NBC 5 Investigates uncovers record number of requests to challenge books in Chicago-area schools, libraries

NBC 5 Investigates sent out public records requests to 600 school districts and libraries. Here's which books are being challenged and which single book is the most challenged by far.

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Libraries, normally regarded as havens for learning, have increasingly become targets of protest and threats, a months-investigation by NBC 5 Investigates has uncovered.

Those issues have coincided with a record number of requests to limit or remove certain books and materials, backed by a contentious debate about what should be available on library shelves.

Since July, there have been at least 24 bomb threats called into Chicago-area libraries, half of which happened on the same day that Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias appeared on Capitol Hill to address questions about Illinois’ new law, which will prohibit public libraries from banning or restricting access to materials based on one’s personal or political objections. When the law takes effect in January, libraries that do so could lose state grant funding.

In recent years, challenges to books have been growing.

Over the past decade, NBC 5 Investigates found a total of 464 separate challenges to books or other materials in schools and public libraries in the Chicago area.

Most of those challenges – more than 300 – have come in the last three years.

As part of our research, NBC 5 Investigates sent out public records requests to 600 school districts and libraries. We asked each school and library for records of all challenges they’d received concerning books or other material in their libraries and classrooms, including items people wanted removed or banned.

We received responses from 174 public libraries and 289 school districts in the Chicago area.

So what are people challenging?

The majority of the books being challenged – 38 percent -- involved books that cover sexual orientation or gender identity topics followed by materials that touch on race, which made up 17 percent of books challenged in the Chicago area.

By far the most challenged book is “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” whose author said the book was a way to explain to family members and friends what it’s like to be non-binary or asexual. The book does contain graphic illustrations of sex acts, which has led to protests and challenges by parents’ rights groups that have argued it is obscene and pornographic.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone with the American Library Association spoke with NBC 5 Investigates about this issue.

She said the increase in challenges began in 2021 and have accelerated “in ways that we’d never seen before. We used to get one or two reports a week, and we were starting to get four or five reports a day.”

Shannon Adcock with Awake Illinois represents one of the parents’ rights groups that has called for civic engagement in what materials are available in both school and public libraries.

“It really has to do with age appropriateness. What is appropriate for children,” Adcock said.

“Are we going to lean into the sexualization of children? Or are we not for organizations that support the fundamental rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children,” Adcock asked.

When pressed about the fact parents already have that right, she said:

“Well, it's been challenged, it has been challenged… because if you look at media the depiction of concerned parents is that they're automatically labeled as book banners or Nazis or fascists or bigots. That’s limiting the conversation and it’s incredibly unfair,” she said

When NBC 5 Investigates asked Caldwell-Stone about requests to restrict access to certain materials, she said, “what they’re essentially asking a public-funded institution to do is engage in an act of discrimination by moving books or removing books that deal with race, gender identity or sexual orientation.”

The American Library Association said last year it tracked more than 1,200 demands to censor certain library books, an increase from 2021 when more than 700 materials were challenged. Last year’s figure marked the most challenges the ALA has seen since it began tracking that data more than 20 years ago.

NBC 5 Investigates found that figure is clearly an undercount here in the Chicago area.

The ALA said as a result of our investigation, it plans to update its database to include our findings.

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