The Bill of Rights was signed in 1791, guaranteeing U.S. citizens’ inalienable rights of expression and freedom from suppression. Who is allowed these rights has been a debate ever since.
In Island Trees School District v. Pico, the Supreme Court ruled that school officials cannot ban books solely based on their content. This was in 1982. Exactly 40 years later, civic groups and government officials continue their attempts to quash diverse perspectives in public school libraries. In 2021, attempts to ban books rose to unprecedented levels. The American Library Association reported more than 729 attempted bans, resulting in 1,597 reduced or removed individual
These attempts to prohibit an equitable flow of information originate with voters, which is why Senator Ted Cruz worried over racist babies during the questioning of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, confirmed this year as the nation’s first Black (pending) Supreme Court justice.
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott directed state agencies to block books with “overtly sexual” content (see: LGBTQ+ and any young adult plot). In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation that requires elementary schools to post searchable library databases, essentially creating a literary hit list. In Wyoming, a prosecutor considered criminal charges against public librarians who stocked
This repressive fever is just one of many illnesses in a long history of U.S. conservative censorship that targets any literature that has the temerity to transcend a narrow, explicit purview. A February CBS news poll, however, found that 87% of Americans reject banning books. At The Manual, we agree, supporting
Here are a few tomes that might be illegal in your town’s schools and libraries. Feel free to crack a spine to learn what might lie behind these insidious works. And if you’re so motivated, pass a book or two on to the young people in your life.
By now, news of Maus’ unanimous ban at the hands of a Tennessee school district has reached most corners of the country. With this light shown on a dark corner, more people, young and old, know of Art Spiegleman’s epic, black-and-white graphic narrative.
Spiegelman depicts Holocaust victims as mice and their Nazi oppressors as cats, approaching the unspeakable through an anthropomorphic mien that reduces shocks with the unfamiliar. The story is a remembrance from Vladek Spiegelman, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor. The narrative bridges a tortured relationship with Vladek’s son, a cartoonist struggling to come to terms with his father’s story. Spiegelman pulls no punches, depicting the horrors of human violence, pointing at history’s bloody paw prints, creating definition through cartoon.
This is another confessional memoir in which author Maia Kobabe, who uses e/em/eir pronouns, felt no comfort in relating to strangers as a kid trying to grow up alien to existence beyond eir eyes. Through Gender Queer, Kobabe finds catharsis through eir harrowing journey of ruthless adolescent halls. Mortification and confusion at adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, and utter bewilderment at how to face menstruating as a nonbinary individual are just a few of the daily burdens Kobabe carries and struggles to overcome.
Started as a way to explain to eir family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer was the country’s most challenged book in 2021. In an op-ed at The Washington Post, Kobabe defended the vitality of books like Gender Queer in the face of pornographic claims.
“Queer youth are often forced to look outside their own homes, and outside the education system, to find information on who they are. Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies and health,” Kobabe wrote.
Angie Thomas’ 2017 debut novel, The Hate U Give, takes a rebellious look at succumbing to violence with violence.
A 16-year-old, Starr Carter, is one of an entire neighborhood that must deal with a devastating act of police brutality. Carter is forced to navigate disparate worlds — the low-income, low-resource neighborhood where she lives and the fancy, well-stocked suburban prep academy where she attends school. The precarious balance between these contrasts upends when Carter witnesses the fatal police shooting of her childhood best friend, Khalil, who was unarmed.
The Hate U Give was an instant bestseller and one of the fastest books to make it to banned book lists. Challenged for its “anti-police message” in several districts, the novel is actually an important reflection of both sides of this explosive issue. As the teenage Carter navigates fraught, tense relationships (including with her stand-up, police officer uncle) to find out why Khalil was shot, readers face the causes and potential damage of entrenched prejudice and what we might be able to do together to combat it.
In this hilarious, heart-breaking novel, bestselling author Sherman Alexie weaves a semi-autobiographical tale of growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, aka “the rez.” Alongside poignant drawings by Ellen Forney, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian finds Junior, a budding cartoonist, who is determined to take his future into his hands, no matter how much he has to fight to get by. Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Native is the school mascot.
The all-American tale of pulling oneself up by your bootstraps apparently doesn’t apply when it comes to an Indian. The book’s controversy stems from alcohol abuse, poverty conditions, bullying and violence, sexuality, profanity, and racial slurs. As a result, dozens of schools have challenged it, ignoring how this might spread some perspective and reality about the place that every U.S. student is from.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Alexie addressed these 15 years of challenges to his book.
“I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons — in the form of words and ideas — that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.”
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is an original banned book, getting kicked off of shelves almost as soon as it was published.
The dystopian novel is set in 2540, in a futuristic world known as the “World State,” wherein advanced science and technologies are shaping utopia by producing genetically modified babies. The cuddly little machine-made humans are also conditioned in metal utero with specific moral values to be subsequently raised in strict social castes. The powers that be keep people in these social striations by encouraging regular and casual sex and consuming an opioid-like upper called soma.
The novel was first banned in Ireland in 1932 for obvious reasons, and it was quickly followed up by the Aussies in the same. The U.S. did its part with eight states filing for censorship of Huxley’s blasphemous book that dared to ask about the trade-off between happiness and freedom.
Brave New World was rated #3 on the American Library Association’s 2010 list of most challenged books, as nine decades of challengers stood up to students sowing critical thought through literature.
Following in the rebellious footsteps of Brave New World is John Green’s Looking for Alaska, which was also deigned to depict a sexual scene. This landed the young adult novel at #1 on the most challenged books of 2015.
The book’s story follows Miles “Pudge” Halter as he enrolls in a coed Alabama boarding school out of searching for ambition. While there, Halter forges a tight group of friends and falls in love with the mysterious Alaska Young. As can be expected of adolescents, Looking for Alaska features a fair amount of smoking, drinking, swearing, and awkward sex. A touching coming-of-age saga, the novel won the ALA’s 2006 Michael L. Printz Award. The book’s protagonists wrestle with issues like grief, hope, the meaning of life, and eventually, how to forge ahead in the face of tragedy.
In a wide-ranging and lucent response to its banning on YouTube, Green said, “So far as I can tell, that kind of narrowly prescriptive reading only happens in the offices of school superintendents. If you have a worldview that can be undone with a novel, let me submit that the problem is not with the novel.”
Senator Cruz will be happy to hear that after his tirade against a toddler book, sales of Ibram X. Kendi’s Anitracist Baby spiked 5,150%, selling 10,814 copies in the week of March 20 through 26, compared to 206 copies the week prior, according to the NPD BookScan.
Understandably, there are things that parents have to keep their children safe from. Literary learning to better comprehend complexity through books is one that goes to maintaining the very foundation of this country.
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