Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir by Jacqueline Woodson about her childhood as a young African American girl in the 1960s and 1970s, told in verse. The Story of Ruby Bridges, a picture book that tells the true story of the 6-year-old Black girl who integrated a whites-only school. The Hate U Give, a young adult novel about the aftermath of a police officer killing a Black teenager.
In recent months, these books and others have been challenged by parents and community members under the guise that they’re promoting critical race theory, an academic framework that says racism is a systemic, societal problem.
For years, educators have pushed for more diverse books in classrooms and school libraries, emphasizing the importance of children of color seeing themselves reflected in the pages. And while progress has been made, some experts worry that the current debates over how race is addressed in schools may discourage certain stories from being taught.
That’s why Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by a coalition of organizations dedicated to free expression, held this week, has taken on new meaning this year.
“We’re seeing a real effort to stigmatize any works dealing with race in America or the experience of Black, Indigenous, or people of color under this rubric … of critical race theory, even though these works have nothing to do with critical race theory,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which monitors challenges to books in K-12 schools, colleges, and libraries.
Every year, the ALA publishes a list of the top 10 most challenged books, based on voluntary reporting and news articles. In 2019, the list was dominated by books that featured LGBTQ characters and themes. But in 2020, while some LGBTQ books still made and topped the list, there were also several books about racism, including: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a middle-grades adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s book about the history of racist ideas in America; All American Boys, a young adult novel that follows the perspectives of both a Black and a white teen after a racist instance of police violence; Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice, a children’s book about the aftermath of a police shooting of a Black man; and The Hate U Give.
This year, said Caldwell-Stone, the ALA is still seeing a “rising number” of challenges to books that deal with racism and Black American history, as well as continued challenges to books featuring LGBTQ characters. Critical race theory is cited in many of the complaints, she said, and challenges to books discussing LGBTQ issues fall under that umbrella.
Twelve states have in recent months enacted laws or other policies that restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can talk about racism, sexism, and gender identity.
In most cases, however, the challenged books have little to do with the academic framework of critical race theory, which posits that racism isn’t just the product of individual bias but is embedded in legal systems and policies.
“There is an assumption that everything Black is critical race theory,” said Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Education. “The presence of diverse children is not liberal politics—diverse children exist in the world.”
Challenges could create a chilling effect
On the other side of the coin, some books—like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—have been challenged for what some see as problematic portrayals of Black people. But experts say that challenges against books by Black authors or that focus on racism have been more common lately.
“Challenges are on the rise, without question,” said Emily Kirkpatrick, the executive director for the National Council of Teachers of English. “Authors that are widely respected and have been taught for years are challenged now, as well as perhaps newer authors or authors who are less known. It’s a real disservice to not only teachers, but students.” (NCTE offers advice and support to teachers who are being faced with censorship challenges.)
Teachers should be trusted to select books that resonate with their students, she said, but with the deep national divisions and the fervor of the critical race theory debate, teachers are anticipating challenges for any book that discusses race or features characters of color.
The National Council of Teachers of English collects teachers’ reports of anticipated and actual challenges to books in their classrooms. These seven titles were challenged—or had anticipated challenges—based on concerns that they were promoting critical race theory or potentially divisive concepts.
- All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
- Monday’s Not Coming, by Tiffany D. Jackson
- Monster, by Walter Dean Myers
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
- The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo
- Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See
- The Undefeated, by Kwame Alexander
“It could create a chilling effect where teachers stick to what they’ve always taught because they perceive it’ll be an easier pathway, there will be less resistance, and that’s such a loss to society, to students, and to teachers,” Kirkpatrick said.
In York, Pa., the school board’s decision last November to “freeze” a long list of books and resources drafted by the district’s diversity committee has roiled the community. The Central York School Board has said that this was not a ban on books, as no materials were removed from the district’s libraries, but that board members wanted to review the suggested materials and seek additional community input before deploying them in schools.
The list of resources featured professional development books for educators about culturally competent teaching and dismantling biases. And it had books for students, including works that featured characters of color, were by authors of color, and/or were about diversity. Those titles ranged from Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest, a chapter book series about a kindergartner of color who solves problems using the scientific method, to Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.
