The American Library Association says books with antiracist messages climbed the list of most-challenged or banned titles in 2020

  • Books about racism were challenged more in 2020 than previous years, the ALA told Insider.
  • The organization released its list of the 10 most challenged and banned books.
  • It included a children’s book about a police shooting, which caused controversy in Minneapolis. 
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

More Americans were challenging and seeking to ban books about racism and antiracism in 2020 than previous years, according to the American Library Association (ALA). 

The group’s 2020 Top 10 Most Challenged Books list, released this week, mirrored a growing conversation about race and racial equity in the US, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, told Insider.

“This year — and I think it reflects what our nation’s growing concern with racial injustice and the incidents of police violence against black persons — we’ve seen an increase in challenges to antiracist books and books that criticized police violence,” she said. 

Books for children and young adults made the 2020 ALA list, including “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice,” written by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, and illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin.

That book, which was a New York Times bestseller, detailed conversations between kids and their families after a fictional police-involved shooting of a Black man. 

“Something Happened” attracted attention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the months before the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin over the killing of George Floyd.

The book had been recommended by the state’s Dept. of Health and the Dept. of Education. But the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association — which Chauvin’s would later turn to for defense funds, according to Mother Jones — sent a letter to the governor in October asking for the book to be banned.

“This book encourages children to fear police officers as unfair, violent, and racist,” Brian Peters, executive director, wrote in his letter.

The list included other titles that dealt directly and indirectly with race in America, including “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds.

In a statement, Kendi said: “The heartbeat of racism is denial, and the history of ‘Stamped’ will not be denied, nor will young people’s access to this book be cancelled.” 

The 2020 list also included older books that were challenged for their use of racial slurs, like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

The ALA logged a total of 273 books that were affected by censorship attempts last year. The most banned or challenged book in the US was again “George,” by Alex Gino, marking its third year at the top of the list.

The list was released as publishers begin to publicly reckon with racist or otherwise offensive content in their backlogs.

Earlier this year, Dr. Seuss Enterprises made news by announcing it would stop selling six of the children’s book author’s titles for racist and offensive imagery. The removal of those books sparked the opposite reaction, with many conservatives calling to keep them on shelves rather than ban them. And Scholastic last month pulled a book by “Captain Underpants” author Dav Pilkey for “passive racism.”

The debate over “Something Happened” was ongoing in Minnesota. “The reality is, those things are out there and they’re part of our lived reality,” said Jason Isaacson, a state senator and teacher, in February, according to The Minnesota Reformer. 

The ALA collects its data for banned or challenged books from news reports and submissions from around the country. Many of them come from librarians. Reports for 2021 have already begun rolling in, she said, although it’s too early to tell if the 2020 trends will continue this year, Caldwell-Stone said.

“I know that last week our program officer, who handles challenges, reports and provides support to librarians and educators giving them challenges, got 10 reports in one week,” she said.

Controversy about “Something Happened” was ongoing elsewhere, too. On Thursday, WOWT 6 News in Ohama, Nebraska, reported that the local school district apologized after a teacher showed “Something Happened In Our Town” to elementary school students. 

“It’s not a book that is representative of how we view our law enforcement,” Annette Eyman, the school district’s comms director, told the TV station.

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