Controversial books are nothing new, but the incidence of book challenges and bans has increased substantially in recent years. This week marks the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, and this year’s theme is “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.” The association has conducted polling on the issue which showed 71% of Americans oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries, and 67% oppose efforts to remove books from school libraries. Kristin Pekoll, conference and continuing-education manager for the Illinois Library Association, said she has been surprised by some of the challenges.
“The challenges that are coming into our younger nonfiction picture-books materials, like about Rosa Parks, young biographies of Martin Luther King,” Pekoll recounted. “We’re seeing biographies about Michelle Obama being challenged. Yeah, those always surprise me.”
More information on the association’s initiative to fight censorship is online at uniteagainstbookbans.org. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association, which has tracked book censorship for decades, said organized political groups who advocate censorship are involved in efforts to influence school boards and library boards, sending motivated voices to speak to elected officials. Officeholders facing book challenges often end up listening to the people speaking out at public meetings, but when opponents of censorship make their voices heard things can go differently.
“When there are others in the room speaking out against censorship, speaking out in favor of having a wide variety of books available for young people to read, for the community to read, then we often see efforts to remove books fail,” Caldwell-Stone observed.
She emphasized writing an email to the library board or sending a letter with another supporter to be read at a meeting may also give busy people a way to make their voices heard.
Over her career, Caldwell-Stone has seen an expansion of the kinds of books challenged, noting books containing profanity or coming-of-age stories with accounts of first sexual experiences have often been challenged. In recent years challenges have taken on additional political dimensions.
“When you look at the books that are challenged, you’re seeing books that have no sexual content at all but advance different narratives around our history,” Caldwell-Stone outlined. “With racism or the lives and experiences of LGBTQIA persons.”
The association estimates between 82% and 97% of book challenges go unreported.