We looked at banned books in Utah’s biggest school districts. What we found might surprise you.

The Salt Lake Tribune compiled a list of 262 books removed across 17 school districts. One literature professor asks: “What are we going to be left with?”

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake Tribune compiled a list of 262 books removed across 17 school districts.

One book was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. One topped a nationwide list for “Best Fiction for Young Adults.” Another has sold 3 million copies and been adapted into a popular Netflix series.

All top the list for the titles most banned by Utah’s biggest school districts.

As the push to remove books from classrooms and libraries wages on — led largely by conservative parent groups across the country and the state — The Salt Lake Tribune looked into what titles have been targeted in the schools attended by most of the state’s children.

The effort to challenge books was codified here with a 2022 law banning any titles containing “pornographic or indecent content” from Utah K-12 libraries and classrooms. And since that took effect, there have been hundreds of complaints filed and hundreds of books pulled.

The Tribune requested a list of the books removed from 17 of the 41 school districts in the state, all along the Wasatch Front, in Utah County and Davis County, down to Washington County School District in southern Utah. Collectively, those districts account for more than 70% of Utah’s public K-12 students.

Across them, 262 books were removed between the law passing last year and school starting this fall. One of the top banned titles, “What Girls Are Made of,” was taken out of six of the districts.

[Explore our database of books banned in Utah schools]

Lauren Liang, an associate professor at the University of Utah who studies censorship in literature for children and young adults, said that number represents the shift in how book challenges are being made.

“It’s no longer about one individual objecting to just one book at their local school,” she said. “We’re seeing this new push to restrict access from these large groups that have long lists of books” that they challenge in multiple districts.

Members of the group Utah Parents United take credit for putting in the bulk of complaints here — with their Facebook page “LaVerna in the Library” dedicated to the titles they find inappropriate and offering instructions on how to submit lists to districts for review. They’ve also filed police reports when they’ve felt the districts haven’t acted quickly enough.

Most of the titles they have flagged focus on race or the LGBTQ community. They have repeatedly challenged the same books, including “The Bluest Eye” by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel about the author’s journey of self-identity.

The books they disapprove of — and that have been removed the most — are award winners and New York Times bestsellers. They include poetry compilations and fantasy novels.

Utah Parents United declined an interview with The Tribune for this story. And the lawmaker who sponsored the bill, Republican Rep. Ken Ivory, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Liang said she worries many of the requests are based on keywords or select scenes, without the challenger reading the full book or looking at the context for why those scenes matter.

The reasons most often listed by school districts for removing books seem to align with that: “Sexual content.” “Violence.” “Illicit description of sex.”

“If you just go after keywords, you lose all these books,” Liang said. “What are we going to be left with?”

The Tribune’s analysis revealed which districts are banning the highest number of books — with the top taking out 54 titles — which authors are being pulled and which books have been removed the most often across the state. Here’s what we found.

The most banned books

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

It was a three-way tie for the most banned book here, with each of the top three titles having been removed from six different districts around the state.

Second place was an eight-way tie. Each of those books was removed from five districts.

Catherine Bates, the former librarian at Brighton High School, said she’s not surprised Sarah J. Maas’ fantasy books take up five of the top 11 spots for banned books in Utah schools. She actually removed some of those titles herself, when she did reviews of her school library in Canyons School District.

Bates said she’d look at scenes, like in Maas’ books, that depicted something sensitive — such as sex. If she found that was only in the book for “prurient interests,” which is a federal standard for school libraries, she’d remove it.

Maas’ books — which are actually described as adult novels — fit that description, she felt.

For other commonly banned authors, she said, it was harder for her to make the decision. For example, “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins — who is one of the top removed authors in Utah — includes content about sex trafficking. Bates said that’s not about the prurient interest, so it’s not as clear.

“It’s not in the same realm as a romance novel but was so graphic,” she said.

She had the same stress over “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood and decided to sit out the review process for that. She felt “too close” to it to be unbiased, she said, having read it multiple times herself and given the book to many students.

As a high school librarian, the students who came to her ranged from 14 years old to 18, which made it a challenge, too.

“Do I think an 18-year-old can handle ‘Oryx and Crake’? 100%,” she said. “Would I give it to a 14-year-old? No, absolutely not.”

The frequent book challenges “made my life much harder and more stressful,” she said, and were part of what led her to leave her job at the end of the 2022-23 school year, after a decade working for Brighton High.

It’s difficult for her to think about the materials she ended up removing from the school’s library, she said, because of how much she “wrestled” with the decisions. Such experiences were leaving her questioning her own competency.

“I’d been a librarian for 10 years and buying books for 10 years and giving books to kids for 10 years and reading 60 to 100 young adult books a year,” she said. “I still felt very unsure about the choices I was making.”

Handfuls of new challenges would be delivered to her every Friday. “It is deeply jarring to get a call from your principal to talk about taking books out of your library,” Bates added.

As a librarian, she said: “I feel like we are the protectors, and we’re the canaries in the coal mine, and the weight of that is hard to bear. … I felt like I was the person protecting my students’ freedom of speech, and that’s a big deal.”

The most banned authors

All five of the most banned authors are women.

Liang, the University of Utah associate professor, said what stands out to her is that three of those female authors — Ellen Hopkins, Elana K. Arnold and Lauren Myracle — write about coming of age experiences for young adults, particularly girls.

