books from schools or libraries, don’t get reported.
Recent book bans have been fueled largely by conservative advocacy groups who target books written by and about marginalized groups like the LGBTQ+ community, and Black and indigenous people, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.
“We should all be deeply concerned when elected officials, advocacy groups seek to remove books from schools, libraries, even booksellers, on the grounds that they don’t approve of the content, thereby limiting everyone’s opportunity to make their own reading choices to access resources that will serve their information needs,” she said.
Book challenges and bans aren’t as common in New England as in other parts of the country, though our public institutions aren’t immune. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, the “Harry Potter” series by J.K. Rowling, and “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold are among the books that have been banned in schools and libraries here in Massachusetts.
The American Library Association keeps track of the thousands of books that have been challenged or banned in the last two decades and releases a list of the top 10 banned books every year. In 2021, the most censored book in the country was “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe.
“It’s interesting to see the shift from what titles are being challenged from decade to decade. You can see the definite trend toward targeting books that deal with the lives and experiences of marginalized groups,” Caldwell-Stone said. “We are a more diverse society, and as public institutions, public school libraries and public libraries should serve the information needs of everyone in the community.”
Books by writers from marginalized communities dealing with sexuality and race may be the targets now, but book bans aren’t a new phenomenon. When “Grapes of Wrath” was published in 1939, the book was banned and burned in a number of towns because of how it highlighted the plight of the poor. “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee are among the many classics also challenged in schools and libraries across the country.
“Books that mean something, that say something, are the books that change hearts and minds, and as a result they become targets of the censors who don’t want to see that change take place,” Caldwell-Stone said.
We want to know: What are your favorite banned and challenged books? You can find a list of more than 2,000 banned and challenged books here, including newer releases and American classics. Tell us which commonly restricted books you would suggest to other readers and we’ll compile your suggestions in a reader-recommended guide.