Quiz time! What do the Harry Potter series, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye all have in common? Got your guesses in? Well, from reasons ranging from witchcraft to racism, these books all appear on the Popular Banned Books list in the United States.
With right-wing censorship campaigns sweeping books off the shelves, book-banning has reached crisis level in the US. According to PEN America, a non-profit organisation that celebrates free expression, over 2,500 different book bans were enacted in schools across 32 US states during the 2021-2022 school year. This literature prohibition is even more glaring after The New York Times recently reported that children’s literacy levels have plummeted since the pandemic.
The Hate U Give is one of America's most banned books.
The books targeted by conservative groups were overwhelmingly written by or about people of colour and LGBTQ+ people, according to PEN America. Most of these challenges point to the use of profanity or sexual content as the problem. But is it really F-bombs and raunchy kiss scenes that have them throwing their toys out the pram?
One young adult favourite, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, is one of the most consistently disputed books in recent years. Following its 2017 release, the novel has appeared on The American Library Association’s annual list of the ten most-challenged books three times "because it was considered 'pervasively vulgar,'" contained "drug use, profanity, and offensive language," as well as sexual references. As recently as last year, the book has been removed from school libraries in Texas, Illinois and Washington. And, in 2019, a South Carolina thought police, I mean police union, objected to the teaching of the novel in schools because it was thought to promote an “anti-police” message.
So what could a book so “vulgar” and “offensive” actually be about? Is it the new 50 Shades of Grey? A modern take on the Satanic Verses perhaps? Well, if you’re one of the lucky ones who haven’t had it pried from your hands by the little old lady in your school library, you'll know the novel follows the shooting of a young, unarmed black man by a white police officer.
The real horror is that, according to PEN America, 40% of the novels on the banned books list have protagonists or characters who are people of colour. And in the case of ‘The Hate U Give,’ mostly all of the characters, even secondary ones, are Black.
PEN America data also revealed that 21% of the titles on this list tackle subject matter such as racism, the central themes of Thomas' debut novel.
Subject matter of banned content 2021-2022.
Oludara Adeeyo, Californian author of Self Care for Black Women, said: “The question is, are these books spreading anti-police messages or just telling a truthful story of the relationship between the system and Black communities?
“Books like The Hate U Give tell a truth that challenges the way many are taught to think about minorities—especially young minds who might read the book in school. And challenging adolescents to think differently is a scary thing for those who want to uphold the pillars that keep things like structural racism or systemic oppression in place.
“Ultimately, when I see that a book like The Hate U Give is banned, the message I hear is, "We don't care about your stories." Not reading these stories doesn't allow for these communities to be humanised, thus further perpetuating whatever stereotypes exist in society about these racial and ethnic groups.”
Oludara Adeeyo is the Californian author behind Self-Care for Black Women
John Blackmon, the president of that South Carolina police union still throwing a tantrum over the book’s inclusion in schools, argues that the novel is giving cops a bad name.
He said: “These kids are at an age where their interactions with the law are minimal. They’re not driving yet so they’re not getting pulled over for speeding, they don’t have any reason to be involved with the police.
"Books like this tell these kids that police are violent, and they believe it. They don’t know us. Aside from the book containing excessive profanity and offensive language, it’s an indoctrination to distrust the police when our sole purpose is to protect. We can't let that happen.”
There’s no data out there to tell us whether The Hate U Give has changed people’s attitudes to police. However, some data leaps off the page.
There are exactly 89 instances of the F-word in The Hate U Give. US Law enforcement killed 1176 civilians in 2022, making it the deadliest on record for police violence.
When The Hate U Give was banned in her school district in Texas, student Ny’Shira Lundy was “enraged”.
Ny'Shira read The Hate U Give in the Summer of 2017 when she was 15-years-old, a book that not only inspired her to be a writer but a community activist, much like the protagonist in the story.
She started an online petition and wrote a letter to the Superintendent to return The Hate U Give to the library. Within three days, the petition had gained over 800 signatures.
Ny'Shira Lundy's petition put The Hate U Give back on her school's library shelves.
Not long before her meeting with the Superintendent, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) called to say that our petition had worked. The book had been placed back on the shelves and could now be checked out.
The NCAC has been on the frontline of censorship wars for more than 40 years.
Chris Finan, Executive Director of the NCAC, said: “Banning books based on the viewpoint of an individual or small group of people is a threat to our shared democratic principles.
“As promised by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, students must have the tools and resources to think critically and learn how to investigate a wide range of ideas, cultures, and social issues. Protecting students’ rights to read, inquire and express themselves is critical to educating the next generation of informed and engaged U.S. citizens.
“In fulfilling their responsibilities, U.S. public schools must have the resources to educate students on core American values such as fairness, equality, justice, respect for others, and the right to dissent.”
One of the most recent books to be purged from the school shelves is All Boys Aren’t Blue, George M. Johnson’s 2020 autobiographical essay collection on queer, Black adolescence.
Yeah, I bet they loved that one.
School board meetings were swarmed, new rating systems for libraries were demanded and inflammatory language about “grooming” and “pornography” was brandished about.
One Florida school member even filed a criminal report against the Superintendent for carrying the book, claiming it defied obscenity laws.
Bit much, Karen?
The book was eventually tossed from school libraries in at least ten states because of its inclusion of LGBTQ+ content, profanity and sexually explicit scenes.
PEN America found that 4 in 10 of the books banned in 2022 were targeted due to LGBTQ+ content.
In 2022, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, lawmakers across dozens of mostly Republican-controlled states introduced a record-breaking 162 anti-LGBTQ bills that would ultimately limit the teaching of LGBTQ-related topics in the classroom.
All Boys Aren't Blue was won of the most banned books of 2020.
Larry Gross, Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California, says that there’s nothing new in attempts to censor books on controversial topics.
Larry Gross is a Professor of Communication at the University of Southern California.
He said: “The most effective forces of censorship in Western history are probably those enforced by the Catholic church and this included outlawing the translation of the bible into vernacular languages, which was a capital crime for which many were executed. In the modern, post-Enlightenment age, the freedom of the press becomes a hallmark of modernity and secular society, but it's always under pressure from opponents of various sorts of messages. The most frequent targets of censorship have been information and messages concerning sex and sexuality.
“The appeal to prevent children from exposure to messages their parents might not want them to encounter often succeeds in arousing widespread support and even legislative or other restrictions. This has been the case in the US over a succession of controversial materials, from comic books, to television, to rock lyrics, video games and the internet. Now it’s social media.”
So, next time you hear about a book banned for “offensive language” or “sexual content” question the validity of this “legitimate concern” ask yourself whether these individuals are actually trying to protect people?
Or are they right-wing political project groups scouring the internet for books with themes they can’t digest and calling them “inappropriate”?
Next time you hear about a book banned by people who are silencing speech on topics they know nothing about, ask what is the cost to curious young minds?
Next time you hear about a book being banned, read it.
If you liked this post then read Why the rise in LGBTQ+ romance novels is important or So you want to try Cli-Fi: Here's where to start next.
Larry is a specialist in the areas of media and culture, art and communication, visual communication and media portrayals of minorities. He helped found the field of LGBT studies. He is the author of Contested Closets: The Politics and Ethics of Outing (University of Minnesota Press) and Up From Invisibility: Lesbians, Gay Men, and the Media in America (Columbia University Press).
Sophie is a trainee journalist at The University of Sheffield who specialises in feature writing. She has a keen passion for books and would love to work in the publishing industry in the future. She’s particularly passionate about how our ever-changing planet is represented in the books we read.
Favourite genres: Thrillers and Contemporary Fiction.