Demands by parents to remove books from library shelves addressing racism soared in the US in 2020, the American Library Association has revealed.
An annual list that is regularly dominated by titles covering LGBTQ+ issues, the ALA’s Top 10 most challenged books contains a number of anti-racism titles for the first time in 2020. Although the list was topped for the third year running by Alex Gino’s George, the story of a fourth-grade transgender girl, Ibram X Kendi and Jason Reynolds’ Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a history of racism for children and teens, was the year’s second most challenged title. In their complaints, parents claimed that Stamped contained “selective storytelling incidents” and “does not encompass racism against all people”, said the ALA.
In response, Kendi, a historian of race, said that he was proud of the work he and Reynolds had done on the book, and “not at all surprised” to hear it made the Top 10.
“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 cancelled,” he said in a statement to School Library Journal.
The ALA pointed to the parents of children at a school in New Jersey who sought the removal of Stamped. A teacher resigned after she claimed the parents had been harassing her by email and phone. After protests by members of two New Jersey library associations, the book was retained by the school, although no staff member is currently teaching it.
Another book by Reynolds, the current ambassador for young people’s literature in the US, came in third on the ALA’s list. All American Boys, written with Brendan Kiely and following an act of police brutality towards a young Black teenager, and the white teenager who witnesses it, was challenged because it was “thought to promote anti-police views”, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now”, said the ALA.
Picture book Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice, which follows one Black and one white family after the police shooting of a Black man, made the ALA’s list for the first time for “promot[ing] anti-police views”. In October, the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association wrote to Minnesota’s governor to ask that the state stop recommending it for primary schools, saying it “encourages children to fear police officers as unfair, violent, and racist”.
Angie Thomas’s award-winning novel The Hate U Give, in which a girl sees a police officer murder her friend, also made the most-challenged list for the third time. In 2020, parents challenged it for profanity, and because “it was thought to promote an anti-police message”.
Three classic novels also made the list: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak, following a teen girl in the aftermath of her rape at a high school party, was restricted for containing “a political viewpoint” and it was claimed to be “biased against male students”, said the ALA.
“Claiming that a book about surviving sexual assault is biased against male students completely ignores that boys/men/males can be victims. To avoid discussion of sexual violence breeds ignorance, fosters perpetrators, and guarantees countless more victims,” said Anderson in response. “Most of the other books in the Top 10 are censored for discussing racism. Seems like book banners want to hold on to systematic racism and rape culture, doesn’t it?”
According to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF), which monitors challenges to books, more than 273 books were challenged or banned in 2020, although the majority of attempts to remove books go unreported.
“Two years ago, eight of 10 books were challenged for LGBTQ concerns,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, OIF director, told School Library Journal. “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 anti-racist materials and ideas … We’re seeing a shift to challenging books that advance racial justice, that discuss racism and America’s history with racism. 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.”