Sep. 26 through Oct. 2 is Banned Books Week, an annual awareness campaign promoted by the American Library Association and Amnesty International, that celebrates the freedom to read, draws attention to banned and challenged books, and highlights persecuted individuals.
The theme for 2021 speaks to the unsettling time in which we live: Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us. The Banned Books Week Coalition works in tandem with National Library Week and the release of the American Library Association’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books list. This year’s list includes titles that address racism and racial justice, as well as those that shared the stories of Black, Indigenous, or people of color. As with previous years, LGBTQ+ content also dominated the list:
- George by Alex Gino. 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. Banned and challenged because of the 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.Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism and because it was thought to promote antipolice views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now.”
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint, it was claimed to be biased against male students, and it included rape and profanity.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of 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. Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote antipolice views.
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. 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. Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes and their negative effect on students.
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse.
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Challenged for profanity, and because it was thought to promote an anti police message.
I’ve read two of the books on the list. I read Of Mice and Men in high school To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in paralegal school as an adult. I don’t recall much about Of Mice and Men (maybe because it was required reading). With To Kill a Mockingbird, I understand the white savior argument in the character of Atticus Finch. I also have a number of friends who became lawyers because they read it. When I experienced Mockingbird, Barack Obama had recently been elected our first African American president. The story of an innocent Black man being tried for a crime he did not commit was harrowing, but it is something that continues to happen in the U.S. at an alarming rate. What I loved most was the character of Scout, who I knew would grow up to be a feminist force to be reckoned with. Both books are cited for their racist slurs and stereotypes. Those are, however, painful parts of America’s history.
Stamped, Racism, and You, All American Boys, Something Happened in Our Town, and The Hate U Give also deal with issues that can’t be ignored: systemic racism and police brutality. These issues too, are a disturbing truth in America. The Hate U Give, which was released as a movie in 2018, is based on a true story (the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, an unarmed Black man in Oakland, CA), which gives the work a strong autobiographical element. The novel was also written for Young Adults, the same population facing censorship from school boards and parents.
One thing all of these banned books have in common is that they are great conversation starters on vitally important issues—whether they portray the past, the present, or the future.