Over the past nearly two years, Republican politicians have pushed to remove books about the history of racism and LGBTQ identities from school library shelves. A new report by PEN America, a nonprofit focused on free expression rights, shows that these book bans in the U.S. have reached their highest levels yet.
According to a report out April 20, the nonprofit calculated 1,477 instances of individual books banned during the first half of the 2022-23 school year, involving 874 unique titles— about 100 books being banned a month—up from 1,149 instances of book banning from January to June 2022. PEN America defines book banning as the removal of a book that was previously available, or reducing access to a book, either temporarily or permanently. Since the organization started tracking book bans in July 2021, it has recorded more than 4,000 instances, involving 2,253 unique titles and affecting 182 school districts in 37 states and millions of students. Most of the bans are occurring in states including Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina.
“This fall, we’ve seen more instances of books being banned than in prior semesters,” says Kasey Meehan, Program Director of PEN America’s Freedom to Read initiative and lead author of the new report titled “Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression in Schools.” The purpose of the report is “to continue to raise awareness and alarm that book banning is, in fact, happening.”
Historically, parents have been behind most of the efforts to pull books off shelves. But researchers found a shift between the 2021-2022 school year and the 2022-2023 school year: now more of the bans are coming from legislators. Last year, Missouri enacted a law banning sexually explicit books in public and private schools, with penalties including jail time and fines. In February, Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and George Santos co-sponsored a bill aimed at prohibiting publishing houses from sending books with “sexually explicit” books to schools. In March 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is expected to run for president in 2024, opened a press conference by slamming what he called “pornographic” content in books in schools.
“One of the biggest ways that the censorship movement is escalating is the jump from being driven predominantly by grassroots organizing, by individual parents, by parent-led advocacy groups,” says Meehan. “More and more we are tracking proposals, as well as enacted legislation.”
Conservative activists are targeting books not only in school libraries, but also in public libraries. Missouri lawmakers have proposed withholding state funding from libraries, and libraries in Llano County, Texas, were close to closing after books like Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents were removed from shelves.
Among the books most frequently targeted are Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir (2019) and Mike Curato’s Flamer (2020). While previous reports on the state of book banning by PEN America found most of the targeted books featured the history of racism and LGBTQ issues, books banned during the 2022 school year covered broader topics. Forty-four percent of the targeted books have involved violence and abuse, 38% discuss health related content, and 30% contain themes about death and grief. According to Meehan, PEN America essentially saw an increase in efforts to ban books with “things that make people uncomfortable.”
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