What I Learned From Reading the 10 Most-Banned Books of the Past Year| Banned Books Week 2021

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Book banning. It’s almost like a curse word.

As an advocate for freedom of speech and freedom of thought, I am wholeheartedly opposed to book banning of any kind. Whether it’s for “dangerous ideas”, “political viewpoints”, or “inappropriate content,” I believe that to censor books is to eventually stamp out critical thinking.

I believe that you can dislike a book and the content in it as much as you want, but you cannot stop others from reading it and interpreting it for themselves.

While I’ve discussed things like politics in books, I will never try to stop someone from reading a book with which I disagree, because I believe everyone has the right to come to their own conclusions. Critically engaging with a book is infinitely more productive than banning it.

And yes– there are some things I wouldn’t necessarily like an innocent elementary schooler reading about, but I believe that decision should be up to them and their parents– not the school or government, because children are individuals with different levels of sensitivity and maturity.

This year, in honor of Banned Books Week, I decided to read the 10 most-challenged books of 2020.
(*I, uh, did not get to one of them, but we’re just going to ignore that!)

Without further ado, let’s get on to the list!

10) The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Reasons: Challenged for profanity, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message

My Rating: 3.5/5

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping YA novel about one girl’s struggle for justice.

My Thoughts:

I actually read this book in the spring of 2020. I thought it was a very well-written look into current events and it definitely helped me further develop my understanding of issues like racism and police brutality in the US. I didn’t necessarily agree with every aspect of the politics pushed in the book (it is a very political book) but I thought it was a worthwhile read and the author did a good job of supporting all her points.

9) The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and depicts child sexual abuse

My rating: 3.5/5 stars

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

“The Bluest Eye is Toni Morrison’s first novel, a book heralded for its richness of language and boldness of vision. Set in the author’s girlhood hometown of Lorain, Ohio, it tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. In the autumn of 1941, the year the marigolds in the Breedloves’ garden do not bloom. Pecola’s life does change- in painful, devastating ways.
What its vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child’s yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment. The Bluest Eye remains one of Toni Morrisons’s most powerful, unforgettable novels- and a significant work of American fiction.

My Thoughts:

Yeah… this book was definitely sexually explicit. However– it was an important look into a topic I haven’t thought about much: colorism. The main conflict of the story is Pecola’s struggle with being looked down upon for her darker skin tone and wanting to be “like white girls.” It was a very emotional story and the writing was beautiful.

8) Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students

My rating: 2/5 stars

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

“An intimate portrait of two men who cherish the slim bond between them and the dream they share in a world marred by petty tyranny, misunderstanding, jealousy, and callousness. Clinging to each other in their loneliness and alienation, George and his simple-minded friend Lennie dream, as drifters will, of a place to call their own—a couple of acres and a few pigs, chickens, and rabbits back in Hill Country where land is cheap. But after they come to work on a ranch in the fertile Salinas Valley of California, their hopes, like “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men,” begin to go awry.

Of Mice and Men also represents an experiment in form, as Steinbeck described his work, “a kind of playable novel, written in novel form but so scened and set that it can be played as it stands.” A rarity in American letters, it achieved remarkable success as a novel, a Broadway play, and three acclaimed films. Steinbeck’s tale of commitment, loneliness, hope, and loss remains one of America’s most widely read and beloved novels.”

My Thoughts:

Unfortunately, Of Mice and Men falls into the camp of classics I didn’t like all that much. It was a short book but felt inexplicably long, nothing much happened throughout the story, and in a classic, totally unpredictable Steinbeck move, the ending was incredibly depressing.

7) To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Reasons: Banned and challenged for racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a “white savior” character, and its perception of the Black experience

My Rating: 5/5 stars

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

“The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

My Thoughts:

I read To Kill A Mockingbird in freshman year and absolutely loved it. Much of the criticism of this book stems from the idea that it has a “white savior narrative.”

The point of the book is not to showcase Atticus as Tom’s “white savior.” The point of the book is to reveal the injustice of racism from the eyes of a child living in an environment steeped in it. The point of the book is Scout waking up to the reality that the community she loved and trusted would prosecute an innocent man on the basis of his skin color. The fact that the “hero” is white does not affect this message.

6) Something Happened In Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin*

Reasons: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Something Happened in Our Town follows two families — one White, one Black — as they discuss a police shooting of a Black man in their community. The story aims to answer children’s questions about such traumatic events, and to help children identify and counter racial injustice in their own lives.”

So….. awkward moment, but I never actually got to read this one. I could not find it on Libby or at my library and so I just left it as the one book of this challenge for which I cheated. Sorry. I’m so sorry.

If you have read this book, please let me know in the comments!

5) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references, and allegations of sexual misconduct by the author

My Rating: 4/5 stars

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

“Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot.

My Thoughts:

I enjoyed The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for its look into life on a reservation and the lasting implications of racism/discrimination on communities. The book was well-written and the characters all felt real; I finished it in an hour and was left feeling like I learned a lot.

4) Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted because it was thought to contain a political viewpoint and it was claimed to be biased against male students, and for the novel’s inclusion of rape and profanity

My Rating: 5/5 stars

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

“The first ten lies they tell you in high school.

Speak up for yourself—we want to know what you have to say.’

From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether. Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication.

In Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerful novel, an utterly believable heroine with a bitterly ironic voice delivers a blow to the hypocritical world of high school. She speaks for many a disenfranchised teenager while demonstrating the importance of speaking up for oneself.

My Thoughts:

I read this book a little over a year ago and loved it. It is extremely heartfelt and I would recommend it to everyone– especially high school freshmen.

(Read my full review for this book here!)

