Banned Books Week: 3 Frequently Asked Questions About Book Bans, Answered

(Photo via Tom Hermans on Unsplash)

By Karel Vega

October 3, 2023

From explaining book bans to what you can do to help stop them, we have answers for you here.

Book bans are among the most serious threats to education and freedom of speech in the United States. As part of Banned Books Week, we’re answering three of our readers’ most frequently asked questions about them.

1. What does it mean to ban a book?

Book banning begins with book challenges. Book challenges are objections to books from a person or a group, and that person or group’s actions to attempt to restrict access to the books for others. Here are the top three reasons given for book challenges, according to the Office of Intellectual Freedom:

  • The book was considered “sexually explicit.”
  • The book had “offensive language.”
  • The book was “unsuited to any age group.”

As you can imagine, challenging books walks a thin line between good intentions and censorship. Book challenges frequently lead to book bans when a person or a small group of people becomes louder and more persistent than the majority of people who don’t want the ban.

According to PEN America (an organization dedicated to creative expression through literature), lawmakers and extremist groups have targeted certain books for removal from schools and libraries for decades. Typically, these groups are trying to suppress anything that conflicts with their own beliefs.

In Michigan, 359 titles were challenged in 2022.

These challenged books tend to be written by women, authors of color, and LGBTQ+ authors. The books often include subjects about the history and experiences of slavery and racism in our country, the history and experiences of sexism and gender inequality in our country, and issues and experiences dealing with sexuality and reproductive health.

A book ban happens “when an objection to the content of a specific book or type of book leads to that volume being withdrawn either fully or partially from availability, or when a blanket prohibition or absolute restriction is placed on a particular title within a school or a district.” Source

Since 2021, PEN America has counted 6,000 book bans across the US.

It’s worth noting: According to the American Library Association, before 2020, most library book challenges happened when one parent tried to restrict access to a book their child was reading. “However, in 2022, 90% of reported book challenges were demands to censor multiple titles—and of those demands to censor library books, 40% sought to remove or restrict more than 100 books all at once.”

2. Where are we with book bans in Michigan?

In 2022, there were 54 attempts to restrict books in Michigan, encompassing more than 350 titles, according to figures from the American Library Association (ALA). Some challenged books in Michigan included:

  • Push by Sapphire
  • Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America by Ijeoma Oluo
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

But the most challenged title of 2022 in Michigan, according to the ALA, was All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson. The book focuses on Johnson’s life growing up as a queer Black man.

We’ve also seen other egregious attempts at blocking access to literature recently here in the Mitten.

During the 2022 midterms, residents of an Ottawa County township voted down a library millage after staff refused to get rid of LGBTQ+ books, putting the entire library in danger of closure due to a lack of funding. The library is now trying to compromise with locals by adding content warnings in books, in hopes that they’ll approve a new millage this November. And earlier this summer, a campaign in Ferndale called “Hide the Pride” was aimed at checking out all LGBTQ+-themed books from the local library during Pride Month, to restrict access to folks who actually wanted to read those titles.

But advocates for literature are fighting back.

In August, the Michigan Library Association launched a campaign encouraging Michiganders to oppose censorship and efforts to ban books in the state. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission has additionally been trying to get Michigan Attorney Dana Nessel to issue an opinion on whether banning LGBTQ books from public libraries constitutes discrimination.

3. How can Michiganders fight book bans?

A coalition of advocates for literature, including the ALA and PEN America, have declared Oct. 7 “Let Freedom Read Day.” The groups are asking people to take at least one action that day to help defend books.

Here are some suggestions:

Reach out to a decision maker. Whether they are members of a school administration or elected representatives, reach out via phone call or email and ask them to support the right to read. Find your elected officials here.

Check out a book that’s been banned somewhere else. Book circulation matters and directly impacts the figures that justify ordering more books at libraries.

Buy a banned book for you or a library. Support the authors of these books to make sure they can keep writing. You can also donate purchased books to schools or libraries. Here are some places to buy banned books, including used copies.

Contact the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom if you hear of a challenge near you. Find them here.

Stream a Banned Books Week webinar here.

Record yourself reading. Film yourself reading from your favorite banned book, then submit the video to be featured on the Banned Books Week YouTube channel.

Host your own banned bookmobile. Here’s a kit for getting started.

Write a letter: One of support to a challenged or banned author (addresses and social media profiles can be found on the ALA’s Dear Banned Author page), or one to your local newspaper’s editor.

Download the Red, Wine & Blue Parent Playbook: A Step-By-Step Guide for Mainstream Moms Who’ve Had Enough BS.

Use the hashtag #bannedbooksweek.

For more actions you can take against book bans, visit the Let Freedom Read Day page here.

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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