Banned Books Week kicked off yesterday and runs through Saturday, October 1. The annual event was launched more than 30 years ago to draw attention to a dramatic increase in the number of challenges to books available in schools and libraries.
This year’s theme is diversity, a disproportionately targeted category as found by author Malinda Lo, who took a closer look at the titles that have been challenged by examining data from 2000–2013 from the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. This included not only books written by authors of color but books that “addressed issues about race, sexuality and/or disability; or were about non-white, LGBTQ and/or disabled characters.” She found that “among the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000–2009, 52 books [52%] included some kind of diversity.” The numbers she gathered from 2010–2013 were no better, as 52% of challenged books included diverse subject matter once again. According to the American Library Association, in 2015, the top ten most challenged books included David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin, and I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings—all books written by members of the LGBTQ community and dealing with topics of gender and sexuality.
This past August, the Guild joined the National Coalition Against Censorship and other organizations in signing a letter to a Chesterfield County, VA school district in defense of three books on a summer reading list that had been challenged as “sexually explicit” or “violent.” All three books, however, also contained racially diverse content. In a minor victory, the district ultimately decided not to pull the books from library shelves.
While the outcome in Chesterfield was ultimately positive, the number of books with diverse content being challenged is especially disheartening when one realizes how few books about marginalized groups are published every year. From 1994–2014, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center found that only 10% of children’s books published contained multicultural content, and in 2014, Malinda Lo found only 47 YA titles featuring major LGBTQ characters and central themes. While things have been improving, there’s still much work to be done. Challenges to books written about people of color, LGBTQ communities, and/or disabled people affect voices that are already underrepresented within the publishing industry. As Kwame Alexander recently wrote for The New York Times:
“If we don’t give children books that are literary mirrors as well as windows to the whole world of possibility, if these books don’t give them the opportunity to see outside themselves, then how can we expect them to grow into adults who connect in meaningful ways to a global community, to people who might look or live differently than they?”
Books are reflections of who we are as well as a way of understanding the lives of others. It’s therefore imperative that we make sure marginalized voices aren’t being further suppressed through challenges and requests to pull their books from the shelves.
Ways You Can Support Banned Books This Week and Beyond
Participate in a Virtual Read-Out—a reading of a banned or challenged book—at your local library or bookstore.
Attend “A Night of Silenced Voices.” Independent bookstores will host the events Tuesday, 9/27 to celebrate diversity and honor freedom of expression.
Support the Freedom to Read Foundation, “dedicated to assisting librarians, teachers, and community members when they are confronted with attempts to remove or otherwise censor library materials.”
Support authors whose books have been banned by purchasing their books or requesting them at your local library if they’re not on the shelves.