"George" Tops Most Challenged List for Third Year in a Row: "Stamped" Takes No. 2 Spot

While LGBTQIA+ content remains the top reason for book challenges overall, the Top 10 Most Challenged titles in 2020 were also cited for Black Lives Matter and antiracist content, as well as the use of racial slurs and having a negative impact on students.

Alex Gino's George was the most challenged book for the third year in a row, according to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, which released the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020 today.

Gino's story of a transgender child falls into the category that typically is most cited for challenges around the country: LGBTQIA+ content. But for 2020, George was the only Top 10 title that listed that as a reason (although overall, LGBTQIA+ content was cited most often). The change in the list for 2020 directly reflects the state of the nation, particularly around race and politics.

“This list suggests there was a shift away from challenging LGBTQ books, and that is certainly not the case,” said Nora Pelizzari, National Coalition Against Censorship director of communications. “It was just the precipitous rise in challenges to books about race and racial equity and, and racism. That's the story.”

Frequently cited reasons to have books removed from shelves and classrooms in 2020 included Black Lives Matter, antiracism, and political viewpoint, as well as the use of racial slurs.

"Two years ago, eight of 10 books were challenged for LGBTQ concerns," said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, IOF director.  "While George is still No. 1, reflecting the challenges to LGBTQ materials that we see consistently these days, there's been a definite rise in the rhetoric challenging antiracist materials and ideas. Our list reflects that, as well as consideration of older texts in light of some of the uses of language in those books.

"We're seeing a shift to challenging books that advance racial justice, that discuss racism and America's history with racism, as exemplified by Stamped, for example, or books that address the black experience with police violence, The Hate U Give and All American Boys as an example of that. I think the list is reflecting the conversations that many people in our country are having right now, and it's a reflection of our rising awareness of the racial injustice and the history of racial injustice in our country."

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi was No. 2 on the list, 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." Reynolds was also in the No. 3 spot for All American Boys, which was cited for having "divisive topics" and involving a subject that was "too much of a sensitive matter right now."

Kendi released a statement on Stamped's appearance on the list:

“I am proud of the work that Jason Reynolds and I have done on Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, and not at all surprised to hear it is one of the ALA Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020.

"Stamped delivers a research-based history of racist and antiracist thought directly to young people who have the potential to create an antiracist future of equity and justice for all. It is ironic that our book is being challenged since it documents how generations of Americans have challenged the idea that the racial groups are equals and have fought to suppress the very truths contained on every page of Stamped. The heartbeat of racism is denial, and the history in Stamped will not be denied, nor will young people’s access to this book be canceled.

"We must provide readers of all ages, races, backgrounds, and political affiliations with the tools to discuss racism today and to know America's racial story. We must end the indoctrination that this nation is post-racial and colorblind that adults impart onto young people when we don't discuss racism with them and challenge books that do. The fact that Stamped is being challenged proves just how necessary and effective it is for young people. I’m grateful to the librarians, educators, organizations, booksellers, parents, and—most of all—young people who have championed this book over the past year. We stand by you in this fight.”

Pelizzari expects to see the trends revealed in this year’s list to only be more amplified as school returns to a normal schedule next year and public libraries reopen across the country.

There is legislation being proposed across the country that is trying to limit what schools can teach, whether or not they can discuss LGBTQ issues, for example. Whether those bills pass or not, it shows a level of organization and commitment behind these issues that suggests they will continue for a while. And librarians shouldn’t expect challenges to only come from one side of the political divide.

“There's sort of the traditional view of censorship is that conservatives want to censor books, and liberals want you to be able to read everything,” Pelizzari said. “Over the last several years, that has not been the case. We've actually seen a lot of progressive voices, or people who would consider themselves liberal, pushing to ban books for reasons of what we'll call social justice.

“It's never really been true that one side is censorious, and the other side is not. Censorship is an equal opportunity issue.”

Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak came in at No. 4. No stranger to the Top 10 list over the years (it was No. 25 on the most challenged of the decade 2010-2019), Speak has been challenged in the past for its "explicit sexual content." In 2020, however, it was challenged for being "thought to contain a political viewpoint" and "to be biased against male students." It was the first time the OIF had heard such a complaint, according to Caldwell-Stone.

New to the list (at No. 6) was Something Happened in Our Town: A Child's Story of Racial Injustice, challenged for "divisive language" and because it was said to promote "anti-police views."

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (No. 7) and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (No. 8) both made the list for use of racial slurs and "negative effect on students."

Caldwell-Stone says these challenges to "classics" are a reflection of the critical evaluation of books and curricula that is happening in schools. The OIF does not support removing any books from library shelves.

"It's firmly our position that books ought not be censored in any way, but rather that the opportunity to discover and read diverse authors should be expanded in schools, so that you can illuminate and interrogate the older texts by reading the newer texts that reflect other viewpoints, diversity of points, that reflect the views and ideas of BIPOC authors in particular," she said.

The number of challenges tracked by the OIF was down dramatically, as well, from 377 reported challenges to 566 books in 2019 to 156 and 273 books in 2020. Caldwell-Stone attributes this to the pandemic and schools and public libraries being closed. The OIF estimates it knows of about 25 percent of the challenges filed in schools and public libraries. Caldwell-Stone calls the list a snapshot but a fair snapshot of what is happening around the country. 

Here is the complete Top 10 list:

The ALA OIF provides confidential support during censorship challenges to library materials, services, and programs. Anyone can report censorship, even if they are not seeking assistance. Report censorship by filling out the  online form, or contacting OIF assistant director Kristin Pekoll at 800-545-2433, ext. 4221, or kpekoll@ala.org.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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