“Gender Queer” topped the list of most challenged books in 2021 — along with many other books written by or about Black or LGBTQ individuals, according to the American Library Association.

In an annual report, the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 729 book challenges last year, marking an “unprecedented” number of attempts to censor or ban books in public libraries, schools and universities. According to the report, “most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ persons.”

“The 729 challenges tracked by ALA represent the highest number of attempted book bans since we began compiling these lists 20 years ago,” association president Patty Wong said in a statement. “We support individual parents’ choices concerning their child’s reading and believe that parents should not have those choices dictated by others. Young people need to have access to a variety of books from which they can learn about different perspectives. So, despite this organized effort to ban books, libraries remain ready to do what we always have: make knowledge and ideas available so people are free to choose what to read.”

Each of the 729 challenges may have contained multiple titles or requests, resulting in nearly 1,600 individual challenges or removals. The association acknowledged that its tracking is incomplete, as it relies on voluntary reporting and media reports to compile the list.

Given the increase in challenges, the association announced Unite Against Book Bans, a “national initiative focused on empowering readers everywhere to stand together in the fight against censorship.”

A recent report on book bans in school districts by PEN America echoed the ALA’s findings about race and sexuality. It found that 41% of banned books included prominent characters who were people of color, 22% were about race or racism and 33% have LGBTQ themes or protagonists.

PEN America also reported that 42 children’s books were censored, including biographies of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai, among others.

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Conservative activists and parental rights groups have organized against certain titles in school libraries, circulating lists of potentially obscene books on social media along with instructions for requesting that books be removed from school districts.

“What we’re seeing right now is an unprecedented campaign to remove books from school libraries but also public libraries that deal with the lives and experience of people from marginalized communities,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, according to The New York Times. “We’re seeing organized groups go to school boards and library boards and demand actual censorship of these books in order to conform to their moral or political views.”

In some cases, book challenges have helped increase visibility and sales. Earlier this year, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, “Maus,” shot to the top of Amazon Charts and Barnes & Noble’s top 100 list after it was removed from the curriculum in McMinn County, Tennessee, according to CNN.

“The thing that always makes me laugh is when parents tell kids not to read a certain book, it’s sort of like putting a big banner on the book that says ‘Read me!’” Kearns Library branch manager Trish Hull told the Deseret News last month. “I have six kids and 16 grandkids and if I tell them, ‘Don’t read that book, that’s a bad book,’ I’ve just told them the next book they’re going to read, right?”

But some advocates and authors point out that challenging books in libraries and schools disproportionately harms those without the means to purchase controversial books.

“For those of us on that list, it’s not a badge of honor,” James Reynolds, co-author of “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” said on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in December. “People always say, ‘Congratulations. You’re doing something right.’ It’s like, yeah, but at the same time, there’s been access cut for all the young people who might need these books and where they might only get them in schools. You can’t take for granted that there might not be a library or bookstore in everybody’s community or that there may not be a $20 bill to go buy that book that they no longer have access to because of these bannings.”

Reynolds had two books on the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020 list: “Stamped,” which he co-authored with Ibram X. Kendi, and “All American Boys,” co-written by Brendan Kiely.

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Top 10 most challenged books of 2021

Here is the full list of the most frequently challenged books from last year, with reasons and results according to the American Library Association:

  1. “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe. Banned, challenged and restricted for LGBTQ content and because it was considered to have sexually explicit images.
  2. “Lawn Boy,” by Jonathan Evison. Banned and challenged for LGBTQ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.
  3. “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson. Banned and challenged for LGBTQ content, profanity and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.
  4. “Out of Darkness,” by Ashley Hope Perez. Banned, challenged and restricted for depictions of abuse and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.
  5. “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas. Banned and challenged for profanity, violence and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda.
  6. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie. Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references and use of a derogatory term.
  7. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” by Jesse Andrews. Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and degrading to women.
  8. “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison. Banned and challenged because it depicts child sexual abuse and was considered sexually explicit.
  9. “This Book Is Gay,” by Juno Dawson. Banned, challenged, relocated and restricted for providing sexual education and LGBTQ content.
  10. “Beyond Magenta,” by Susan Kuklin. Banned and challenged for LGBTQ content and because it was considered sexually explicit.
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How are books selected for Utah schools?

Meanwhile, a Utah State Board of Education committee is attempting to craft a model policy to guide public schools on the selection and reconsideration of library materials.

Earlier this year, the board adopted a rule for school libraries that established minimum standards for district school board or charter school board library policies and called on district school boards and charter school boards to adopt a library selection and reconsideration policy before Sept. 1. It also calls on the state board to develop a model policy that local boards can adopt or use as a framework for their own policies.

The board rule, which is subject to a 30-day comment period, could go into effect in May unless the state board determines there is need to amend it or otherwise reconsider its action.

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In a meeting of the board’s Law and Licensing Committee on Friday, Chairwoman Carol Lear expressed urgency in delivering a proposed model policy to the full board for its consideration because “LEAs (local education agencies) need the policies now.”

She continued, “Delaying and delaying and delaying is not helpful.”

The board did not reach consensus on the model policy but will continue its work.

Contributing: Marjorie Cortez

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