BookLooks.org Fuels the Book-Banning Movement
by Mick O'Leary
In March 2023, ALA released data noting that in 2022, there were 1,269 library book-banning attempts, the highest number since ALA began compiling such data. This was almost twice as many attempts as the 729 in 2021, which was itself a record. (This updates coverage of book-banning attempts in the October 2022 Database Review, “Book Ban Watchdogs Track Troubling Trends.”) Almost all of the attempts were directed at school (58%) and public (41%) libraries.
BookLooks.org is a collection of ratings and excerpts for several hundred books that are regularly cited by people and groups participating in the book-banning movement against school and public libraries.
In addition to this startling increase, ALA describes two ominous trends that have surged over the 2-year period, marking major changes in previous book-banning patterns. The first is that the attempts concentrate on LGBTQ+ titles. ALA’s top 10 most challenged books for 2021 and 2022 include many in this category. The second shows that the nature of library book banning has drastically changed. Previously, most library book challenges were made by individuals against an individual book. In the new book-banning movement, attempts are conducted by organized groups that target multiple books—even into the hundreds.
Fueling this massive, concerted assault is a mysterious and secretive book content hub that goes by the seemingly innocuous name of BookLooks.org. It contains what it calls “book reports” on hundreds of books that it deems offensive or harmful to children and young adult readers. It is the go-to source for book-banning groups across the country. By providing a ready-made list of books for activists to target, it has super-charged the new book-banning movement.
BOOKLOOKS.ORG’S BLANK FACADE
Over the past 36 years, I have reviewed hundreds of databases, and I’ve never seen any as deliberately obscure as BookLooks.org; it’s in a class by itself. There are no names anywhere on the site: no founders, managers, editors, reviewers, technicians, or contacts. There is an incomplete address—“West Melbourne FL 32904”—and no phone number. There is no indication of its funding structure and almost nothing about its methodology. There is a blog section, but it’s empty. There is no organizational history.
The site provides a mission statement saying that BookLooks.org identifies books with “objectionable content,” including “profanity, nudity, and sexual content,” so that parents can make informed decisions about their children’s reading. In its FAQ section, BookLooks.org states, “We are not affiliated with any other groups,” but this appears to be subtly misleading. Reports from The Washington Post and other sources state that BookLooks.org was founded in 2022 by a member of Moms for Liberty, an activist group for parental involvement in school libraries, curricula, and governance.
BookLooks.org lists approximately 540 books, all of which, it claims, it has discovered in a school library. A large number are recent adult and young adult fiction titles, including multiple books by popular authors such as Colleen Hoover, Elana K. Arnold, Ellen Hopkins, and Sarah J. Maas. There are also numerous fiction titles for younger readers. A smaller number of nonfiction books deal with racial and sexual themes. The list has about a dozen classic novels that for many years have been regularly censored, including Lolita, Portnoy’s Complaint, and Slaughterhouse-Five (but not other common targets such as The Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn). Although BookLooks.org cites several categories of content it deems objectionable, the most commonly referenced themes deal with sexuality and gender identity.
The books are presented in an alphabetical list by title. There is no search function and no downloadable list or spreadsheet.
HOW BOOKLOOKS.ORG RATES BOOKS
BookLooks.org has a self-designed rating system that it says is modeled after those for other media. There are six ratings: 0 to 5. They are based on several types of offensive content, including violence, hate, profanity, and drug/alcohol use, and four types of sexual content (nudity, sexuality, gender identities, and sexual activities).
Each rating lists several unacceptable content types, by age level. The 0 rating has no hate, profanity, sexuality, or drug/alcohol use, and only “mild inexplicit violence.” It is suitable for all ages. Subsequent ratings have increasing amounts of offensive content and are acceptable for successively older age groups. Ratings 4 and 5 deal solely with sexual content and are for adults only. Rating 0 has about a dozen books. Rating 5 has almost 20, including four by Chuck Palahniuk. The other rating categories each have more than 100 books.
BookLooks.org mentions that it evaluates books “as a whole.” As an example, it explains that the racism in To Kill a Mockingbird would earn the book a 3, but its other redeeming values give it a 2. Other aspects of the rating methodology that should be explained but are completely absent include rater’s names, qualifications, and training; assignment and number of reviewers for books; and any editorial and review processes.
WHAT’S IN A REPORT
The books’ reports include the following fields (but not every field may be in every report):
- Cover art
- A one-sentence book summary
- Summary of Concerns, based on the site’s rating system
- Reader level (Adult, Young Adult, etc.)
- Excerpts of offending content, with page numbers
- Profanity and Count—Profane words with the number of occurrences
The number and length of offensive content excerpts vary widely among book reports. Some have only a handful of short excerpts, while others have dozens, which can be more than 100 words long. For many books with 4 and 5 ratings, there is an abridged, one-page record called a Slick Sheet, which has the title, author, and two or three short excerpts.
BOOKLOOKS.ORG AT WORK
BookLooks.org’s records are used by dozens of book-banning groups targeting school libraries across the country. One of the most prominent is Rated Books, which is based in Utah. Its site has a spreadsheet with approximately 500 BookLooks.org titles, with ratings, citations, and links to the BookLooks.org reports and Slick Sheets.
Rated Books has a national directory of book banners, with links to the sites or Facebook pages of 56 groups. These groups vary in size and volume of activity. Many specifically document their bans with data on books that have been challenged in individual schools—often using BookLooks.org records. (And there are more book-banning groups than are counted in the Rated Books list, to which I can personally attest: There is in my home county of Frederick, Maryland, a determined book-banning group that uses BookLooks.org, but isn’t in the Rated Books list.)
Rated Books demonstrates the activist, organized, and political nature of the book-banning movement. It provides a full set of guidelines, how-to’s, and templates for searching school library book catalogs, publicizing the “illicit” book problem, creating websites and local school book lists, influencing school board members and legislators, and connecting with other banning groups.
BOOK BANNING AND CULTURE WARS
The most damaging deception in BookLooks.org—and the entire book-banning movement—is the implicit notion that elementary school children are being exposed to books by Chuck Palahniuk and Vladimir Nabokov. This—deliberately or ignorantly—grossly misunderstands the operation of the country’s school and public libraries, which meticulously deploy books by age and maturity level. A book with a BookLooks.org rating of 4, 5, or even 3 would no more likely be found in an elementary school library than an advanced calculus textbook.
The book-banning movement is a major theater in the nation’s raging culture wars, but it’s not alone. Other battlegrounds include relentless efforts at local and state levels to rewrite school curricula, to pack school boards with activist members, and to intimidate—administratively, judicially, and sometimes personally—librarians, teachers, and school administrators. With its turnkey simplicity, provocative content, and deceptive messaging, BookLooks.org is serious armament for the book banners.