A lot of those experiences are traumatic, Liang noted, but they’re real and show the “sadness and the gritty reality of the world.” That includes kids who are sexually abused or have a parent who is addicted to drugs, for instance.

“When those things are in books, they are real things,” she said. “We don’t like to think about the number of kids who experience these things, but they’re here and they do. When the books are shut down, what message are you sending to the kids who have experienced that?”

For those teens, she said, the books are validating and somewhere they can see themselves reflected. And for those who haven’t gone through those things, readers can gain empathy or learn warning signs.

Liang also says there’s a reason that young adult authors include a graphic scene in their work. It’s not gratuitous. “The whole point of the book is that this is not an OK thing,” she said.

She points to books by Ellen Hopkins, which include rape. And the same with “Gender Queer,” where the queer author shares their experience of being assaulted. Liang said it’s not about the assault itself; it’s about how the character processes that and moves forward.

In almost all young adult books, Liang said, the point is to show how the character overcomes something horrific like that — often turning to a trusted adult for help.

“They persevere and succeed,” she said. “It’s about hope.”

The books are a model for survival and without them, she feels, kids are losing an example of how to get through something challenging.

She feels when Utah parents just look at those scenes and cite the pornography law to get rid of them, they’re “not using that term in a way that is appropriate to the access that they’re denying.” The point of pornography, she said, is different; it’s about arousal.

That’s not what authors like Hopkins are doing.

Hopkins spoke to The Tribune about her books being banned 35 times across Utah’s biggest school districts. She said she writes about real experiences — including her daughter’s addiction.

“‘Crank’ is my daughter’s story,” she said. “It’s my family’s story.”

Her daughter, Hopkins said, was a straight-A student who wanted to attend an art institute after high school. Then she met a guy, and he introduced her to drugs. Her daughter has struggled with addiction for the 25 years since.

“I wanted to show how easy it would be for that beautiful kid to make one wrong decision … to try to show kids not to do that,” Hopkins said.

The rape scene in the book, she noted, happened to her daughter. It’s real life.

“Every kid’s life isn’t pretty,” Hopkins said. “We can’t just take the ugliness out of the libraries. You need to see it. … And all of my books show them there is always a way out.”

She also provides a list of resources in all of her books. And — what might surprise many parents challenging her titles — there’s also a reference to Christianity in every book. Hopkins grew up in the Lutheran faith and incorporates that into all of her literature.

After every book reading or book signing, Hopkins said, she has a kid or two or three come up to her to share their experience and to thank her for highlighting real traumas. They tell her they feel seen.

The districts that have removed the most books

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The top five districts in the state that have banned the most books collectively account for 223 titles removed. And together, they oversee 42% of the public K-12 students in Utah.

Washington County School District sits at No. 1 with 54 titles pulled. Many of those books — as in other districts — are about the LGBTQ community. That includes removing “This Book is Gay” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

Liang said books about the queer experience are often targeted by parents. But she says access to those is important for kids who may be closeted and want to see themselves in literature.

“When you ban a book, you’re removing access to it for everyone — not removing it just for your individual child,” she said.

Washington County School District has also removed books on race, including “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. Liang said that title often pops up in challenges because it includes a scene about rape. But she feels it’s important and can be read along with a teacher to provide context and historical understanding.

Erasing race or the LGBTQ communities by removing those and other diverse books, though, Liang believes sends a message to students who identify with the characters. It tells them, she said, that they don’t matter or shouldn’t be seen.

At the same time, Washington County School District has kept some challenged books about those communities, including “Julián is a Mermaid,” which is a picture book about a boy who wants to become a mermaid, as well as “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, which deals with racism and police brutality.

Washington County School District spokesman Steven Dunham has previously said the district should balance what’s age appropriate with providing diverse titles that represent all kids.

“I also think it’s interesting how parents are challenging these books in our libraries,” he added. “This is the place that they think their children are going to be corrupted. But they are also giving them phones where they can look up anything.”

Alpine School District — the No. 4 district on the list and the biggest district in the state — made headlines for pulling 52 books to review. Of those in that one challenge from one parent, it removed 22 titles. Overall, it has taken 41 books off the shelf across its schools.

“Our process is tested, sound and fair,” said Vallen Thomas, who oversees the material review process for the district. He said the district has also conducted its own audit of the books it provides access to.

Davis School District drew national attention this past year when a review committee there voted to remove the Bible from elementary and middle schools for containing violence. A parent who was upset at the other books being challenged in the district said if those were going to be removed, the Bible should, too, for being “one of the most sex-ridden books around.”

The district’s Board of Education later reversed that decision and restored the Good Book to shelves.

But Davis still comes in at No. 3 on the list for removing 50 titles.

Liang said Utah has long been seen as the birthplace and breeding ground for authors writing kid and young adult literature — including Shannon Hale, whose works haven’t been banned in the biggest districts here, but have in other states.

Now, the challenges and the removals, she said, are making both authors and teachers nervous. Hopkins admits that she has questioned herself on what she should write next.

Liang is co-director of the READ-U program at the U. that works with teachers on selecting books for their classes that highlight empathy, awareness and diversity. Many, she said, are now self-censoring and worry about each title they pick. Instead of picking what they consider the best of the best books, she said, they’re trying to find ones that don’t mention any sensitive topic.