Book bans are on the rise. What are the most banned books and why?

Banned books are not new, but they have gained new relevance in an escalating culture war that puts books centering racism, sexuality and gender identity at risk in public schools and libraries.

A dramatic uptick in challenged books over the past few years, an escalation of censorship tactics, and the coordinated harassment of teachers and librarians has regularly put book banning efforts in news headlines.

Would-be book banners argue that readers can still purchase books they can no longer access through public libraries, but that is only true for those with the financial resources to do so. For many, particularly children and young adults, schools and public libraries are the only means to access literature.

What is a book ban?

Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books, including "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison, that have been the subject of complaints from parents in Salt Lake City on Dec. 16, 2021.
Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books, including "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison, that have been the subject of complaints from parents in Salt Lake City on Dec. 16, 2021.

When a book is successfully “banned,” that means a book has been removed from school curriculums and/or public libraries because a person or group has objected to its content.

An attempt to get a book removed is called a challenge. Most public schools and libraries have boards made up of elected officials (or people appointed by elected officials) who have the power to remove books from the schools and libraries they oversee.

Why it matters: A book ban is significant because it restricts others’ access to books, and the ideas contained within those books, based on another person’s often ideologically or politically motivated objection.

Are book bans on the rise in the U.S.?

Yes. The American Library Association (ALA) keeps track of challenges and bans across the country, and the most recent data is alarming.

In 2022, the ALA recorded more than 1,200 challenges of more than 2,500 different books, nearly double the then-record total from 2021 and by far the most since the ALA began keeping data 20 years ago.

The actual numbers are likely much higher: Some challenges are never reported by libraries, and books preemptively pulled by librarians out of fear for their jobs are not included.

What are the most banned books?

"Gender Queer," by Maia Kobabe.
"Gender Queer," by Maia Kobabe.

A recent analysis by PEN America found that many challenged books focus on communities of color, the history of racism in America and LGBTQ characters. In fact, one in three books restricted by school districts in the past year featured LGBTQ themes or characters.

Here are the 13 most challenged books of 2022, according to the ALA:

  • "Gender Queer," by Maia Kobabe

  • "All Boys Aren't Blue," by George M. Johnson

  • "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison

  • "Flamer," by Mike Curato

  • "Looking for Alaska," by John Green

  • "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," by Stephen Chbosky

  • "Lawn Boy," by Jonathan Evison

  • "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," by Sherman Alexie

  • "Out of Darkness," by Ashley Hope Pérez

  • "A Court of Mist and Fury," by Sarah J. Maas

  • "Crank," by Ellen Hopkins

  • "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," by Jesse Andrews

  • "This Book Is Gay," by Juno Dawson

Many books that were historically banned ended up becoming literary classics that are still taught in modern classrooms. Accordingly to the ALA, frequently banned classics include:

Who bans books in the U.S.?

Book banning made major headlines last year when the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted 10-0 to remove Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir “Maus,” about his parents’ experience of the holocaust, from its curriculum.

Since then, there’s been a largely conservative push to remove certain titles from schools and libraries, in some cases with politicians leading the charge, including:

Glenn Youngkin: During his successful run for Virginia governor last fall, the Republican candidate ran a controversial ad featuring a mother who objected to her teenage son being assigned Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in English class. In April, now Governor Youngkin signed a bill requiring Virginia schools to notify parents when their children are assigned books that contain sexually explicit content.

Henry McMaster: The Republican South Carolina governor supported a school board's decision to remove "Gender Queer,” calling the book “obscene.”

Ron DeSantis: The Republican Florida governor also criticized “Gender Queer” and this year signed into law a bill requiring schools to make all books and materials more transparent so parents can “blow the whistle.”

What’s being done to combat book banning?

Let America Read: Celebrities including Julia Roberts, Selma Blair and Andy Cohen joined forces with the CAA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Creative Artists Agency, and the Campaign for Our Shared Future for the Let America Read campaign to raise awareness on the issue of book banning. In an Instagram post highlighting frequently challenged books by Black Authors, TV mega producer Shonda Rhimes wrote, "These books are so important for a multitude of reasons. Books like these are now banned in multiple states simply because they deal with the lives of Black families in America. These stories are necessary so that kids can see themselves and to be able to embrace the differences in others. Support our children’s freedom to learn and let America read."