“While some might be quote-unquote controversial, a vast majority of them were just books with Black characters in them—not even about race necessarily,” said Jamie Hill, a Black parent in the district who serves on the diversity committee. He added that the list included books about several influential people, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, and Malala Yousafzai.
High school students in the district protested the board’s decision to freeze the reading list, and teachers spoke out against the board’s influence on their curriculum. “There are teachers looking over their shoulders wondering if someone’s going to be at their door, darkening their door, saying you said something or you mentioned something or used something that you were not supposed to,” teacher Patricia Jackson told CNN.
Parents were divided about the restrictions, Hill said. Some parents were appalled at the board’s decision, while others were afraid critical race theory was being introduced and that their children would be made to feel guilty for being white.
Some parents would say things like, “What if my child’s feelings are hurt?” Hill said. “I’ve heard a lot of that. But what about my child’s feelings?”
On Sept. 20, nearly a year after first freezing the list, the school board announced that it would “immediately release the list” and revisit the review process at a later time.
“What we are attempting to do is balance legitimate academic freedom with what could be literature/materials that are too activist in nature, and may lean more toward indoctrination rather than age-appropriate academic content,” said Jane Johnson, the president of the school board, in a statement. “To that end, we recognize the intensity of opinions on all sides of these issues, and we are committed to making this long delay right.”
Hill said he worries that when board members do a more comprehensive review, they’ll pull some of the books that explicitly focus on anti-racism.
“Maybe books like I Am Human won’t be banned, but A Is for Activist will be,” Hill said. “If a book brings up whiteness or equity, … those are going to be the ‘bad books.’ … There is nothing on this list that is egregious or false. These are people’s experiences.”
Teach books that resonate with students, educators say
Books should be both windows and mirrors, author and education researcher Rudine Sims Bishop once wrote—they should expose readers to new worlds and perspectives while also reflecting their own experiences. And students are more likely to want to read books that they can relate to, educators say.
“If our goal is to create readers—who want to read and find reading a source of affirmation—we need to expand our canon,” said Pamela Mason, a senior lecturer on education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Ryan McHale began teaching The Hate U Give to his 8th graders in central Massachusetts three years ago and found that his students enjoyed reading and discussing the book.
“There’s a little bit of something for everyone,” he said. His Black students feel seen and heard while reading the book, while his LGBTQ and immigrant students resonate with the code-switching that’s featured in the plot. And all students can appreciate the central theme of finding your voice and standing up for what’s right, McHale said.
The book is often challenged for its profanity, but McHale said there’s nothing in there that kids don’t already say. The N-word appears in the book, but McHale always has a conversation with students before they get to that chapter to acknowledge the history of the word and why McHale, who is white, will not say it, even when reading the book aloud. He also pauses every five or six chapters to have a day dedicated to discussing what’s happening in the book.
Still, he has received some pushback from parents for teaching the book, and he’s anticipating more this year due to the anti-critical-race-theory rhetoric.
“I have been labeled by a few parents as a woke indoctrinator,” McHale said. “I was accused of trying to make white kids feel guilty for being white.”
But books like The Hate U Give cover difficult and powerful concepts “in a way that is humanizing and possibility-driven,” said Kimberly Parker, a literacy consultant and the co-founder of #DisruptTexts, a grassroots effort to bring more diverse books into classrooms.
“There are people who don’t want to be uncomfortable; they don’t want to have to turn and face and confront the history of this country,” she said. But “children are aware of race. I think it’s our responsibility to really make our classrooms spaces where we can have conversations and the discourse and the dialogue that we need to be able to put young people out in the world.”
After all, Mason said, banning books won’t stop teenagers from reading them.
“Once you make something forbidden, it becomes all the more attractive,” she said. “Children will find those books one way or another, but if that’s how they’re getting them—[without] an adult role model to help them put [the story] in context—I find that, as an educator, more troubling.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as Calls to Ban Books by Black Authors Are Increasing Amid Critical Race Theory Debates