(NEXSTAR) — Last month, the state of Florida topped Texas for one controversial title: state with the most school book bans. But did you know the Lone Star State still ranks second overall, with a total of 625 book bans between July 2022 and June 2023?
That’s according to PEN America, a nonprofit freedom of expression advocacy group, who tracks book challenges and bans in the U.S. And while Texas’ 625 total trails behind Florida’s staggering 1,400 book ban cases during the same time, it’s far ahead of its closest competitor, Missouri, with 333 bans.
Between Jan. 1 and August 31, there were at least 30 attempts to restrict access to books in Texas — and about 1,120 books were challenged in that time, according to the American Library Association‘s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Last year, the ALA reports a total of 93 attempts to remove or censor materials in Texas.
Fervor in-state and nationwide over what books are available to students is not only making its way to school boards but into legislation. Here in Texas, House Bill 900, also known as the READER Act, was set to take effect Sept. 1, though its enforcement is currently pending.
The law would aim to target (vaguely defined) “sexually explicit material” and require book vendors to rate books they sell to libraries. Books without ratings would be removed from libraries.
With all this hullabaloo over books, you may be wondering: just what is the Lone Star State’s most banned and/or challenged book?
As of last year, it’s Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel “The Bluest Eye,” ALA reports.
The association says that in 2022 alone, “The Bluest Eye” was the third most challenged book nationwide, from among 2,571 challenged titles that year. But challenges to Morrison’s bildungsroman predate even the current wave of book bans that has swept the U.S. over the past 2-3 years.
Set in small town America in the 1940s, “The Bluest Eye” chronicles a young Black girl’s ultimately tragic search for self-acceptance in a world that rejects everything about her.
The novel is unflinching in its depiction of racism, white supremacy and sexual abuse, including scenes of incest and child molestation. Taken together, all these subjects have routinely proven a polarizing cocktail for many book challengers.
Additionally, the book has stirred animus from some white readers for its depictions of its white characters and white society.
In her essay “What attempts to ban Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ say about white America,” published last year by Essence, journalist Brooklyn White says the novel “is hard for white Americans to digest.”
“Resting in the undercurrent of the disdain for Morrison’s premier work is the fact that white Americans are forced to see the work of their hand… the effects of supremacy are imprinted onto the majority of primary characters… and [it] crush[es] their lives,” writes White.
Discomfort over seeing the truth of anti-Black racism is one unspoken reason for ongoing tension over the novel, argues White, in addition to countless other Black academics and readers. Back in 2020, Stanford University lecturer Harriett Jernigan opined that writing the book was Morrison saying “Black Lives Matter” in her own words.
Despite decades of academic and critical renown — in addition to being a book club selection by Oprah Winfrey and Jenna Bush Hager — “The Bluest Eye” nevertheless continues to stoke controversy. All-in-all, PEN America says “The Bluest Eye” was banned 29 times by the school districts during the 2022-23 year, while Morrison was the fourth most-banned author during the same time.
Among other most-challenged titles in Texas for the 2022-23 school year include “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, and the graphic novel “Flamer” by Mike Curato.
PEN America explains that “overwhelmingly” these book bans target books on race/racism and feature characters of color, in addition to LGBTQ+ characters. The vast majority of these titles were also written by authors of color or who identify as LGBTQ+.
The crusade against these types of titles and authors is something “Flamer” author Curato — whose young adult book is among the most banned books in the U.S. — previously told Nexstar is “very politically motivated.”
The political motivation of book banning is something PEN America notes in its most recent reporting, saying that bad actors using “hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric” increasingly give the public the impression that “sexually explicit” material is being forced upon students in schools. In reality, the vast majority of books being challenged are (or were) only available as options for students to check out from school library collections.
Curato, whose graphic novel is aimed at ages 14-18, said he agreed this kind of obfuscation is intentional.
“One thing that book banners are doing is making people think that my young adult book is being shared in elementary schools. This is a book for teenagers about teenage life and teenage situations,” says Curato. “And it’s an honest book. But there’s nothing worse than what you’d find in a Judy Blume book.”
Want to fight against book bans?
If you’re concerned about a book banning or challenge in your area, there are many ways you can report it for awareness, including PEN America’s Report a Book Ban. The American Library Association also has a confidential challenge reporting form.
Meanwhile, the Gay and Lesbian (GLAAD) recently teamed with EveryLibrary to put together the Book Bans: A Guide for Community Response and Action playbook. The kit offers tips for first putting together a plan, executing it with unified messaging and driving it toward meaningful decisions.
For concerned students, PEN America also offers its How to Fight Book Bans: A Tip Sheet for Students, which urges those affected to attend and participate in district public meetings, in addition to writing letters to school leaders.