The Other Columbus: Breaking down the challenged books list

The ten most-challenged books of 2020 offer a fascinating snapshot into the current mind of America

Scott Woods
Selections from the most challenged book list of 2020

While everyone is apparently either canceling culture or yelling at people for doing so, one thing that never gets tired to me is the annual top 10 list of challenged books. As an avid reader, professional writer and longtime librarian, these lists put out each year by the Office for Intellectual Freedom — along with lots of other reports and initiatives — are a fascinating snapshot into the current mind of America. 

Some years America is feeling peckish and innocent, so there are a lot of salacious, pearl-clutching titles on the list. Some years the list is more political or issue-driven. This year's top 10, culled from the 273 books targeted in 2020, is a bit of a mixed bag, but it definitely has, shall we say, a blue streak.

1. George by Alex Gino

All you have to do is look at reactions to Lil Nas X’s new video for “Montero” to realize that America still has a hard puritanical lean. Any kid’s book with LGBTQIA+ content that’s actually popular for being decent and not spine-curvingly evil is going to get challenged. 

2. Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

“Selective storytelling incidents” and “does not encompass racism against all people” are perhaps the most hilarious reasons to have a book banned during the tail end of the Trump era.

3. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

This “both sides” story of a Black teen beat up by the police and the white teen who tries to process it all was apparently not “both sides” enough. The campaign to turn anti-police abuse observations into “anti-cop” platforms starts here.

4. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

This is inarguably a heavy book about a teen girl’s ordeal navigating the trauma she experiences after a sexual assault. And yet trying to ban it has only seen it translated into 16 languages and adapted into a movie and a comic book. So you can try to ban the book, but you’d be better off teaching teens not to rape, since not doing so is way more prevalent and damaging than this book.

5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

This book wasn’t any worse than any other teen-aimed book about coming of age until whatever usefulness it possessed was greatly diminished by the revelation that the author was a sexual creep.

6. Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin

This is a picture book designed to help children understand and process police violence, and is routinely twisted into a book that promotes anti-police views. It’s like blaming NyQuil for giving you a cold. (I had a harsher version of that clapback, but this is a kids book, so I read the room.)

7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

When white allyship goes wrong. While I would never make a case to ban this book, I wouldn’t mind burning all copies of Go Set A Watchman, which was a first draft, cash grab remix of Mockingbird that should have never seen the light of day.

8. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

A perennial favorite due largely to its negative racial language, but less so the fact that its title comes from an impenetrable and boring Scottish poem.

9 .The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

You can’t ban Morrison, period. You just have to take these lessons and these lumps.

10. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

The third title to appear on this list for making cops look bad, Thomas’ book was also challenged for promoting an anti-police message. Such labeling is confounding, considering the police are the biggest advocates for anti-police messaging by virtue of being systemically anti-Black, anti-liberty and anti-civil rights. But sure, ban a book.