Book Bans Up 33% Over Last Two School Years

Library with many shelves and books, diminishing perspective and shallow dof
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The past two school years have seen “a mounting crisis of book bans,” according to a report released Dec. 14 from PEN America, the 100-year-old organization dedicated to freedom of expression and the freedom to write. While the record number of bans is worrying in itself, just as concerning are the trends in how the bans are spreading.

The report, “Spineless Shelves: Two Years of Book Banning,” by Sabrina Baêta and Kasey Meehan, found that in public schools, the number of bans — actions taken because of a book’s content, leading to its removal or restriction from students — rose 33% between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, from 2,532 bans to 3,362, for a total of 5,894 bans, impacting 2,823 unique titles. 

Florida and Texas led the country, comprising 34% and 24%, respectively, of all recorded bans over the last two years, followed by Pennsylvania, Missouri, Tennessee, Utah and South Carolina. The bans extend much further, however, with a total of 247 school districts across 41 states banning books.

Bans of any given book from both libraries and classrooms also rose from 13% of all bans in 2021-22 to 38% in 2022-23 — an “intensifying” of efforts as districts change policies to prohibit certain types of content, override standard processes, and respond to state legislation, PEN America explained. The bans have thus been “more comprehensive and potentially more permanent.”

Across both academic years, 83% of bans were of books written for young adult or younger readers. Young adult books were the most targeted, comprising 58% of bans, followed far behind by adult books (17%), middle grade books (12%), picture books (10%), and chapter books (3%). “While the banning movement promotes misleading rhetoric that books are ‘pornographic’ and cause ‘indoctrination,’ the reality is that these books are written with school-age students in mind as both educational and empowering resources, even when they detail difficult experiences,” the report asserted.

The numbers tell only part of the story, however. Unsurprising to anyone who has followed the subject of book bans in recent years, books with characters of color, LGBTQ+ characters, and other diverse characters were “overwhelmingly” subject to bans. There has been a shift over the past two years, though, PEN America found, noting that “While the book ban movement initially focused on removing ‘critical race theory’ and ‘divisive concepts’ in 2021, this past year saw heightened attacks on books that discuss sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual experiences as well as ‘unconformable topics’ like sexual wellbeing, violence, abuse, grief, and death.” More than a third of all books removed since 2021 include instances of violence and physical abuse, including sexual assault. Yet PEN America stressed, “When included in young adult literature, these ‘difficult concepts’ prove essential in helping readers understand themselves and the world around them.”

The surge in bans has been supercharged by several worrying practices, the report said. Many times, a book will be banned in one district because it has been banned in another, and these “copycat bans” are now “a key component of the book ban movement.” Florida’s Seminole County Public Schools, for example, reportedly removed 31 titles from its libraries based on a list of books that other Florida districts had received complaints about.

Similarly, some books were targeted for bans after at least one other book by the same author was banned. PEN America explains, “Authors are marked with a ‘Scarlet Letter’ that impacts their reputation and leaves schools wary of carrying any of their titles, even ones whose content previously inspired little controversy.”

As PEN America noted in an October report, too, national conservative organizations are behind many of the bans, creating lists of targeted books, training people on how to challenge books, and advocating for state legislation such as Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay/Trans” law that creates sweeping bans. This means that more and more, as the December report notes, “schools and their librarians have been stripped of the responsibility to determine the availability of reading materials in their schools.” This is happening even though a November study from the EveryLibrary Institute found that 92% of parents, grandparents and guardians “trust children’s librarians to select appropriate books and materials for the library,” PEN America noted.

On the positive side, though, students and others have been protesting bans and some bans have been reversed, as in the Central York School District of Pennsylvania earlier this year. Many school districts are also keeping books on shelves after they have been challenged and gone through the required evaluation process.

In what feels like heartening news, too, PEN America’s new president and chair is a queer parent, among her many other identities and accomplishments, and is poised to continue the organization’s fight against censorship. Author, professor and transgender advocate Jennifer Finney Boylan took the reins on Dec. 11, emphasizing in an interview at penamerica.org that “The books most likely to be banned are about queer experiences and about people of color and that should tell you whose stories they feel are going to change the world.”

She continued, “It’s not about trans people—and I don’t want people to think that PEN is now going to be all exclusively focused on trans — it’s about allowing people to know that they are worthy of stories, that their lives have value, that there is a story for all of us.”