Analysis of the most banned/challenged books in the U.S. shows that diverse books are disproportionately targeted for book challenges and censorship.
By Malinda Lo
Over the summer, a Delaware school board removed The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth from a high school’s summer reading list after parents complained about the novel’s explicit language. Sadly, this kind of censorship isn’t unusual. Novels are removed from reading lists or are challenged in classrooms and libraries all the time. From 2000–2009, 5,009 book challenges were reported to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (source).
What made me take notice in this case was the fact that Cameron Post is a critically acclaimed novel about a lesbian teen coming of age, but the reason cited for the book’s removal was explicit language — even though several other books on the summer reading list also included explicit language. It was no great leap to wonder if “language” was used as a cover for homophobia.
After the school board was faced with a significant amount of pushback in the media for its removal of Cameron Post, it reacted by reconsidering their decision and deciding to remove the entire summer reading list, not only Cameron Post. Although the School Board continued to insist repeatedly that Cameron Post was removed solely for its language, the parent’s initial letter challenging the book, sent June 4, did in fact focus on the lesbian story line.
In an article at The Atlantic earlier this month, excerpts of the June 4 letter were posted in which the parent was “shocked and appalled” by the reading list, and declared that Cameron Post resembled “a roadmap or guide book on how to become a sexually active lesbian teen.”
The unfortunate situation with Cameron Post and the entire banned summer reading list made me wonder how often the cited reasons for book challenges (which are enumerated by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom here) are smokescreens for the real reasons — reasons that might not always be socially acceptable to state publicly.
If a book like Beloved by Toni Morrison is challenged because it is “sexually explicit” and has a “religious viewpoint” and contains “violence” (these are the stated reasons for its challenges in 2012), is it simply accidental that Beloved is also a novel about an African American woman, written by an African American woman?
I wondered if there was a correlation between books with diverse content — that is, books by and about people of color, LGBT people, and/or disabled people — and book challenges, so I decided to take a look at the data available from the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and see what emerged.
The Office of Intellectual Freedom compiles data on book challenges. According to the OIF:
“A challenge is defined as a formal, written complaint, filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness. The number of challenges reflects only incidents reported. We estimate that for every reported challenge, four or five remain unreported. Therefore, we do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges.” (source)
While these books are not all young adult books, the books are most often challenged by parents and/or are challenged in schools (see these statistics). Additionally, many of these books are classics that are often taught in middle and high school English classes, so the issue of banned/challenged books is highly relevant to young adults and the YA community.
Working from these lists, I researched the authors’ race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability status. I also researched the content of each banned/challenged book to determine if the book included any of the following types of content:
- Non-White main and/or secondary characters
- LGBT main and/or secondary characters
- Disabled main and/or secondary characters
- Issues about race or racism
- LGBT issues
- Issues about religion, which encompass in this situation the Holocaust and terrorism
- Issues about disability and/or mental illness
- Non-Western settings, in which the West is North America and Europe
I decided to include secondary non-white, LGBT and disabled characters if those secondary characters seemed particularly significant to the story. Additionally, some of these books were story, essay, or poetry anthologies, and some of those stories, essays, and poems were by or about non-white, LGBT and/or disabled characters. Though the entire anthologies were not about them, it seemed important to include them.
“LGBT issues” includes both books that focus on the LGBT experience, and books that are broadly about sexuality and include specific chapters about homosexuality (e.g., It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health by Robie Harris). “LGBT issues” also includes a book about two male penguins who hatch an egg together (And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson), who are not gay because they’re penguins and gay is a sexual and cultural identity for humans, but have been interpreted as such by those who wish to ban the book.
Authors and Banned/Challenged Books
From 2000–2009, 84 authors wrote the Top 100 most frequently banned/challenged books. Among those 84 authors, 81% were white and 19% were non-white. Those authors include Walter Dean Myers (Fallen Angels), Rudolfo Anaya (Bless Me Ultima), and Toni Morrison (challenged for Beloved, Song of Solomon, and The Bluest Eye).
