Off the Shelves: Banned and Challenged Books in the 21st Century

Banned Books Week September 26 – Oct 2, 2021

By: Allie Bugaj

We celebrate banned books and the freedom to read every year during Banned Books Week. Banning books is a form of censorship and the reasons for bans or challenges are related to contect.  Witchcraft, sexuality,  vulgarity, religion, political views and other topics are submitted to libraries and schools in support of a group’s desire to ban a book.  The groups challenging books are parents, religious groups, political groups, boards and patrons.

The American Library Association (ALA.ORG) tracks efforts to ban books and promotes Banned Book Week.  This makes sense considering the first three paragraphs of the Library Bill of Rights:

  1. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
  2. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of need, books for partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

The ALA website is most interesting and revealing as one reads through its lists of challenged, and sometimes banned, books over the years.

The very popular ‘Harry Potter’ series by J.K. Rowling’s (first published in June 1997) was challenged in 2019,for its use of witchcraft, and because actual curses and spells were used. To have something like this banned, draws connection to the Salem Witch Trial Era where these types of books were openly challenged. 

The funny series, “Captain Underpants,” by Dav Pilkey, despite its age range being 7-10, was banned in 2001 because it seemingly allowed or encouraged disruptive behavior in schools. Despite that, many book fairs still sell these books to this day. 

One extremely popular work is by Sherman Alexie. His book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,” was challenged in 2010 due to allegations against the author himself and because of sexual content that disturbed some viewers. This book follows Junior, an Indian boy, who lives on a reservation, and what it means for him to go to an all white high school. Despite its importance for teaching about the struggles people went through on a reservation, the language and sexual content was enough to get it banned.

Another banned work widely read in high schools is “To Kill A Mockingbird,”  by Harper Lee.  This book was written in the 1960’s, and was banned 2009.  There were racially discriminatory parts within the book that caused many people to question if it was a good read. Although Sherman Alexie’s book taught about the hardships Indians went through, this book seemed to add to the flame of one race being seen as superior over another. 

In 2015, “Two Boys Kissing,” by David Levithan was banned due to the mention of LGBTQ+ community in the book. The book came around the time of the Supreme Court ruling for gay marriage and featured a story about two boys trying to beat the world kissing record. Despite the court’s decision, this book was not only challenged and banned, it was burned. 

A recent book added to this list is titled “The Hate You Give,” by Angie Thomas. This book was thought to challenge the police system as an anti-police work, but it was meant to show how police brutality for black individuals is a real issue. It has yet to be banned since it is still new (written in 2017), but it may become one in the upcoming year. 

“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, published in 1985, was challenged in 2019 for profanity, vulgarity and sexual overtones.  Later, the story was made into a popular Hulu series.

One of the most challenged books of 2020 was “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck for its racial slurs and racist stereotypes.

The list of challenged books is long.  No doubt you will find many of your favorite books have been challenged somewhere, sometime.  Maybe this form of censorship is not a good thing and we should celebrate Banned Books Week.  As the American Library Association promotes, “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”

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