‘Gender Queer’ tops the ALA’s ‘Most Challenged Books of 2021’ list

Half the books on 2021’s top 10 list were targeted for including LGBTQIA+ content.

In a year that saw the highest number of book challenges in libraries and schools since the ALA began compiling data on the topic, the graphic novel Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe topped the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books for 2021.

More than 700 book challenges — which are reported attempts by citizens and parents to have books removed from their public library or a school library — were recorded by the ALA, a record number since they began sharing data and making this list in 2000. This resulted in almost 1,600 individual book challenges or removals, as some challenges were against multiple titles.

“The 729 challenges tracked by ALA represent the highest number of attempted book bans since we began compiling these lists 20 years ago,” said ALA President Patricia “Patty” Wong. “We support individual parents’ choices concerning their child’s reading and believe that parents should not have those choices dictated by others. Young people need to have access to a variety of books from which they can learn about different perspectives. So, despite this organized effort to ban books, libraries remain ready to do what we always have: make knowledge and ideas available so people are free to choose what to read.”

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

Gender Queer was published by Oni Press in 2019 and went on to receive a Stonewall Honor Award and an Alex Award. (Our own Alex Dueben spoke with the creator at the time of its publication). Kobabe’s graphic novel has since been at the center of the ongoing culture war between progressives and conservatives, which the creator notes is likely because of the title and the publicity its received:

“In many ways, it almost doesn’t feel like it’s about my book at all,” Kobabe told Slate recently. “So many of the people who have started challenges against my book say in their opening statements, ‘I haven’t read the book, but …’ My book has the words gender and queer in the title. So if you are keyword searching in a library catalog for books that you maybe are not going to agree with, it will come up at the top of the list. I really think that my book has just been pulled in as a talking point into this culture war conversation, as you said, and in many ways it doesn’t feel personal to me at all. It just feels like my book was positioned in a place to get caught in this whirlwind.”

And it has been a whirlwind. I wasn’t surprised to see Gender Queer top this year’s list, based on the number of news stories about challenges last year. Notably, it’s the only graphic novel on the list this year, but far from the only title that featured LGBTQIA+ content. Here’s the full list, with the most common reasons why each book was challenged:

  1. “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe
    Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to have sexually explicit images.
  1. “Lawn Boy,” by Jonathan Evison
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.
  1. “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, profanity, and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.
  1. “Out of Darkness,” by Ashley Hope Perez
    Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted for depictions of abuse and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.
  1. “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, violence, and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda.
  1. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references and use of a derogatory term.
  1. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Jesse Andrews
    Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and degrading to women.   
  1. “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Banned and challenged because it depicts child sexual abuse and was considered sexually explicit.  
  1. “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson
    Reasons: Banned, challenged, relocated, and restricted for providing sexual education and LGBTQIA+ content.
  1. “Beyond Magenta,” by Susan Kuklin
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.

The ALA’s State of the America’s Libraries report has a lot more good information on book banning and what they’re doing to fight against this unprecedented wave. And it’s going broader than just the local library or school — many states are pushing through their own bills (like Idaho’s HB 666 or Texas House Bill 3979, which is supported by Matt Krause, who wants to ban all the books) that target books, libraries and librarians. With this year being an election year and cries of “obscene books” being forced on school children serving as an easy way to rile up your base, especially in more conservative areas, no doubt we’ll see more challenges between now and November. This Thursday the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will host a livestream on “politically motivated efforts to ban books and censor free speech in schools and public libraries.” So not every politician is on the wrong side here.

And here’s some more good news: most Americans are against these bans. A poll conducted by the ALA shows that “large majorities of voters (71%) oppose efforts to have books removed from their local public libraries, including a majority of Democrats (75%), independents (58%), and Republicans (70%). Most voters and parents hold librarians in high regard, have confidence in their local libraries to make good decisions about what books to include in their collections, and agree that libraries in their communities do a good job offering books that represent a variety of viewpoints.”

I’ll end with another quote by Kobabe, who sums up why this is an important fight to have — these bans aren’t saving kids; they’re hurting them:

“What I’m learning is that a book challenge is like a community attacking itself,” Kobabe said. “The people who are hurt in a challenge are the marginalized readers in the community where the challenge takes place. That is readers who are younger, readers who do not have the financial means to buy books if they’re not available for free in the library. That is queer teens who might not feel comfortable bringing a book with such an obvious title into their home, if they have more conservative parents who would only feel safe reading the book secretly in the library without even checking it out. So yes, it upsets me because what I’m seeing is resources being taken away from queer marginalized youth, which does hurt. That does hurt me.”

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