3) All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, drug use, and alcoholism, and because it was thought to promote anti-police views, contain divisive topics, and be “too much of a sensitive matter right now”

My Rating: 3/5 stars

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

“Rashad is absent again today.

That’s the sidewalk graffiti that started it all…

Well, no, actually, a lady tripping over Rashad at the store, making him drop a bag of chips, was what started it all. Because it didn’t matter what Rashad said next—that it was an accident, that he wasn’t stealing—the cop just kept pounding him. Over and over, pummeling him into the pavement. So then Rashad, an ROTC kid with mad art skills, was absent again…and again…stuck in a hospital room. Why? Because it looked like he was stealing. And he was a black kid in baggy clothes. So he must have been stealing.

And that’s how it started.

And that’s what Quinn, a white kid, saw. He saw his best friend’s older brother beating the daylights out of a classmate. At first Quinn doesn’t tell a soul…He’s not even sure he understands it. And does it matter? The whole thing was caught on camera, anyway. But when the school—and nation—start to divide on what happens, blame spreads like wildfire fed by ugly words like “racism” and “police brutality.” Quinn realizes he’s got to understand it, because, bystander or not, he’s a part of history. He just has to figure out what side of history that will be.

Rashad and Quinn—one black, one white, both American—face the unspeakable truth that racism and prejudice didn’t die after the civil rights movement. There’s a future at stake, a future where no one else will have to be absent because of police brutality. They just have to risk everything to change the world.

Cuz that’s how it can end.”

My Thoughts:

I thought this book was decently well-written although it did adopt a slang/gen Z style ostensibly to get us into the boys’ heads. Some reviewers have criticized this, but I thought it helped to establish verisimilitude. The writing style and political/social issues discussions were a little simplistic and “young YA”-ish, though. (I’m the same age as the protagonists but they felt younger than me) Full Goodreads review!

2) Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi

Reasons: Banned and challenged because of author’s public statements, and because of claims that the book contains “selective storytelling incidents” and does not encompass racism against all people

My Rating: 1/5 stars

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

A timely, crucial, and empowering exploration of racism–and antiracism–in America.

This is NOT a history book.
This is a book about the here and now.
A book to help us better understand why we are where we are.
A book about race.

The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, to create dynamics that separate and silence. This is a remarkable reimagining of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, winner of a National Book Award. It reveals the history of racist ideas in America and inspires hope for an antiracist future.

Stamped takes you on a race journey from then to now, shows you why we feel how we feel, and why the poison of racism lingers. It also proves that while racist ideas have always been easy to fabricate and distribute, they can also be discredited.

Through a gripping, fast-paced, and energizing narrative, Jason Reynolds shines a light on the many insidious forms of racist ideas–and on ways readers can identify and stamp out racist thoughts in their daily lives.”

My Thoughts:

I rated this book low because while I appreciate the intent of the book, I unfortunately found several inaccuracies that made it hard to trust its historical integrity. Read my analysis here!

1) George by Alex Gino

Reasons: Challenged, banned, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting “the values of our community”

My Rating: 2/5 stars

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

“When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl.

George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really, really, REALLY wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part . . . because she’s a boy.

With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan. Not just so she can be Charlotte — but so everyone can know who she is, once and for all.”

My Thoughts:

While I appreciate books that tackle contentious issues, this one was just…. not very good. The writing was bad, the issue of transgenderism was simplified to “well I feel like I’m a girl because I like seventeen magazine/makeup/being Princess Peach in Mario Kart” and the characters felt like half-developed outlines of people– I think they would have more depth if the book was a bit longer, but to be fair this is a middle-grade so the length was typical for the target audience

Also it SPOILS Charlotte’s Web, blatantly, several times. Nooooooooo! (This is one of my biggest pet peeves in literature, ever)

Well, those are all the books on the most-challenged list for 2020! Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think? Do you like reading banned books?

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Classical music piece of the day: Yiruma- When the Love Falls

This song sounds so hopeless but I can’t stop listening to it.

9 comments on “What I Learned From Reading the 10 Most-Banned Books of the Past Year| Banned Books Week 2021”

  1. This is such a good post idea, and I admire your commitment to reading all of these! I completely agree – while some topics are probably not the most appropriate for children, the decision on whether or not they should read books that include them should never be made by governments or school boards. That, to me, sounds like a dangerous infringement of freedom of speech and thought. And yes, we shouldn’t underestimate that, most of the time, children tend to be pretty mature about knowing what kinds of things they want to read and can handle in books!
    I haven’t read that many of these, but we seem to agree on some and and disagree on others 🤣 Like you, I LOVED To Kill A Mockingbird, and never felt it promoted the “white savior” message. I also loved The Hate U Give, or any of Angie Thomas’ books really, but hated Speak 😅 To be honest, I don’t really remember all too much of my reasoning since it’s been a while since I read it, but I remember finding it way too depressing and the reactions of the secondary characters unbelievable… But I’m glad you seem to have gotten a lot more out of it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting! Absolutely– I don’t think the government/school/etc. should be making decisions on what children can read; that responsibility rests with their parents, and I agree with you that people often underestimate the maturity of kids. Sorry to hear you didn’t like Speak!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! I’m surprised by how many popular books were actually banned. Angie Thomas recently tweeted that book sales of THUG increased in a Texas school district after the district had banned it. Ironically, banning books makes people only more intrigued to read them 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating post again. I agree so much with your thoughts on banned books. I may not want to read them myself, but I think anyone should be able to read them who wants to. I also loved To Kill a Mockingbird, and agree that It was more about Scout and her learning about racism.

    Liked by 1 person

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