Annual reports are compiled by the American Library Association to track efforts by parents and political groups to ban books from libraries and schools across the country.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the non-profit ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, has worked with such reports for about 20 years and says she’s never seen such a widespread effort to remove books on racial and gender diversity from the shelves as she is now.
“Right now, we’re seeing an unprecedented volume of challenge reports that appear to be linked to a loosely organized campaign to remove certain books,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Previously, you might have received one or two challenge reports per week, but now we’re getting multiple reports per day.”
Though reports for 2021 are still being received, 273 books were targeted in 2020 – and Caldwell-Stone believes the number will be higher this year. Reports on challenges are based on media coverage and voluntary reports submitted to the organization. However, the vast majority of book challenges go unreported.
The rise comes as the debate over the concept of race in education heats up, with states across the country using legislative action to challenge education about racism and discrimination.
Around 150 organizations, including the ALA, signed an open letter in June 2021 opposing legislative efforts to restrict education and readings about racism and American history.
Some authors of color are now speaking out, claiming that books can help children and young adults learn, ask questions, and gain new or nuanced perspectives on the world around them.
One of the organizations leading the opposition to certain books on race and sexuality is No Left Turn in Education. Its website contains a long list of books, with parents warned that they allegedly spread anti-police messages, critical race theory themes, and sexuality education.
Despite the fact that critical race theory is not officially taught in K-12 classrooms, the academic concept that analyzes how racism affects or drives U.S. laws has become a target of Republican legislators across the country. At least 29 states have introduced or implemented legislation aimed at limiting lessons about race and inequality taught in American schools in the name of putting a stop to “critical race theory.”
Some proponents argue that some lessons blame children for the actions of previous generations or make them feel guilty for being white.
This push has resulted in a growing call for school boards and libraries to remove books that deal broadly with racial issues – a misinterpretation of what critical race theory is, according to Caldwell-Stone.
Many educators, however, argue that what is taught in K-12 schools is not critical race theory, but rather basic U.S. history on racial issues in America. They argue that anti-critical race theory legislation only serves to stifle debate about racism and oppression in America.
According to the authors, a diverse array of books is an important factor in getting children to learn about new perspectives and to look at society in nuanced or complex ways.
Lulu Delcare, a multilingual children’s book author and artist who focuses on the Latino experience, says she has relied on books to learn about people and identities.
Delcare and author Sheetal Sheth have collaborated with the non-profit Reading Is Fundamental to encourage young readers to embrace literature from a variety of perspectives.
These authors are concerned that if children do not have access to diverse reading materials, they will be unprepared to understand the complexities of the world around them. According to Alexander, they may be unable to understand and address racism or discrimination.
“The Undefeated,” Alexander’s book, has appeared on some banned book lists. The poetry collection is billed as a “love letter to Black life in the United States,” and it covers slavery, the civil rights movement, and other topics.
According to a study published in the Frontiers in Psychology research journal, reading books can help with empathy by highlighting differences between groups of people and attempting to minimize bias between those different groups of people.
It was also discovered that “identification with characters who are unlike the readers is the most valuable contribution of children’s storybooks to cognitive empathy.”