Libraries saw an onslaught of “disputed books” in 2021.

From Hilel Italy | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Freedom of Thought, has never been so busy.

“A year ago we received maybe one, maybe two reports a day about a book being contested in a library. And typically those calls are for guidance on how to deal with a challenge or for materials that support the value of the work being challenged,” Caldwell-Stone told The Associated Press. “Now we get three, four, five reports a day, many need support and some need a lot of support.”

“We talk on the phone all the time,” she added.

Reports of book bans and attempted book bans, as well as threats against librarians, have skyrocketed over the past year, and the ALA included some numbers in its annual America State Library report released Monday. The association found 729 challenges in public schools and libraries in 2021, affecting nearly 1,600 books, more than double the number in 2020 and the highest since the ALA began compiling challenges more than 20 years ago.

The actual total for the last year is likely much higher — the ALA collects data through media accounts and through cases it learns about from librarians, educators, and other community members. Books that were preemptively pulled out by librarians — out of fear of community protests or concerns for their jobs — and challenges never reported by libraries are not included.

The number could well rise again in 2022, Caldwell-Stone said, as conservative-led school boards and lawmakers enact more restrictions. Last week, the Georgia legislature passed legislation that would expedite the process of removing books deemed “harmful to minors.”

“Nothing would surprise me,” says Caldwell-Stone.

The two most challenged books on the ALA’s top 10 list have often been in the news: Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir on sexual identity, Gender Queer, and Jonathan Evison’s coming-of-age novel, Lawn Boy , narrated by a young gay man. Both were singled out by Republican officials.

Last fall in Virginia, Glenn Youngkin supported a local school board’s banning of the two books during his successful run for governor. Around the same time, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster supported a school board’s decision to remove “gender queer.”

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis recently criticized “gender queer” and “lawn boy” when he signed legislation that would force elementary schools to provide a searchable list of all books available in their libraries or used in class, and parents to allow, DeSantis said, “to blow the whistle.”

In recent interviews, Kobabe and Evison found their books ironically targeted: neither wanted to write a story for young people. But they gained a following among college students with help from the American Library Association, which awarded each book an Alex Award for works “written for adults who have particular appeal to young adults ages 12 to 18.”

“I think a big part of our books that get so much attention is that they’re award winners and they ended up being bought by libraries across the country,” Kobabe said.

Others on the ALA list, virtually all cited on LGBTQ or racial issues, include Angie Thomas’ bestseller The Hate U Give, about the police shooting of a black teenager; George Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, Juno Dawson’s This Book Is Gay, and Susan Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta. Two older works previously on the list are also appearing: Sherman Alexie’s autobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye. Libraries saw an onslaught of “disputed books” in 2021.

Joel McCord

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