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They May Not Be The Most Targeted, But They’re Still Banned: Book Censorship News, October 27, 2023

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Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Banned Books Week displays packed with copies of dusty books by dead white men still emerge annually, though thankfully, this has really changed over the last year or two as more people understand that while yes, Catcher in the Rye was banned at some point, that’s not the target of contemporary censors. But in the wake of this change has come another interesting one. More and more people continue to recommend the most challenged and banned books as ones others should read.

On its face, this is far from a bad thing. YES, we want more people to pick up and read incredible stories like Gender Queer and All Boys Aren’t Blue. Both encapsulate the real target of book bigotry right now, and both are incredible stories by essential voices.

But they aren’t the only ones.

Because book bans are so overwhelming right now, it’s easy to keep reaching for these notoriously maligned titles as recommended reads. They’re also pointed to as proof of “success” in a really odd way: those books have done financially okay with being targets, as their rise in bans has brought them onto more adult radars, and more adults have used their adult money and access to buy those books from retailers. “Adult” here is key. The real victims of book bans are not the grown-ups who can buy the books but the young people who cannot.

I brought this up during a recent banned books week talk. So, too, did authors like Malinda Lo. In an era where thousands of books are being banned and thousands more challenged, how come we’re still only hearing the titles of a few and conflating those stories with the stories of every other author being censored right now? They’re representative of some things but certainly not of all things.

Book banning impacts me personally: Body Talk has been banned in at least two districts, with several other districts having restricted it or debated banning it. Yet, Body Talk does not show up on banned books reading lists or displays or in the recommendations by gatekeepers of great banned books to read. Why would it? It’s at the bottom of the lists for “most” banned, and thus, is not and cannot be given the status as those we see in reports from PEN or ALA. As cool as Harpers Bazaar‘s list of “every banned book in America” is, it’s not really helpful. It’s just a new way to look at the database kept by Dr. Tasslyn Magnusson.

But it’s been banned, and the book bigots have lodged some really painful complaints about it. In the case where Body Talk was not removed, the two complaints came from school board members, and they used the language used in every other dumb complaint since this wave began. Neither here nor in other cases, including that by Bruce Friedman, who has targeted my books because of a so-called “hit piece” I wrote on him, has led to an increase in sales of Body Talk. Indeed, that remains the only book of mine to still not even earn out its advance — my other two earned out in under a year of publication. Body Talk was published in 2020, and like most authors being banned, those bans and challenges have offered zero lift to sales nor to knowledge of the book itself.

So what can be done about this? We don’t want to stop talking about the most banned books, and we shouldn’t. But how can information about those books falling in the middle of the flurry of bans get some more attention? Those titles that aren’t getting on splashy graphics and book lists everywhere?

The answer seems pretty simple: highlight them.

Thanks to the help of PEN America, I’ve acquired a list of every book banned in American schools this year. The list includes a total of 1,557 unique books banned in the United States during the 2022-2023 school year. I’ve pulled out the middle 20 titles of this dataset, so books that, when ranked by number of bans, fell in the roughly 750-800 range of all titles. I further shorted the list randomly when I recognized that these books had something in common (read the paragraph after the list to understand that decision).

Several of the titles in this range are parts of series that have had additional volumes removed. — for instance, the manga Soul Eater by Atsushi Ohkubo had volumes 1-5 all banned — and to make it easier, I have collapsed them into a single title (i.e., you’ll only see Spy x Family, Volumes 1-6 as a single entry). That means the numbers here might not add up to 20.

Something noteworthy here — the number of times these books have been banned in the last year is…once. That is the kind of level of removal we’re dealing with and why it’s important to consider the whole scope of this book censorship. Most books are only banned in one or two places. Of the 1,557 titles on the list, 1,202 were banned once. That is, 77% of all book bans at U.S. schools in the 2022-2023 school year happened at a single school.

Out of the 1,557, only 70 books were banned 10 or more times. That does not change the impact — Ellen Hopkins having one book banned in 33 schools is not good. But it’s worth emphasizing that only 4% of the books in the last school year were banned 10 or more times. A total of 161 books have been banned at three to nine schools — that’s 10% of banned books. So, we’re up to 14% of the books banned in school districts last year being banned at 3 or more schools. In other words, most books are being completely forgotten or overlooked.

Kind of changes the perspective on the books that continue to get showcased, doesn’t it? Most authors and most books who are banned never get attention for their work being stolen from the hands of readers by a small, vocal, well-connected, and well-funded group of bigots.

These numbers represent only the confirmed book bans in a single school year. They do not count challenges to books, nor do they count the insidious reality of quiet/soft censorship wherein books simply “disappear” from shelves or are never allowed a space at all.

With all of the thanks to Dr. Tasslyn Magnusson and PEN America, here is a spreadsheet you can access with all of the books banned in “only” one or two districts during the 2022-2023 school year. Maybe it’s better framed as here are 86% of the books banned in American schools in the last year.

Book Censorship News: October 27, 2023

And just to round out this week’s news, here’s a list of every school board candidate endorsed so far by Moms For Liberty in the November 7 elections in several states.