OIF Director: Top 10 Most Challenged List Shows Effort to Remove Marginalized Voices from Library Shelves

Office for Intellectual Freedom's Deborah Caldwell-Stone says the list of most challenged books in 2021 illustrates the efforts of organized organizations to exclude LGBTQIA and Black voices from school and public libraries.

In this time of organized censorship attempts and coordinated pushback against books across the country, American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) released its annual Top 10 Most Challenged Books. OIF director Deborah Caldwell-Stone was not at all surprised by the titles on the list for 2021.

“These are books that have been targeted by advocacy groups through social media for a number of months now,” Caldwell-Stone said of the list topped by Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson. "I think that particularly the top three books on the list have kind of become poster children for the organized campaigns to ban books in the last six months.”

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas rounded out the top five.

ALA documented 729 challenges—affecting nearly 1,600 books—at public schools and libraries in 2021. That is nearly double the number from 2019 (the 2020 numbers were skewed by the closing of schools in March because of the pandemic). The 2021 total was the most since ALA began keeping records of challenges 20 years ago, according to the organization. The list tracks all challenges, to books, programs, displays, and more. Eighty-two percent of these documented challenges were to books.

[READ: YA Author Ashley Hope Pérez Responds to Viral Video that Calls for the Banning of Her Out of Darkness]

Typically, the annual list will include a picture book or two, or a middle grade title—Alex Gino’s Melissa (previously published as George) topped the list the last three years but didn’t crack the Top 10 in 2021. But this year’s list is focused on titles for older readers.

Melissa remains one of the more frequently challenged books. It was just the overwhelming volume of challenges to these particular books that pushed them to the top of the list,” said Caldwell-Stone. “I think we see the impact of social media. We see the impact of organized campaigns with their lists, particularly targeting these books. There's a particular focus on these books, because [they] do contain sexual content. They're not intended for young children. They're meant for older adolescents and were recommended as adult books of interest to adolescent young adult readers. But they're often depicted as being available to five-year-olds or a sample of what's available to elementary students, which is not the truth at all.”

The top reason given for a challenge was “sexually explicit” content. (“LGBTQIA,” “obscene,” and “critical race theory” followed as some of the most used reasons for challenging a book.)

“Sex and sexuality are easier reasons to argue to ban a book,” said Caldwell-Stone. “The whole list runs the gamut of reasons that we're seeing that books are being challenged by these groups—because it depicts the experience as a Black person in the United States, reflects a different history or accounting for the history of slavery and racism in the United States, or the experiences and lives of LGBTQIA people. There's a real effort not to merely marginalize these voices, but to remove them altogether, particularly from school libraries.”

She has some advice for those who want to fight for the freedom to read.

“First of all, you have to understand that this is all happening at the local level, at your school board, your library board meetings,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Essentially, the loudest voices in the rooms are predominating. They're arguing for censorship as a tool for controlling what your children can read, what you can read, what you can borrow from the library. To fix that, you need to be a loud voice in the room as well.”

People need to go to the local board meetings and speak up in support of intellectual freedom, the right to read, the right of parents to choose for their children but for other people's children, and for a diversity of inclusive, not exclusive, material on library shelves, she said. And they need to learn about local candidates for school boards and vote for those who “are in favor of teaching critical thinking skills of exposing students to a range of ideas and beliefs, teaching them that they can consider ideas without agreeing with them, and come away with a broader education.”

ALA is also launching a new advocacy campaign, Unite Against Book Bans, which aims to be a place for people to find tools to oppose the movement to ban books and learn about organizational efforts to amplify voices fighting against censorship. 

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