To understand what these figures means in this context, it’s important to get a sense of the percentage of non-white authors being published in general. I couldn’t find any comprehensive study of this issue, but there are two data points worth sharing.
In 2012 at The Rumpus, Roxane Gay counted the number of authors of color reviewed by the New York Times in 2011. She concluded:
“Nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white writers. That is not even remotely reflective of the racial makeup of this country, where 72% of the population, according to the 2010 census, is white.”
Secondly, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has been compiling data on the children’s books it receives since the mid–1980s. In 2013, multicultural children’s book publisher Lee & Low examined the CCBC data and concluded that over the past 18 years, the percentage of children’s books by and/or about people of color has remained virtually constant at 10%. In comparison, 37% of the U.S. population consists of people of color — a huge gap.
The New York Times and CCBC data are not directly comparable to the percentage of authors of color on the banned/challenged books list. However, I do think it’s interesting to see that almost twice as many authors of color appear on the banned/challenged books list as were reviewed in the New York Times.
The data from 2010–2013 is similar.
For this chart, I compiled the data from the Top Ten lists from 2010–2013, and eliminated repeated titles (e.g., The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie appeared on the Top Ten lists of each of the last four years). That resulted in a total of 30 authors (some of them had more than one title in the Top Ten lists), of which 79% were white and 21% were non-white. The non-white authors included Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner), Kim Dong Hwa (The Color of Earth) and again Toni Morrison (for both Beloved and The Bluest Eye).
What Kind of Diversity, Exactly?
Among the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000–2009, 52 books included some kind of diversity — that’s 52%: the majority of banned/challenged books included diverse content. Over half of the Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books from 2000–2009 addressed issues about race, sexuality and/or disability; or were about non-white, LGBTQ and/or disabled characters.
Looking more closely at the diverse books on the list, some included more than one kind of diversity. For example, Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk included issues of disability and race, as well as a biracial main character. I counted each of those kinds of diversity separately because they speak to different experiences. That added up to 61 instances of diverse content, in which 40% were about issues (this means that the main character could be white, but the book is nonetheless about race, such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee), and 32% were about a non-white main character. The types of diversity content break down as follows:
For 2010 to 2013, the data is similar. Once again I compiled the Top Ten lists for 2010 to 2013, eliminated repeated titles, and found that there were 29 individual titles in all on those four Top Ten lists. Among the 29 titles, 15 included diverse content, and 14 did not. In other words, once again 52% of the banned/challenged books included diverse content of some kind.
The diversity content of those 15 books broke down into 17 different types, which are seen in the following chart:
Diversity Under Attack
Although the data I am working with is a selected amount — these are Top 100 and Top 10 lists, not the raw list of 5,000+ challenges that the OIF received over the last decade — I think it’s still quite revealing. It’s clear to me that books that fall outside the white, straight, abled mainstream are challenged more often than books that do not destabilize the status quo.
This isn’t surprising, but the extent to which diverse books are represented on these lists — as a majority — is quite disheartening. Diversity is slim throughout all genres of books and across all age groups — except when it comes to book challenges.
The message this sends is loud and clear: diversity is actually under attack. Minority perspectives are being silenced every year.
I think it’s important to note that the reasons for a book’s challenge may be beside the point when the result is a broad silencing of these minority perspectives. Though some might protest a book’s explicit language, the real result is closing off dialogue and preventing readers from experiencing stories and lives outside the mainstream.
Recent academic studies have shown that reading fiction leads to increased empathy, which suggests to me that it’s more important than ever to make sure books with diverse perspectives are widely available, not censored. I hope we can remember this during Banned Books Week, which takes place Sept. 21–27 this year, and every week.
The data I compiled for this analysis is available at Google Docs. Here is my data for Diversity in Banned/Challenged Books, 2000–09, and Diversity in Banned/Challenged Books, 2010–13. While I have double and triple-checked my research, I am the only one doing this research. If you discover errors, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!