School Book Bans Are Rising at an Unprecedented Rate

According to a report by PEN America, 50 conservative advocacy groups moved to ban more than 1648 books in 32 states within the last school year. The report speaks to a growing push for censorship in public schools nationwide.

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PEN America is a nonprofit that works “to defend and celebrate free expression in the United States and worldwide through the advancement of literature and human rights.”

The nonprofit found that several of the banned books contained content related to race, sexuality or both themes. 41% of all books banned between April to June featured protagonists or secondary characters who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community. These conservative advocacy groups consider LGBTQ+ themes “obscene” in educational institutions.

Books discussing slavery and the darker parts of America’s past were banned to stop the instruction of what conservatives call “critical race theory.” 21% of all books directly addressed the issues of race or racism. 40% of all banned titles featured protagonists or secondary characters of color.

Almost half of the bans within the school year have been tied to lobbying by political ideologists or legislation created to restructure state public school curricula.

In the report, the chief executive officer of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, spoke about the dangers of book-banning movements.

“This censorious movement is turning our public schools into political battlegrounds, driving wedges within communities, forcing teachers and librarians from their jobs and casting a chill over the spirit of open inquiry and intellectual freedom that underpin a flourishing democracy.”

The most prominent group behind the ongoing censorship movement is Moms for Liberty, formed in 2021 and described by members as an organization that fights for “parental rights” in schools. The group has 200 local chapters. According to PEN America, many of these advocacy groups use tactics such as swarming school board meetings, demanding rating classification systems in libraries, characterizing LGBTQ+ advocacy groups as “groomers,” and even filing criminal complaints against school officials, teachers and librarians.

PEN America defines a book ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials.” These actions lead to a book previously accessible in a school being wholly removed or significantly restricted.

While not accounted for in total book ban numbers, PEN America has also identified silent bans being put into place across the country. These bans are insidious, with books being removed from displays to avoid controversy or books being labeled or marked as inappropriate by vendors. In the Collier County School District in Florida, 100 books carried warning labels. These books also largely contained stories about LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color.

Jonathan Friedman, a lead author of the report, spoke on how the book banning movement has led to “more and more students losing access to literature that equips them to meet the challenges and complexities of democratic citizenship.”

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“The work of groups organizing and advocating to ban books in schools is especially harmful to students from historically marginalized backgrounds, who are forced to experience stories that validate their lives vanishing from classrooms and library shelves.”

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Among the most banned authors is Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison. The most banned book in the past year was “Gender Queer: A Memoir by Mai Kobabe.”

In November, the Republican governor of South Carolina described the book as “sexually explicit” and “pornographic” and pushed for libraries to remove it from their shelves.

The states with the most book bans are Texas, followed closely by Florida and Pennsylvania.

One hundred thirty-eight districts restrict monitored content, covering 5,000 individual schools with nearly 4 million students. Forty-one districts banned the book.

In Wisconsin, a school’s decision to ban “When the Emperor was Divine” by Julie Otsuka caused an uproar among teachers, parents and students. The community organized protests to rally against the move, citing it as an erasure of history. The book is about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Min Jin Lee, a bestselling author and National Book Award Finalist, reacted to the ban on Twitter.

“Dear publishing, book, English teacher, writer, education, academic, history and media Twitter folks: Anti-diversity, anti-CRT and anti-history = lies. The next generation deserves truth.”

Several legislators are working to create policy changes at the local and statewide levels. In Texas, lawmaker Matt Krause demanded that public school libraries remove 850 different books. The move was met with outrage among librarians, who took to the internet to create campaigns to express their anger.

State legislative efforts to stop schools from teaching issues related to race, sexuality, aspects of American history and LGBTQ+ identities are referred to as “educational gag orders.” As of August 2022, educational gag orders have increased 250% compared to 2021, according to PEN America. These gag orders often come with punishments such as “heavy fines or loss of state funding for institutions, termination or even criminal charges for teachers.” Some bills have even targeted private schools and universities.

In 2021, PEN America made a statement on educational gag orders, which are beginning to grow across the nation.

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“In a democracy, the response to these disagreements can never be to ban discussion of ideas or facts simply because they are contested or cause discomfort. As American society reckons with the persistence of racial discrimination and inequity, and the complexities of historical memory, attempts to use the power of the state to constrain discussion of these issues must be rejected.”