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The top library books people tried to ban or censor last year
Geoff Bennett: Battles have erupted at schools, school boards and library meetings across the country, as parents, lawmakers and advocacy groups are debating the value and merit of many books, new and old.
This is National Library Week.And a report out today catalogs the surge of challenge juices to what's on the shelves in America's libraries.
Jeffrey Brown has more for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: In its report, the American Library Association documented more than 1,200 challenges to library books and resources last year.
That's nearly twice as many as 2021, about three times the pre-pandemic average, and the highest since the ALA started collecting data 20 years ago. It also lists the 13 books that have been most challenged this past year, including the top three, "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe, "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson, and Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison's "The Bluest Eye."
Deborah Caldwell-Stone is the director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, and joins me now.
Thank you for being with us.
To understand first some of the terms, what exactly are you counting here? What does a challenge mean versus an outright ban?
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director, American Library Association Office For Intellectual Freedom: A challenge is a demand to remove a book from a library shelf at a school or public library.
A ban is when the library board, the school board takes action to remove the book and prevent the intended reader from reading it.
Jeffrey Brown: So, do we know how much this has led to out-and-out banning? Or is it a question -- you have you have used the word soft censorship.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: We're seeing about half of these challenges result in outright bans or restrictions that prevent the reader from reading it.
That could mean moving a book in the children's section or the young adults section to the adult section, placing restrictions like parental consent rules on the book, or, well, the worst of all, is just taking the book out of the library altogether.
We don't know the outcome of every reported challenge to the office, because we do rely on media reports and other sources that don't often follow up. But, by and large, we're seeing an increase in the actual removal of books, rather than simply evaluating the book and placing it back on the shelves.
Jeffrey Brown: Now, what do you see happening in terms of what's leading to this big jump in challenges?
I know one thing you have pointed to is that, in the past, it would usually be one parent challenging perhaps one book. Now you're seeing many books challenged at a time.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: Absolutely.
I mean, I think what the numbers are showing, the really unprecedented jump in the number of challenges and the jump in the number of books being challenged, reflects really organized political activity by a number of advocacy groups like Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education to go to board meetings and demand the removal of as many as 100 books at a time, that it has resulted in the real depopulation of many library shelves, particularly in some states like Florida and Texas.
Where we're getting reports of school boards just removing hundreds of books at one time, either to respond to a demand to censor books or response to state legislation.
Jeffrey Brown: Now, I mentioned three of the books, three of the 13, the themes that have been much discussed -- and you discuss it in your report now -- around gender, sexuality, race and racial history.
Tell us what you're seeing in the books that are being challenged.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: We're seeing challenges primarily to books that elevate the voices of those who've been traditionally marginalized in society, particularly books about gay, queer, transgender persons, or persons of color, Black persons, really a real effort to censor any narrative that challenges the status quo, that elevates the voices of alternative groups, that reflect the experiences and lives of persons of color or LGBTQ persons.
We're even seeing legislation targeting this, the don't say gay bill in Florida, which has just recently been expanded in such a way that no one between K-8 may hear about the fact that some people are homosexuals, or book -- legislation that ban actual books like The 1619 Project.
Jeffrey Brown: So if individuals or groups do feel that some books go too far in terms of their graphic language or descriptions, some see them as pornography, does the ALA have guidelines? What is the process that you would like to see happen?
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: Well, we do have recommendations for policies for collection development and reconsideration.
But it's our position that the decision about what books a young person can access is really in the hands of the parent. We can't act in loco parentis. We can't know what a parent's values are or a student's values are. And so we strongly recommend that parents get involved with guiding their child's reading.
And librarians are always anxious to help a parent find books that match the family's values and needs. But we do say that no one parent should dictate that decision for other families, for other students, for other parents, and that the library should be there as a community resource to meet everyone's information needs, no matter what they believe or value.
There are many books dealing with sex education, sexuality, gender that are important for the readers they are intended for. And many of the books that we're hearing complained about are kind of falsely portrayed as being in the hands of very young children, when they're intended for older adolescents or in high school libraries, young adult collections, and intended for that age group.
And we would recommend, really, that anyone concerned about censorship, about preserving their own families individual choice in reading, their own choice in reading, that they get involved at the local level with initiatives like Unite Against Book Bans, which is at uniteagainstbookbans.org, which is really a toolkit for individuals who want to preserve the freedom to read in their community and to preserve their own ability to choose the books they want to read and to choose the books they want their own child to read.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American Library Association, thank you very much.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone: Thank you very much.
Geoff Bennett: One writer whose work has long been the subject of censorship right up until today is Judy Blume, the author of "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," and numerous other books for young readers.
Jeffrey Brown will have an interview with the legendary author later this week.