Book bans, threats and cancellations: Asian American authors face growing challenges

Book banning attempts have reached record highs in recent years.

May 2, 2024, 6:56 AM

Samira Ahmed, an author of young adult and middle-grade literature, never expected to hire security for events, travel under an alias or face cancellations at schools and libraries.

Ahmed told ABC News she faces threats and book bans over her novels – including “Internment” and “Hollow Fires” – which have caused a firestorm of criticism for tackling complex issues about race, oppression and politics.

“People are afraid of what might be said if my books are being taught,” said Ahmed. “My books deal with issues of race and Islamophobia and adults making terrible decisions that they impose on children.”

Author Samira Ahmed said she writes her stories for a younger version of herself, who did not see herself represented in literature.
Adam Silvera

Titles highlighting Asian American cultures have been targets among the long and growing inventory of books singled out by critics, prompting concerns about representation in literature.

Book-banning efforts have been on the rise in recent years, putting pressure on authors, librarians and educators.

The American Library Association recorded 4,240 unique book titles that were targeted for removal or restriction in schools and libraries across the U.S. in 2023, topping the previous record of 2,571 unique titles in 2022.

About 47% of the titles targeted were by or about the LGBTQ community and/or people of color, the new data showed.

“They're saying to young people, ‘stories of people who look like you don't deserve a space on our shelf, they are not worthy,’” said Ahmed. “It's identity erasure, and so it's obviously disheartening, but it's also really infuriating.”

Author Samira Ahmed said she's faced event cancellations, book banning attempts and more because of controversy surrounding her books.
Courtesy of Samira Ahmed

Critics have called for the removal of books like Ahmed’s, Grace Lin’s “A Big Mooncake for Little Star” and Hena Khan’s “Under My Hijab.”

Advocates for restrictions against certain books, including groups like Moms For Liberty, argue that they weed inappropriate or "objectionable" content -- including violence, sexual conduct or anti-American sentiment -- out of classrooms to protect children.

Some say libraries and educators have begun to “soft ban” these books as well, declining to order the books to avoid controversy in the future.

When Lin found her book on a list of “objectionable materials” to be removed by a local district school board, she was stumped.

The story is inspired by her daughter, who ate many moon cakes at a Moon Festival celebration and got really upset when the moon cakes were all gone: “That became the inspiration for ‘A Big Moon Cake For Little Star,’ which is simply about a girl who cannot resist eating a moon cake – a very, very big moon cake.”

She continued, “The only political statement that it makes is that the main character is Asian … To realize that there are people, fellow citizens, who believe that we should not be the heroes in stories is very, very disheartening.”

Grace Lin attends The 67th National Book Awards Ceremony & Benefit Dinner, Nov. 16, 2016, in New York. Lin's “A Big Mooncake for Little Star,” a children's book about mooncakes, appeared on a list of alleged objectionable material.
Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Khan's "Under My Hijab" is a picture book that captures a young girl admiring the women in her life who wear hijabs and answering questions about how and why women wear them. It also is intended to "showcase the women and girls who do wear it is just as accomplished and professional and athletic and outdoorsy, and capable of doing anything."

Khan, who is on the board of the nonprofit advocacy group We Need Diverse Books, said that it's disheartening to celebrate an increase in diverse voices at the same time as pushback against these voices appears to be increasing.

Representation for people of color has been steady over the years – books for children and teens that have Asian representation are up from an estimated 2.9% in 2002 to 11.7% in 2023, according to research by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

Growing efforts to restrict books from libraries and schools threaten this progress, authors say.

"It does ultimately harm the kids that these books are intended for, and all children who really should have the freedom to read anything they want," Khan said. "It's unfortunate that the cries of a few, you know, a small minority is taking away the rights of the rest of us to read widely and freely."

Author Hena Khan doubles as an advocate for diversity in children's and young adult literature.
Courtesy of Hena Khan

When Lin published her first book in the 1990s she was immediately thrust into the “diverse author” role for writing about her family and her experiences as a Taiwanese-American.

“I really embraced it as more and more people and families came up to me and said: ‘I've looked so long to find a book just like you made right here. I've looked so long to find a book that has a child in it that looks like my child.’”

Ahmed wrote a new story called “This Book Won’t Burn” to confront the realities of what it means to restrict books that center on people of color, she says. She said she writes her stories for a younger version of herself, hoping to offer young adults a story about what they might be feeling or experiencing in their lives – offering them the language to help them understand these issues and help them feel less alone.

Samira Ahmed
Claribel Ortega

“When you're saying 500 books have to be pulled from the shelves because of ‘content’ – when that content is merely the existence of say, a queer character, or a black or brown or indigenous character – that’s saying that our identities are controversial,” said Ahmed.

“Our identities are absolutely not controversial,” Ahmed said. “We exist in this world. And we have a right for our stories to be heard.”