What is the most Banned Book?

by Jennifer M

According to the American Library Association (ALA), the most banned or challenged book is the Scary Stories series by children’s horror writer Alvin Schwartz (in this context, the ALA treats challenges to full series as a single title). The ALA has been collecting data and receiving reports from the media and various institutions about books that have been challenged or banned.[1] A book is considered “challenged” when an attempt has been made to remove the book from shelves; an outright ban occurs when materials are in fact removed after a successful challenge. The ALA estimates that only 10% of challenges are formalised or escalated to the degree that they are reported to their Office of Intellectual Freedom, so the true extent of attempts at such censorship may never be known.

For each of the last three decades the ALA has collated the yearly data into Top 100 lists—the most recent being the 2010-19 version. Eighteen books have made it into the Top 100 in each of the three published lists, which means these particular titles have been challenged or banned consistently for over 30 years. This is where Schwartz’s Scary Stories series has earned its crown as the most challenged or banned title.

Because the Top 100 changes each decade, with titles moving up or down the list, titles dropping out or new publications moving in, awarding the title of “most challenged or banned” is tricky, but it can be done with a bit of simple data analysis. Scary Stories was ranked number 1 in the 1990-99 list, number 7 in 2000-09, and number 12 in 2010-19. This means its average rank is 11, the highest ranked of all books which made the Top 100 in all three decades. The Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor ranks a close second place with an average 12, followed by Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck at 13. Other books on the most challenged list include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (with a score of 17), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (32), and the Goosebumps series by R.L. Stine (52).

Alvin Schwartz may have contributed the most challenged title, but he certainly is not the most challenged author. Toni Morrison is the only author to have more than one title—The Bluest Eye and Beloved—to make the Top 100 in all three decades. Morrison’s Song of Solomon also was included in the 1990s and 2000s but dropped out of the most recent list. Other contenders for the most challenged author are Stephen King, with four unique books in the Top 100 in the 1990s, and Ellen Hopkins, with four unique books in the 20-teens. But perhaps the most challenged author is Judy Blume, with five unique titles on the list in the 90s, four of which also were included in the 2000s. All five, however, had been dropped from the Top 100 in the 2010-19 list.

The nature of the books on the Top 100 lists is a subject for a much longer discussion, but the heavy representation of young adult, middle grade, and children’s books may be a function of reporting. Challenges are consistently and overwhelmingly first initiated by parents and they are consistently, overwhelmingly reported by schools and libraries. The most popular specific reasons for the challenges in the 1990s and the early 2000s included sexually explicit language, offensive language, unsuitability for age group, and violence, all of which were reported in similar numbers. There was a slight reduction of reports based on homosexuality, sex education, and religious viewpoint, but the number of challenges against occultism or satanism reduced dramatically in 2000-09.[2] In recent years, common reasons for challenges have included fake news, gender dysphoria, un-American text, trans-gender characters, racial overtones, liberal propaganda, and unqualified author.

The ALA’s stated aim for publishing such data is to inform the public about attempts at censorship that might have an impact schools and libraries. Their Office for Intellectual Freedom is an advocate for the freedom to read and free access to information. You can read about the ALA’s efforts to combat censorship and sift through the yearly Top 10 lists of banned and challenged books at their website: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks


[1]    The data presented and discussed here have been taken from the website of the ALA, www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks, accessed 22 February 2021. The data analysis discussed here represents research by this author alone and has not been provided by, vetted by, or associated with the American Library Association.

[2]     See http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/statistics for more information about these figures.

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