Banned Books

I received my first article of banned book clothing for Christmas last year: a pair of socks from the philanthropic company Out of Print. One sock listed a compilation of banned books; the other noted the same books, but they were redacted. It made me wonder how many books have been banned over the years, why they were contested, and how libraries respond to objections over controversial books.

The subject of banned books is not new. Librarians have routinely faced scrutiny of materials and collections deemed inappropriate or objectionable to certain populations and have had to navigate complaints on an almost daily basis. This will no doubt continue into the future and may even increase, given the current contentiousness in our society.

However, the term “banned” is actually a misnomer. The more appropriate label would be “challenged,” as books are rarely banned outright from libraries, thanks to the perseverance and passion of individual librarians.

According to the ALA’s most recent statistics, there were 323 challenges to books in 2016. The top ten most challenged titles were:

  1. "This One Summer" – written by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki

  2. "Drama" – written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier

  3. "George" – written by Alex Gino

  4. "I Am Jazz" – written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas

  5. "Two Boys Kissing" – written by David Levithan

  6. "Looking for Alaska" – written by John Green

  7. "Big Hard Sex Criminals" – written by Matt Fraction, illustrated by Chip Zdarsky

  8. "Make Something Up: Stories You Can’t Unread" – written by Chuck Palahniuk

  9. "Little Bill" (series) – written by Bill Cosby, illustrated by Varnette P. Honeywood

  10. "Eleanor & Park" – written by Rainbow Rowell

Reasons for these challenges, which will come as a surprise to no one, range from LGBTQ themes (e.g., "This One Summer") and explicitly sexually situations ("Looking for Alaska") to politically divisive content ("Drama") and even the behavior of the author ("Little Bill"). Additional reasons books are challenged include violence, negativity, religious affiliations, and varying degrees of age inappropriateness.

What these titles have in common is that they all have offended someone, somewhere. That said, the underlying cause of the challenges is often a fundamental misunderstanding of each book’s actual content and message. Therefore, when addressing challenges from patrons, it is imperative for libraries to have a clear, fair, and thorough set of policies and procedures in place. These should include:

  • Obtaining buy-in and approval from the library’s committee

  • Making forms available to record in detail who has objected to the material and why

  • Creating a committee of employees, board members, and patrons to review the challenges

  • Developing a set of guidelines for the committee to follow when discussing objections

  • Plans for communicating decisions in a timely and respectful manner

  • Conveying reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with the objections (When deciding to "veto" the patron's challenge, this would include diplomatically addressing how the patron has misunderstood the intent of the book in question and outlining why the library feels strongly about including the book in its collection.)

In addition, there is a variety of resources available to help libraries navigate this sensitive area, including a set of detailed approaches created by the ALA via their Challenge Support portal ( These include:

  • How to respond to challenges and concerns about library resources

  • Formal written requests for reconsideration

  • Guidelines for reconsideration committees

  • Working with the media

Preparation is paramount to successful defense of intellectual freedom. The more libraries are prepared for—and confident in their procedures to deal with—challenges to materials, the more successful they will be in not only maintaining a diverse and healthy collection, but minimizing the impact those objections have on the library as well.

For your viewing pleasure, Brodart has compiled a list of the most frequently challenged books from 1990-2016, courtesy of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom: Banned/Frequently Challenged Books

Here's a quick reference of the top 10 most challenged books, by year, since 2001: