By Maya Pottiger for Word in Black
A new PEN America report shows 41% of banned books have protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color, and 22% deal with race or racism.
From bills being introduced to prohibit the teaching of “The 1619 Project” by Nikole Hannah-Jones to “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison being pulled off shelves, book bans are rising in the United States at unprecedented rates. Over the past two years, most bans are targeting books about the LGBTQ+ experience and race in America.
And the upswing in book bans shows no signs of letting up. This year has already seen a record number of books targeted — 1,651 unique titles from January 2022 through August 2022, according to a new report by the American Library Association. This surpasses 2021’s record of 1,597 banned titles, which had been the highest number of challenges or bans ALA has seen in its more than 20 years of keeping track.
Banning books equates to wanting to control a framework of thinking, whether it’s for certain people or issues or ideas, says Dr. Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. This isn’t fair for young people, and it creates an uneducated populace, which isn’t good for democracy.
“Our public schools and libraries need to be protected,” Ingram says. “We need to be expanding access to universal books, and giving our students a comprehensive view of the world and their history and what they can actually become by reading everything so that they are independent thinkers.”
AFT’s Reading Opens the World campaign is helping to create more access to books by giving away 1 million books around the country. The ongoing bans haven’t impacted the campaign, but they are having a “chilling effect” on teachers. Ingram mentioned classics like “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” — classics that are now banned in some states.
“Laws have been enacted that have teachers on their heels,” Ingram says. “They can no longer teach books that have been taught as curriculum in English classes for years.”
Which Books Are Being Banned?
The American Library Association isn’t the only group tracking book bans. PEN America, an organization dedicated to protecting free speech, created a database of book bans in libraries and classrooms from July 1, 2021, through March 31, 2022. In those nine months, the organization counted 1,586 bans against 874 authors and 1,145 books.
These bans span 86 school districts in 26 states, affecting 2,899 schools and over 2 million students.
Of the banned titles, the report found that 72% are fiction, 47% are classified as young adult novels, and 18% are picture books for children. And the content of the books in this database reflects the attacks around the country on books that discuss race and racism, LGBTQ themes, and sex ed.
In the database, 41% of banned books have protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color, and 22% directly address race and racism, the report found. It’s not just fiction that’s being banned, either. PEN America found that 16% of banned books are history books or biographies, and 9% have themes around rights and activism.
The LGBT memoir “Gender Queer” tops the list with 30 bans in that time period, followed by George M. Johnson’s Black queer autobiographical collection of essays “All Boys Aren’t Blue” with 21 bans. From PEN America’s database, only six books have received more than 10 bans, and four of them have to do with race.
Three prominent Black authors in the children’s and young adult space — Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas, and Jerry Craft — are no strangers to book bans. Thomas and Reynolds are regular fixtures on the American Library Association’s annual Top 10 list of most challenged books. And despite writing the first graphic novel to win the Newbery Award, Craft’s “New Kid” has battled claims of espousing critical race theory.
The National Council of Teachers of English created a database of banned books and offers help to educators who need to write a formal “rationale” to be able to teach the books. However, you must be a member of NCTE to view them.
“Students have a right to read material that is of interest to them,” says Emily Kirkpatrick, the executive director of NCTE. She says recognizing Banned Books Week this year “is a reminder to all to remain vigilant, to remain committed to access to all kinds of material again, that speak to the interest of students, and, far more broadly, to readers across all ages.”
How Do These Bans Impact Schools?
Despite the widely publicized bans, books by Reynolds, Thomas, and Craft remain popular among teachers. From the 2020-2021 school year to 2021-2022, all three authors saw large bumps in requests for their books through DonorsChoose. There was a 58% increase for Craft’s books, a 29% increase for Reynolds’ books, and a 20% increase for Thomas’ books.
DonorsChoose works with schools and districts nationwide, classifying them as “equity focus” and “non-equity focus.” It defines equity focus schools as those with at least 50% of the student body being Black, Latino, Native American, Pacific Islander, or multiracial, and at least 50% of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.
In the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, there were a nearly equal number of requests for these books at both equity focus and non-equity focus schools, with only about 300 more requests at equity focus schools each year.
There was a slight bump in requests for these books in the 2021-2022 school year in non-equity focus schools, with requests jumping 13%. But equity focus schools saw a 55% increase in requests for books by these authors.
Craft, in particular, has seen huge increases for “New Kid” every year, showing that attempting to ban a book can popularize it. There was a 213% increase for his book through DonorsChoose from 2019-2020 to 2020-2021, following the headlines he made after his virtual appearance at a Texas school was canceled because parents claimed his book supported critical race theory.
While book bans are often counterproductive because they increase sales of a book, this isn’t the case for all authors of banned books. Breanna McDaniel’s 2019 text “Hands Up!” — a picture book for children — was banned or challenged in a few states. As a result, sales of her book dropped, McDaniel says.
“People are very sensitive about messaging to very young children,” says McDaniel, also the program manager at the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. “Since picture books are targeted towards that audience, picture books are touchy.”
Book Bans Send a Message
There are many impacts of banning books from schools and libraries. One is missing out on “certified classics,” Ingram says, including Pulitzer Prize-winning books and others that have stood the test of time. In order for people to formulate their own ideas, Ingram says, they need to have access to the entire history.
“Unfortunately, our students don’t get the full service of our schools, our libraries, our curriculum, and what, sadly, would be their own knowledge,” Ingram says. “Those are things that do not bode well for an educated populace in this democracy in trying to make this a more fair play.”
In this day and age, banning a physical book from a physical location only does so much. Books can be purchased, accessed online, or borrowed from another library. But the act of banning still sends a message to students.
In a recent interview with Reader’s Digest, Ibram X. Kendi, author of the frequently banned or challenged “How to Be Antiracist,” said that books challenging notions of Black inferiority are considered indoctrination, but books that don’t say anything about Black people or don’t reinforce notions of Black inferiority are considered education.
That message of inferiority means Black and Brown students likely see, hear, and feel the impact more than their peers.
“That is unfortunate because we live in a society where Black and Brown students already have to deal with overt racism, they already have to deal with politicians talking about their native country, and they deal with all of the cynical types of politics that we see,” Ingram says.
NCTE launched a campaign in May 2022 called This Story Matters to help fight the ongoing censorship because it says something “very dramatic and very troubling” about the storylines that are being banned, Kirkpatrick says.
“When students identify with a storyline or a character, the ultimate message that has been communicated is that you don’t matter,” Kirkpatrick says.
McDaniel echoes what Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, the “mother” of multicultural children’s literature, wrote in 1990.
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange,” Sims Bishop wrote. “These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.”
“For anybody, especially people who don’t always have opportunities to explore beyond what they experience, books provide those windows,” McDaniel says, “just like they provide the mirrors and the sliding glass doors that Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop taught us about when it comes to these conversations.”
And having politicians in the classroom telling teachers what they can teach and which books are acceptable has dangerous consequences. This is why AFT is giving out books and helping to open more libraries to give students “the entire spectrum of education … so that they can be better stewards of society.”
“When we attack our public schools and our classrooms,” Ingram says, “then this is going to jeopardize what we know as democracy for years to come.”
This article was first published on Word in Black