NEW YORK – The closing of physical libraries because of the pandemic has slowed but not stopped patrons and others from calling for books to be banned or restricted.
On Monday, the American Library Association reported more than 270 challenges to books in 2020, from Toni Morrison's “The Bluest Eye” to Harper Lee's “To Kill a Mockingbird,” compared to 377 the year before. The number of challenges is likely far higher than reported; the association estimates that only a small percentage are formally registered or publicized — a trend that got worse during the pandemic.
“The shutdowns didn't just make it less likely that patrons would complain, but because of all the furloughs and layoffs at schools and libraries, it disrupted the whole infrastructure that enables us to be aware of complaints,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who directs the association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Alex Gino's “George” was the most frequently criticized book, with objections including LGBTQ content and “not reflecting the values” of the community. The No. 2 book for complaints was Ibram X. Kendi's and Jason Reynolds' “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” challenged in part for “selective storytelling incidents” that do not reflect racism against all people.
A second book co-written by Reynolds, “All American Boys,” faced complaints about political bias, bias against men, and the inclusion of rape and profane language. Others in the top 10 include Angie Thomas' bestseller about police violence, “The Hate U Give”; John Steinbeck's “Of Mice and Men”; and the National Book Award winners “Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson, and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie.
Several of the top 10 books — which also included “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice,” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard — received greater attention last year after the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matters protests.
“We did see pushback against anti-racist materials, some of which were seen as anti-police,” Caldwell-Stone says. “I always say that the challenged book list reflects the conversations going on around the country.”
The ALA defines a “challenge” as a “formal, written complaint filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.” The list, based on media reports and on accounts submitted from libraries, is part of the association’s annual State of America’s Libraries report. It comes out during National Library Week, which ends Saturday.
Some books were simply criticized, others actually pulled. In Burbank, California, last November, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” were among several novels removed from school reading lists because of racist language that educators allege led to harassment of minority students. The National Coalition Against Censorship condemned the decision, saying that “banning books does not erase racist ideas or prevent racist incidents.”
The challenged books list is included in the State of America’s Libraries Special Report: COVID-19, available at https://bit.ly/soal-report-2021.