In February of 2022, Art Spiegleman’s Maus was removed from schools by the McMinn County school board in Tennessee. Their reasoning? “Too many swear words (eight examples), and a drawing of a bare-breasted mouse.” Maus is a graphic novel that explores the Holocaust depicting Germans as cats and Jews as mice. Many school districts have used it to cover the difficult topic of the Holocaust without using direct imagery.
Book bans exist in every culture, and they have been a part of American culture since its inception. But just as we see cultural issues increasingly fuel anger in our politics, book bans are also on the rise in tandem with them. Book bans have increased according to the American Library Association (ALA). The period between September 1 and November 30 of 2021 saw double the amount—330—of ban cases from the same period the year before. That same number equals near the total of all banned book cases they tracked for 2019.
It’s important to note that the ALA does not ban books, but they do receive reports on the ban of books in local communities, such as the McMinn County example. The ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of books with the most challenges or bans and releases that information. A challenge is one that attempts to restrict access to a book, such as making it only accessible to certain ages, whereas a ban tries to remove a book from shelves altogether. The ALA is steadfast in its commitment to anti-censorship, and they created Banned Books Week as a tool of awareness to inform the public about the issue.
The issues that incite passion in people shift based on the issues of the day. For example, here are a few of the banned books from the 1950s: The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum for its depiction of witchcraft, 1984 by George Orwell for its criticism of anti-authoritarian regimes, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence for its sexual content. It becomes clear looking back how we had little to fear from these books, which is precisely why the ALA keeps track of this issue.
As mentioned above, book bans follow cultural disagreements, and the largest concentration of books that come under scrutiny today from those that want them banned have themes around gender and sexuality. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe is the number one book that receives ban requests according to the American Library Association. It is followed by Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson. All three books contain LGBTQIA+ content. As the issues that marginalized people face become addressed in mainstream conversation, those that seek to push back against them find tools to weaken their arguments; in this case, the knowledge is provided by books. Awareness seems to be one of the strongest tools to fight back against this discrimination, which is precisely what the ALA provides.