Libraries, Book Banning, and the Freedom to Read

By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning

Libraries, Book Banning, and the Freedom to Read“When you erase the history/experience of one kid to ‘protect’ another, what you’re also saying is that there is one type of kid worth protecting.”—Author B. B. Alston

If it feels like you are hearing an awful lot about book banning lately, it is—unfortunately—not your imagination. And if you haven’t been hearing about it, now is the time to start paying attention because it is a pressing concern for the schools and libraries near you.

According to the American Library Association’s State of America’s Libraries Report 2022, school and public libraries faced an unprecedented wave of book bans and challenges in 2021, which has only accelerated in 2022. A majority of the banned, challenged, or removed titles were by and/or about Black and LGBTQ+ people and other underrepresented communities.

The rising tide of book bans and challenges has created difficult, and sometimes frightening, circumstances for library staff, teachers, and school personnel who have been directly affected and has contributed to a wider sense of anxiety in these fields. Worse, in cases where books or other materials have actually been removed from library shelves and school curricula, or not added in the first place, young readers have been denied access to stories that might have helped them make sense of their own experiences and learn about lives and experiences not their own.

Because this is a contentious topic, I should make it clear that while I am writing as a librarian and my opinions reflect my education and experience in this field, I am not speaking for my employer or any other entity.

In this post, I will provide a brief overview of the current book-banning and censorship landscape in American public and school libraries, discuss why censorship is so damaging for kids and teens, and offer some ways parents and community members can help stand up for the freedom to read in their communities.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Book Bans

A “challenge” to a book is an attempt to remove it or restrict its use based on objections to its content. A book is “banned” when it is actually removed or restricted.

In the State of America’s Libraries Report 2022, the American Library Association (ALA) notes that at least 1,597 individual titles were challenged or removed in 729 separate incidents during 2021. But these 1,597 titles are most certainly an undercount since many challenges are never reported to ALA, and a significant number bypass formal reconsideration processes and go directly to politicians or the press. Instead, this alarming number is just the tip of an alarming iceberg.

Book challenges and bans are nothing new; indeed, censorship is as old as writing. In Erin Blakemore’s excellent article detailing the history of book banning in the United States, published in National Geographic this month, the author notes that the first instance of book banning in the United States predates the nation’s founding by more than a century: a pamphlet called The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption was banned and burned in Massachusetts Bay colony in 1650, and only four copies have survived for modern readers.

Throughout US history, the reasons for book bans have shifted from religion to politics to materials regarded as immoral or obscene. In recent decades, the largest percentage of challenges have been directed at materials in school libraries (44 percent in 2021) and initiated by parents (39 percent in 2021), according to the ALA report.

While much of the high-profile censorship activity in the last several years has come from conservatives, it is important to note that book banning has historically come from all over the political spectrum and that, by definition, intellectual freedom is for everyone. As Noam Chomsky put it when he visited The Late Show back in 1992, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” In other words, protecting speech and writing we don’t like is at least as important as protecting materials with which we agree. 

According to PEN America, a free speech nonprofit which maintains an index of banned and challenged books, recent censorship efforts have disproportionately targeted titles that address themes of race and sexuality. Of the 1,586 book bans PEN recorded for the period between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022:

467 contain protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color (41%), and 247 directly address issues of race and racism (22%); 379 titles (33%) explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes, or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+; 283 titles contain sexual content of varying kinds (25%), including novels with sexual encounters as well as informational books about puberty, sex, or relationships. There are 184 titles (16%) that are history books or biographies. Another 107 titles have themes related to rights and activism (9%).

Why Is This So Important?

Having access to diverse books is critical for young readers. As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop noted in her groundbreaking essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” back in 1990, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.”

Representation in books for youth helps children and teens see themselves in literature, but also makes it possible to see and imagine lives very different from their own. This creates empathy and a shared sense of humanity, and the world could certainly use more of both.

In remarks at the Walter Dean Myers Awards for Outstanding Literature in June 2022, the author Grace Lin expanded on Dr. Bishop’s analogy, talking about children’s books as windows, mirrors, and glasses that help young people see the world around them clearly, and see the full humanity of other people. Lin said, “I can’t help but think that not having these books can cause permanent damage. It’s those who did not have these books when they were younger who are trying to ban them now.” She went on to argue that while it can be tempting to avoid making waves and let potentially controversial books go by the wayside, it is incumbent on all of us to “support our teachers, librarians, booksellers, authors, illustrators, schools, and bookstores” and get diverse books into the hands of as many children as possible.

Some argue that limiting access to books in schools and libraries is not that big of a deal because the books are still available for sale. But many, perhaps most, children and teens do not have the means to buy the books that might interest them or the tools to find them in the first place. They rely on public and school libraries for that. Schools and libraries have a duty to fill that gap and serve the whole community, not just a particular group, and certainly not just the loudest group.

This is not to say that every book is right for every reader—far from it. To quote librarian Jo Godwin, “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.” When it comes to books and materials for young readers, parents and caregivers have the right to decide what is appropriate for their children, and only their children. Librarians can be a great help in finding the right books for every age and stage, and books that are a good fit for families’ interests and values, but only if parents and librarians work as a team, rather than as combatants, in the culture wars, where kids and teens often end up caught in the crossfire.

What Now?

After two years of increasingly strident calls for censorship and outright attacks on libraries, communities are starting to push back to protect the freedom to read. The Patmos Library in Jamestown Township, Michigan, lost 80 percent of its funding in August when anti-LGBTQ+ groups campaigned against, and defeated, a library millage measure. In the weeks since the vote, donors have raised more than $250,000 for the library, and the library administration plans to put library funding back on the ballot in November. In Llano County, Texas, where a new library board removed scores of books and eliminated access to ebooks as a result of content concerns, citizens have filed a lawsuit demanding an end to censorship.

Nationwide, groups like Unite Against Book Bans are bringing parents, booksellers, librarians, and others together to fight censorship and support affected schools and libraries. Students in Texas and other states are forming banned book clubs, speaking at school board meetings, and protesting censorship in their schools, and they have had some success in getting banned titles restored to libraries and classrooms.

Recent polling by the ALA indicates that a significant majority of voters from across party lines oppose efforts to remove books from public and school libraries, and I believe that greater awareness of the issue will only build support for free access to books.

While teachers and librarians are preparing for challenges by ensuring that their institutions have robust policies in place to address materials challenges, and some have been vocal supporters of intellectual freedom, many are staying quiet out of fear for their jobs or even their safety. This makes it all the more important for the wider community to pay attention, show up for library and school board meetings, and do the work to ensure that all young readers have access to the windows, mirrors, and glasses that only books can provide. 


Amadee RickettsAmadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.

Gentle HandsAmadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.

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