What people miss in the conversation about banned books31:49

Many banned books lists include Raina Telgemeier's <em>Drama</em><em></em>, Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds's <em>All American Boys</em>, Alison Bechdel's <em>Fun Home</em>, Benjamin Alire Sáenz's <em>Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe</em>, Ruby Bridges <em>This is Your Time</em>, and Toni Morrison's <em>Beloved</em>. (Estefania Mitre/NPR/NPR)
Many banned books lists include Raina Telgemeier's Drama, Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds's All American Boys, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Benjamin Alire Sáenz's Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Ruby Bridges This is Your Time, and Toni Morrison's Beloved. (Estefania Mitre/NPR/NPR)
Updated January 31, 2022 at 12:16 PM ET

Banning books from classrooms and school libraries is nothing new, but it's recently become a topic of considerable political debate.

A Tennessee school district drew national attention after banning Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. Toni Morrison's 1987 novel Beloved was a central discussion topic in the final weeks of Virginia's gubernatorial race last fall. In October, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause asked schools in his state to confirm if they possessed any books from a list featuring around 850 titles. Krause stated he chose these books because they "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress because of their race or sex."

According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, the books that received the most challenges in libraries and schools during 2020 were ones dealing with "racism, Black American history and diversity in the United States."

How should parents react to this news and to the books their children are reading? NPR senior editor Barrie Hardymon and Traci Thomas, host of The Stacks podcast, joined guest host Ayesha Rascoe to talk about banned book lists on Nov. 24.

The three talk about why it's important for kids to discover books freely, even if that means starting a hard conversation with them. They also discuss their favorite — and least favorite — books that often show up on banned book lists.

Why is this book banned?

Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges' 2020 memoir This is Your Time was on a list of 850 books named by Texas state Rep. Matt Krause that "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex." (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Glamour)

Thomas notes that in Krause's list and on other banned books lists, the theme of history is frequently targeted.

"I saw a lot of books by Black authors, authors of color talking about race," says Thomas. "I saw a lot of books by and about queer authors, particularly the more recent lists targeting trans and genderfluid authors. I saw a lot of books weirdly about, like, history ... Books about things I sort of thought were settled history, which was a little shocking to me. It's weird to be like, 'Let's relitigate Ruby Bridges.' "

Hardymon highlights that books about sex and puberty are often banned.

"I noticed one of the books on there was a book about developing bodies in Spanish, [Qué pasa en mi cuerpo? El libro para muchachas by Lynda Madaras]. And I thought, there was something so just like, you would lock the door to so many? ... What an unkind thing to do. That one really—that one killed me."

Banned books that deserve to be read widely

Nobel-winning U.S. novelist Toni Morrison's novel Beloved has been on multiple banned books lists across America, and in 2021, the banning of that book became a key issue in the Virginia's gubernatorial election. (Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

Toni Morrison's novel Beloved has become one of the more discussed banned books in 2021, and it's one of Hardymon's favorites on the banned book lists. "That book was the book that made me realize what fiction could do," she says. "You are going to come out of that experience feeling ... as though you have been off the Earth for a little bit. And once I realized the written word could do that, it unlocked so many doors for me."

Hardymon also recognizes that graphic novels are an entry point into the world of literature for young readers. She cites Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic as a layered but accessible achievement in the genre.

Thomas wants to encourage teachers to consider teaching popular and new books to their classes, not just the books traditionally included in the literary canon.

"I feel like there's this obsession behind teaching kids these books that are important or deemed necessary, and hard to read. Like Jason Reynolds who writes for young people, just loves young people, and he writes great stuff for young people. And I do think that Jason Reynolds's work will last a long time for young people, but also if it doesn't, I think young people now should be reading people who are writing to young people now."

Hardymon and Thomas suggest reading these frequently banned books:

  • Beloved - Toni Morrison


  • Drama - Raina Telgemeier
  • Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic - Alison Bechdel
  • Heavy: An American Memoir - Kiese Laymon
  • Calvin - JR Ford and Vanessa Ford, illustrated by Kayla Harren
  • All American Boys - Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds
  • Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You - Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi
  • Class Act and New Kid - Jerry Craft
  • Don't ban books, but do reconsider some

    Author William Styron with his wife Rose Styron at Trinity College in 1968, directly after learning Styron won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Confessions of Nat Turner. (Bettmann Archive)

    The publicity around banned books lists can provide an opportunity to rethink which books should receive a place of privilege in classrooms.

    Hardymon considers William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, the winner of the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, to be one of those books.

    "[William Styron is] a white Southern writer ... He imagined the journey of the enslaved Nat Turner's rebellion in Virginia. First of all, it's certainly interesting at maybe a college-level class ... to parse a white writer's attempt at writing the story of enslavement. And in class where maybe you are talking about like, who gets to write what stories, fine. But if you're going to introduce to your students— and let's say we're in high school — you know, a narrative of enslaved life, you wouldn't want to give them, I don't believe, a narrative by a white Southern writer."

    Hardymon instead suggested other novels that offer a postmodern look at enslavement written through a Black perspective:

    • Middle Passage - Charles R. Johnson
    • Dessa Rose - Sherley Anne Williams
    • The Known World - Edward P. Jones

    While Thomas acknowledges hers is an unpopular opinion, the commonly banned books that she doesn't love are part of the J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Rowling has been criticized for her tweets that have been called transphobic.

    "I recognize that the books are maybe enjoyable, they're maybe good. But for me ... when we talk about students, the term is being co-opted to mean white, straight, cis students. And I don't know that if, in a bigger sense, if we're professing to loving and seeing and supporting all students, that the work of someone who doesn't see, love, and respect all humans and people who have different gender identities, should be the thing that we think and talk about as the greatest thing that ever existed."

    Thomas instead suggested authors who write fantasy novels with a young age group in mind, but who also write inclusively:

    • Akwaeke Emezi
    • Rivers Solomon
    • George M. Johnson
    • Kacen Callender
    • Nnedi Okorafor

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