Why “Book Bans” Happen

By Matthew Etzel

In recent years, there has been a notable surge in the removal of books from libraries and classrooms within public school districts across the United States. While the practice has persisted since the dawn of public education, the sheer volume of these recent removals has garnered significant attention, sparking vigorous debates on the issue.

For starters, the term “ban” is fairly misleading. Any citizen of the U.S. can purchase and read whatever books they want, but “banned” books aren’t stocked in public school libraries and classrooms. It’s also important to know how bannings work in the first place. There is no such thing as nationwide or statewide bans. In theory, bans can only occur at the district or school level at the discretion of parents and school administrators. Book bans take place when these parents and administrators initiate a “challenge,” presenting arguments for the book’s removal. 

Below is a short list of the five most challenged books in the U.S. and the reasons they are challenged according to the American Library Association:

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (2019, graphic novel/memoir)

A graphic novel depicting the growing up and self-discovery of the author Maia Kobabe. The book is challenged due to an oral sex scene and several depictions of sexual organs. The book is deemed especially inappropriate due its explicit illustrations and erotic story-telling. Its graphic novel format is highly controversial as many argue it appeals to young children. 

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson (2020, memoir)

A memoir of George M. Johnson as he finds identity as a black queer. Throughout the book Johnson adds commentary on black America and includes bold statements such as “there is no blackness without queer people.” The book is challenged because it contains a scene where an older relative molests the narrator and in later chapters contains two more sex scenes. 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970, fiction)

A novel about growing up as an African American girl. The story touches on heavy topics about racism and life in a broken family. It is challenged due to scenes contining child abuse and rape. Critics of the book’s banning claim that it aims to suppress African-American culture through the removal of literature. 

Flamer by Mike Curato (2020, graphic novel/fiction)

Mike Curato tells the story of a fourteen year-old boy scout named Aiden Navarro who is bullied for his appearance and stereotypically gay manners. It is loosely based on Curato’s own childhood. The book is challenged due to scenes suggesting masturbation and suicide. Those in favor of its removal frequently cite the scenes where thirteen and fourteen year old boys participate in vulgar hazing rituals and where Aiden takes a knife to his wrist and contemplates suicide. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (1999, fiction)

A story about an introverted teenager named Charlie who struggles with trauma during his freshman year of high school . The book is challenged due to scenes containing sex and the use of hard drugs such as LSD. 

This short list reveals only a facet of the story though. Hundreds of unique titles face challenges today, so readers interested in understanding the full scope of this issue should take a look into the growing list. 

It’s important to note that the extreme views of this debate are held by a small minority. A 2022 survey(https://www.ala.org/advocacy/voters-oppose-book-bans-libraries) by the ALA revealed that 75% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans oppose book bans but believe that books should be offered on an “age-appropriate basis”. Though it’s unclear what exactly “age-appropriate” means, this survey attests to the unsurprising reality that most Americans are unfond of censorship but don’t want their kids reading inappropriate books. Much of the modern discourse on book banning concerns finding the balance. 

Furthermore, most of the authors of the novels above, including Maia Kobabe, have stated their novels are for teens and young adults. While this doesn’t make the books appropriate or prevent young kids from reading them, it dispels the notion that all of these authors aim their mature works at innocent impressionable children. Only a small but vocal few actually want sexually explicit books taught in kindergarten classrooms. On the other hand, only an equally small but vocal minority advocates for real blanket book bans, which are prohibited by the Constitution and impossible in practice anyways. 

Ultimately the foremost constant that regards this discussion is the danger of censorship. Many fear that if book banning escalates, significant works about culture and history will become obscured from students. Perhaps, even worse, the restrictions on banned books may increase from unavailability to unattainability. Though the Constitution stringently prevents book banning measures from increasing in such a manner, there remains a need for vigilance to ensure that the freedom to express diverse ideas is maintained.