Recently, the American Library Association released a list of the most challenged books of 2022. The data paints a clear picture of whom, and what, book banners tend to target. Most of the books on the list were written by Black people, people of color, and/or LGBTQ people, and most of the stories either depict the lived experiences of these diverse authors or express how diverse identities impact characters.
Many of the complaints against the books claim they’re sexually explicit or inappropriate for young people, but when I looked through the list, I noticed something deeper. These books are emotionally and intellectually challenging. They require us to look inward at our own identities and outward at where we fit into society. That’s exactly what a good book should do. Yet, the Far Right is trying to keep people from reading them. So, I want to look at the challenges posed by these books to show why we shouldn’t be afraid of them; we should be proud of them.
They Challenge Us to Examine Ourselves
The top two most challenged books were Gender Queer and All Boys Aren’t Blue. Both are riveting stories about LGBTQ identities and how the need for authenticity shaped the authors’ lives. Both were challenged due to LGBTQ content and claims of sexual explicitness, but they’re so much more than their depictions of sexuality.
These books offer an opportunity to see through the eyes of people discovering themselves and learning to accept themselves. At the same time, they challenge us to honestly evaluate our own lives. These stories show all of us, especially young people, that becoming who we are can be messy and stressful but also beautiful and inspirational. Banning books that inspire our young people to find and appreciate their own unique identities is a disservice to our country’s youth, and it will only lead to more pain and shame.
They Challenge Us to Care About Others
Three of the books on the list – Flamer, Looking for Alaska, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower – illustrate the pitfalls and turmoil of being a young person and the profound effects people have on each other. Dealing with LGBTQ identities, the stress of new environments, and deep, personal trauma, these books show the power of human interaction, and they challenge us all to reevaluate how we relate to those around us.
They were all challenged for LGBTQ content and claims of sexual explicitness, but, like the previous books, these books and their plots explore deeper, more varied themes. Characters cope with abuse, self-hatred, and interpersonal conflict – all things young people deal with, and many adults are still trying to overcome. These books teach us to be empathetic toward one another and to acknowledge each other’s struggles. Banning them does the opposite. It tells young people their stories and struggles don’t matter or should be hidden, and I can’t think of a worse lesson for our youth.
They Challenge Us to Change the World
Two books on the list use time and setting to speak long-standing truths. The Bluest Eye is a heart-wrenching tale of generational trauma and societal pressure in 1940s Ohio, and Out of Darkness is a harrowing depiction of the treatment of women and people of color in Depression-era Texas. These books challenge us to take a hard look at our history and our very humanity. Although they are set in the past, they are timeless because they spotlight intersectional issues that are still all too relevant today.
Like all the other books on the list, these are complex stories that ask a lot of their readers, and that’s a good thing. When we read challenging books, we should feel joy and pain, heartache and delight. We should find lessons and morals that change us and guide us to become better people. And we shouldn’t shy away from them just because the topics are tough to deal with.
Banning books is taking the easy way out. Instead of rising to the challenges presented in these stories, book banners would bury them in the closet where they think young people won’t find them. That’s never been the solution. I trust our nation’s youth to handle these books with maturity, empathy, and understanding, and to use the lessons they’ve learned to build a brighter future.