And here are the reasons why they were challenged.
When Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale was banned in Leander, TX, in 2021, the author said, “I had thought America was against totalitarianisms. If so, surely it is important for young people to be able to recognize the signs of them. One of those signs is book-banning. Need I say more?”
According to a report by advocacy group PEN America, at least 1586 books were banned (meaning they were removed from school libraries, prohibited in classrooms, and/or banned from circulation) between July 2021 and March 2022, with the targets being 1145 unique book titles by 874 different authors. Book bans have occurred in 86 school districts across 26 states, and while many petitions for bannings came from community members, 41 percent were a result of directives from state officials or elected lawmakers.
Most of the targeted books share common “problematic” themes: Race and racism in American history, LGBTQIA+ identities, and sexual content. Notably, books by or about people whose stories have been traditionally underrepresented are disproportionately targeted for bans. But those aren’t the only topics that petitioners took issue with. Here’s a list of titles that were most frequently challenged in 2021:
This title has the dubious honor of being the most banned book in America in 2021, according to the American Library Association (ALA). Through this story of coming out as gender-nonconforming, Kobabe explores the meaning of gender identity. The book was challenged for its sexually explicit content and graphic erotic imagery. But Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN America, believes that more specifically, it’s banned because “it is dealing with sexuality at the time when that’s become taboo.”
In this 2018 novel, Evison takes readers on a Chicano boy’s journey of self-discovery; the book was allegedly banned because of profanity and explicit sexual scenes. In September 2021, Evison wrote, “I have received a number of threats to my health this week because a lady in Texas is on a crusade to get lawn boy banned because it features a gay protagonist who has had gay life experiences…for this, I am being trolled as a “pedophile” and being accused of “grooming” young boys.” (KCM spoke with Evison about the experience of being an author of a banned book; you can read that interview right here.)
In this 2020 young-adult memoir, Johnson focuses on the trials and triumphs of Black queer boys; Johnson says he wrote it to “showcase a true depiction of the Black family dynamic raising an effeminate queer boy.” As with Lawn Boy, the book was banned for profanity and sexually explicit content.
Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
Here, Perez writes about segregation, love, and family in mid-twentieth century Texas, narrating the story of people who crossed entrenched racial divisions for love. In one scene, Perez speaks in the voice of racist boys, objectifying the protagonist. Those were the scenes critics took issue with, accusing them of being sexually explicit.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Thomas’ novel — which was adapted into a 2018 film — revolves around a Black teenage girl who witnesses the police shooting of her unarmed friend. The book examines racism, police brutality, and activism. It was challenged for being violent, profane, and for having an “anti-police” agenda.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
In this award-winning 2007 novel, Alexie draws on his own experiences for the story of Junior, who leaves his school at the Spokane Indian Reservation to join an all-white high school where the only other “Indian” is the mascot. The book was banned for profanity, sexual references, and the use of homophobic and racist slurs by certain characters.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
This 2012 young-adult novel, which was also made into a movie, takes us into the mind of Greg Gaines, an awkward high school student who spends much of his time making films with his friend Earl. The two befriend Rachel, who’s battling leukemia. It was banned for what some viewers interpreted as — yet again — sexually explicit content, and for the idea that it might be degrading to women.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
In Morrison’s first novel, she lays out the story of an 11-year-old Black girl who prays for her eyes to be blue, so that she can be beautiful and beloved like the blond, blue-eyed children of America.
This 1970 classic appeared on the ALA’s list of most-banned books of 2021, targeted for its sexually explicit scenes and for depicting child sexual abuse. But, of course, this wasn’t the first time Morrison’s book was challenged. In fact, petitions to ban it date back to 1998, when a mother of a Maryland high school student demanded it be removed from school curriculum. (In her presentation to the local board of education, that parent stated, “I am sickened knowing that my tax dollars are being used to provide children with — and instruct them in using — lewd, adult books.”) Since then, Bluest Eye has appeared several times on the ALA’s list of most banned books: in 2006, 2013, 2014, and 2020.
In this 2014 exploration of sexuality, Dawson sheds light on what it’s like to grow up queer, creating an “instruction manual” for those who identify as part of the community. For providing sexual education and LGBTQIA+ content, it was removed from libraries in Wasilla, AK, Granbury, TX, and elsewhere. In response, Dawson wrote, “Right-wing groups are challenging This Book is Gay, my guide for young LGBTQ adults. Their homophobic agenda is obvious.”
Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin
In this book, Kuklin takes us into the lives of six transgender or gender-neutral young adults, exploring the pain, power, family dynamics, and erratic living situations they deal with. It was, like many other titles, banned for being sexually explicit, and for LGBTQIA+ content. First published in 2014, the book was placed on the list of America’s most banned books just two years later. When asked why she believed people didn’t want their children to be exposed to her work, Kuklin said, “This is dangerous knowledge. It’s scary to people because they don’t understand it. Once you get to understand it, it’s no longer frightening. But there’s that period before it happens, where there’s so much pushback and so much fear. And I think that’s what happened with my book.”
Want more great content?
Sign up here to jumpstart your mornings with Katie’s dynamic daily newsletter, Wake-Up Call.