(NEXSTAR) — Did you know there were a total of 58 book bans in North Carolina over the past year?
That’s according to PEN America, a nonprofit freedom of expression advocacy group which tracks book challenges and bans in the U.S. That number comes from data they gathered between July 2022 and June 2023. Though North Carolina’s total trails far behind Florida’s staggering 1,400 book ban cases during the same time, controversy over books isn’t non-existent in the state.
Meanwhile the American Library Association‘s Office for Intellectual Freedom found between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31, 2023, there were at least 18 attempts to restrict access to books in North Carolina. These attempts included challenges to about 114 books in total.
As of last year, the most banned/challenged book in North Carolina is John Green’s 2005 young adult novel “Looking for Alaska,” ALA reports. Reasons given for the book’s challenges include claims it’s sexually explicit and complaints it shows LGBTQIA+ content, in addition to depictions of drug and alcohol use.
The association says in 2022 alone, “Looking for Alaska” was the fifth most challenged book nationwide from among 2,571 challenged titles that year. PEN America’s count showed the book as the third most-banned for the 2022-23 school year.
Green’s novel, which was adapted into a Hulu miniseries in 2019, is no stranger to bans — its challenges ratcheted up around 2012, ALA explains. Back in 2008, Green himself addressed controversy over the book at Depew High School in Buffalo, New York, where 11th grade students were given the option to read the book as part of their curriculum, with parental permission. School administrators flagged parts of the book parents might find objectionable and gave students alternative books to read. Green said this wasn’t good enough for some people.
“There were a few people who weren’t happy with this solution,” Green said in his YouTube video, titled “I Am Not A Pornographer.” “These people didn’t actually have kids who are in the 11th grade, but no matter. They think my book is pornographic and that it will cause immoral thoughts and actions in children. These people believe that no one should be allowed to read the book — even those people whose parents signed the permission slip.”
Green said that people calling “Alaska” pornography were misusing the term, since porn is intended to titillate and that no “halfway normal person in the world would find a single thing in my book arousing.”
Instead, Green argued the sexual situations are meant to be awkward and disastrous, like many first sexual experiences. In his video, the author said it’s insulting to think teenagers aren’t smart enough to be able to read differences of intent.
“Shut up and stop condescending to teenagers.”John Green, author of “Looking for Alaska”
Ultimately, the Depew school board voted unanimously to keep the book in its curriculum, with 99% of parents allowing the book to be read, according to Green.
Among other most-challenged titles in North Carolina for the 2022-23 school year are “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, and the graphic novel “Flamer” by Mike Curato.
PEN America explains “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 for book banning is something PEN America notes in its most recent reporting, saying 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 ban 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 Alliance Against Defamation (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.