Banned Books Week 2021: Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us

Erin ToaleBooks, Diversity Initiatives

Banned Books Week is an annual celebration of the freedom to read. The theme of 2021’s Banned Books Week, observed September 26 – October 2, is “Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us.” The week originated in 1982 in response to the escalating debate around culture and censorship in America. The Banned Books Week Coalition remains committed to highlighting the value of free and open access to information above all.

“Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community — librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”


Materials on the official Banned Books Week website include resources for teachers, promotional and engagement templates, and a list of organizations to whom you can report censorship. As a public act of protest, the organization invites community members to submit videos of themselves reading from contested books. You can view selections on the Coalition’s YouTube channel.

ALA’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books 2020

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a yearly list of most-challenged books. They draw from challenges reported in the media and submitted by librarians and teachers across the country. You can find the yearly rankings here, and a list of the most commonly challenged books here. This list is a focal point for many of the events and free, virtual talks throughout the week.

Censorship of Children’s Books

Banned Books Week draws national attention to the harms of censorship by focusing on efforts across the country to remove or restrict access to books. The launch event, “Censorship of Children’s Books: A Conversation with the Creators of Something Happened in Our Town and One of a Kind, Like Me” streamed on Facebook Live on Monday, September 27 (recording available at the link).

The Banned Books Week Coalition invited attendees for a conversation about the censorship of children’s books with Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, the authors of Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice (2018), and Laurin Mayeno and Robert Trujillo, the author and artist of One of a Kind, Like Me (2016). The premise of the panel was to “discuss the circumstances behind the censorship challenges to the books, how the attacks on diverse literature harm students, and what we can do to defend children’s books.”

Celano, Collins, and Hazzard are all child psychologists who met while teaching at Emory University. Mayeno is a social justice activist who wrote One of a Kind, Like Me, a bilingual (English & Spanish) book based on her own family. Trujillo, who illustrated the book, is also the author of numerous children’s books. Something Happened in Our Town was challenged based on accusations of divisive language and interpretation of the book as anti-police. It is one of the many books about racism and antiracism targeted in recent debates around CRT (Critical Race Theory) in at least a dozen states (Education Week’s site has an interactive map, updated on a rolling basis). One of a Kind, Like Me opponents argue that gender politics has no place in schools, and that the book is age inappropriate for younger children.

Windows, Mirrors, Sliding Glass Doors

In August, WITS Chief Program Officer Kristen Strobbe emphasized the importance of exposing students to windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors through literature.

  • windows offer perspective into the realities of others
  • mirrors reflect the lives of readers
  • sliding glass doors allow readers to become immersed in a fictional and/or imaginary world

Mayeno was dismayed by the lack of mirrors, or books that reflect the lived experience of her child. This is key to affirming the presence of transgender children in schools. When her book was initially protested, she wondered: “If a book about transgender children is unwelcome in a school, is my transgender child welcome in that school?” She argues that this type of censorship is extremely harmful for children who are LGBTQ+ or gender nonconforming because it’s essentially telling the child they don’t belong. “It denies them access to books that celebrate and affirm them. It deprives them the benefit of seeing characters like them thrive.” 

Arguments against both of these books place the hypothetical feelings/discomfort of white children and parents in a hierarchy over making students from marginalized identity groups feel represented and included. The doctors on the panel stressed that there is no evidence that CRT traumatizes white children, rather, says Hazzard, “kids experience these books as being about treating people fairly.”

Celebrating Diversity

Panelists urged educators to abandon the outmoded view that promoting diversity is a chore. They encouraged a shift in perspective toward viewing diversity as something celebratory that brings value to the classroom. A diverse classroom discusses topics such as racism, but opponents describe the subject as “too complex” for children. Mayeno asked, “We don’t/can’t shield children from racism – why would we hide books on the topic from them?” Collins later stated, “The history of this country should be told accurately, and that includes the history of slavery.” Panelists agreed that underneath the performative rhetoric of censorship – the argument from the opposition is: “it’s only ok for us to talk about reality in your terms… we cannot talk about reality from the perspective of diverse and marginalized identities” 

Shockingly, many people protesting these books admit to never having read them. The authors pointed out that if you actually read the books it is very difficult to find them controversial. Collins pleaded, “Before you overreact to my book, please read my book. And look at the back.” Several of the panelists echoed this sentiment, urging parents to utilize the back matter in their respective books for resources including age-appropriate vocabulary, dialogue guides, and other developmental tools. 

Books That Promote Empathy

In closing, the panelists suggested the following books for building empathy. This prompt was in keeping with the theme “Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us”:

WITS’ Commitment to Social Justice

WITS values diverse viewpoints and perspectives over monolithic narratives. The canon of children’s books largely reflects and celebrate only the lived experience of those with privilege. In the recent post Social Justice in the Classroom: How Teachers Inspire Students to be Heroes, WITS Program Manager Laurie Brooks writes: “A social justice classroom is one that is critical in nature, thus, we should be constantly encouraging students to question the world around them as well as the schools they attend.”

She emphasizes the importance of encouraging critical thinking and debate in the classroom, offering the following perspective:

“When our kids rebel — when they thoughtfully push back against our ideas or the way that we do things, what if we chose to see that as a sign that we’re doing something right and that they’re becoming liberated?”  

Laurie Brooks

Healthy debate needs to be modeled in the classroom. Tell kids that even if you disagree with them – their ideas are still valuable.

Other Resources for Banned Books Week

WITS remains committed to facilitating active discourse around antiracism and supporting the work of BIPOC writers. Join the conversation at our next Study Hall book club meeting.