Banned Books Week

Number of attempts to ban or restrict library materials in the U.S. by year. A chronological line graph starting in 2003 shows a large spike in 2022.Welcome to our digital exhibit on Banned Books Week. This page is a companion to the physical display in the HKS Library, last available in October 2023. Harvard affiliates can request books via HOLLIS, for pick-up at the library of your choice.

Organized annually by the American Library Association (ALA) for the past 40 years, Banned Books Week "celebrates the freedom to read and spotlights current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools." Banned Books Week 2023 took place from October 1 - 7, but the HKS Library display was up for the whole month.

As defined by PEN America, a book ban refers to "any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished." When a book faces threat from these actions, the book is known as being "challenged."

A map of the U.S. showing where book challenges happened most frequently in 2022.Banned Books Week 2023 was particularly urgent because libraries across the U.S. were facing an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books. The ALA documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, targeting 2,571 unique titles. This is the highest number of book challenges since the ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago, and represents a near doubling of the book challenges recorded in 2021. These challenges overwhelmingly targeted books featuring LGBTQ+ themes or characters (particularly trans themes/characters), characters of color, and themes of race and racism. 89% of these challenges targeted public and school libraries.

In 2022, Texas saw the most book challenges at 93, targeting 2,349 titles. Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye was the most challenged in Texas for its depiction of sexual abuse, explicitly racial content, and claims of being sexually explicit. Massachusetts was among the top five states in book challenges, with 45 challenges targeting 57 titles. The most frequently challenged title in Massachusetts was Gender Queer: A Memoir for LGBTQIA+ content and claims of being sexually explicit.

Before 2020, most book challenges were brought by a single parent who sought to remove or restrict access to a book their child was reading. This changed in 2022, when 90% of reported book challenges targeted multiple titles - many up to 100 books at once (ALA, 2023). During the 2022-2023 school year, 20% of book challenges were brought by organized advocacy groups. 58% of these efforts were connected to Moms for Liberty. Another 25% of book challenges were connected to political pressure from elected or appointed officials, and 31% were connected to newly enacted state laws in Florida, Utah, and Missouri (PEN America, April 2023).

In Florida, Utah, and Missouri, book challenges were coupled with legislation. Laws enacted in 2023 or just prior contain "direct prohibitions on certain content in schools, specify new rules about how books need to be cataloged or new conditions under which they can be accessed, or threaten punishment for teachers, librarians, and administrators if they provide students access to material deemed 'harmful' or 'explicit'" (PEN America, April 2023).

ALA President Emily Drabinski spoke about the current state of U.S. libraries on the September 12, 2023 episode of The Ezra Klein Show.

Most Challenged Books: 2021-2023

This list is ranked in order of the number of challenges each book has received, according to the American Library Association and PEN America.

Click on the circular "i" icons to view book descriptions. Click on the Harvard shield icons to access ebooks (Harvard Key required).