American Library Association: Every year, the ALA and libraries across the country celebrate Banned Books Week. This year’s Banned Books Week runs Oct. 1-7.

Foundation 451: A fundraiser in Florida to buy challenged books and distribute them to students spawned thousands in donations and has morphed into a nonprofit organization. The organization has distributed books at about a dozen events, setting up tables at festivals, churches and local businesses.

"I read banned books" special edition library card from the Nashville Public Library.
"I read banned books" special edition library card from the Nashville Public Library.

Nashville Public Library: This Southern library protested banned books this year with a limited edition library card with the special message: "I read banned books." The bright yellow cards are part of the library's Freedom to Read campaign celebrating the "right to read."

Margaret Atwood: Author of the frequently banned dystopian feminist novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” promoted the auction of a specially commissioned unburnable edition of her book made of Cinefoil by unsuccessfully attempting to incinerate a prototype with a flamethrower. The stunt brought in $130,000, with proceeds going to PEN America.

Banned books in the news

  • Illinois law will penalize libraries that ban books: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law a bill that he says will make Illinois the first state in the nation to outlaw book bans. Illinois public libraries that restrict or ban materials because of “partisan or doctrinal” disapproval will be ineligible for state funding as of Jan. 1, 2024, when the new law goes into effect.

  • Georgia school’s book bans may break civil rights law: The U.S. Department of Education has found that suburban Atlanta Forsyth County school district's decision to remove some books from its libraries may have created a hostile environment that violated federal laws against race and sex discrimination. The legal intervention by the department's Office of Civil Rights could curb efforts to ban books in other public school districts nationwide, especially when bans are focused on books that include content about LGBTQ and nonwhite people. Forsyth County in January 2022 removed eight books, including Toni Morrison's “The Bluest Eye,” but allowed seven to return after further consideration. It excluded only “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about growing up gay and Black by George M. Johnson.

  • Florida governor goes to war with education: Under Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida passed a law requiring all books available to children to be approved by a "district employee holding a valid educational media specialist certificate." The law bars any content deemed "pornographic" or "not suited to student needs," a classification so broad some teachers began removing books early as a precaution against legal action. In response, the Florida teacher's union joined other groups in filing a lawsuit against the state Department of Education alleging the law is overreaching and will lead to censorship.

  • Version of 'Anne Frank' removed from Florida high school: An illustrated adaptation of "The Diary of Anne Frank" was removed from the Vero Beach High School library after a parent group complained the book minimalizes the Holocaust and shows the young girl's thoughts about other female bodies.

  • Banned book attempts hit record high in 2022: The American Library Association (ALA) released its latest data on book banning attempts, which nearly doubled over last year's then-record highs. "I've never seen anything like this," says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who directs the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom. "The last two years have been exhausting, frightening, outrage inducing."

  • James Patterson's responds to book removal: Martin County, Florida school district officials removed Patterson's young adult series "Maximum Ride" from its elementary school library. Patterson tweeted about the incident, urging fans who found "mindless book banning troubling or confusing" to write to Florida governor DeSantis, who has been aggressively waging the culture war. "If you are going to ban this book, then no kids under 12 should go to any Marvel movies," Patterson said in an interview.

  • House Republicans introduce "Parents Bill of Rights": Republicans across the country have focused on educational issues as they lay the groundwork for the 2024 presidential and congressional elections, from DeSantis blocking a high school course on Black history to bills restricting LGBTQ education. The Parents Bill of Rights would require all curriculums to be made public, including any materials in a school library or classroom, and follows outcries from parents who are unhappy that lessons and books about racism, sexual orientation and gender are being taught in schools.

  • "Moms for Liberty" seeks to restrict books in Iowa: Five Iowa moms, all members of the conservative "Moms for Liberty" group, made their case to Iowa lawmakers in February about their efforts to remove or limit "inappropriate" books in schools. At a Moms for Liberty event, Gov. Kim Reynolds promised to end "indoctrination" in public schools and to back legislation that would give parents more oversight into which books are made available to students.

  • Education Department investigates removal of LGBTQ books from Texas schoolsThe removal of LGBTQ-themed books from the library of the Granbury, Texas, school district is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's civil rights division following a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Contributing: Associated Press.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Banned Books Week: Which titles are being targeted and why