PEN America, a literary and free expression advocacy organization, released a detailed analysis on Thursday of challenges to and bans on school library books and class curriculums. The group said it documented media reports, consulted school district websites, and spoke with librarians, authors and teachers from July 31, 2021, to March 31, 2022.
According to PEN America, in that period, there were 1,586 books banned. Texas led the country with the most book bans – 713 – affecting 16 school districts, followed by Pennsylvania and Florida with 456 and 204 bans, respectively. PEN America describes a book ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content” that leads to the removal or restriction of a previously accessible book. The analysis includes book removals or restrictions that lasted at least a day, the group says.
Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program and lead author of the report, said challenges to books in American schools are nothing new, but the rate at which they have recently taken place is “unparalleled.”
“Challenges to books, specifically books by non-White male authors, are happening at the highest rates we’ve ever seen,” Friedman said. “What is happening in this country in terms of banning books in schools is unparalleled in its frequency, intensity, and success.”
The group says the book bans were directed at 1,145 different titles, many of which tell stories related to LGBTQ people and people of color.
PEN America said the analysis of book titles was based on “standard publishing information provided through marketing and sales materials by publishers for books, as well as relevant reading and review of the books in question.”
The findings are similar to those released earlier this week by the American Library Association. Both groups described the number of book challenges as unprecedented and named the same six titles among the most banned books.
Those six titles are, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez, “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison and “Beyond Magenta” by Susan Kuklin. Each title has been banned in at least 11 school districts.
Kobabe’s book has been banned in 30 school districts, PEN America says, the most of any other book.
Politicians and school board members have played a significant role in book banning, PEN America says. At least 41% of book bans were linked to directives from state officials or elected lawmakers.
In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has pressured school boards to remove what he calls “pornography” from school libraries. Meanwhile in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill late last month that requires school libraries to post more information about their collections and seek community input on materials they acquire.
The trend, PEN America says, is a departure from past book removal practices, which were usually initiated by community members.
The book bans “have become a favorite tool for state-wide and national political mobilization” with groups such as Moms for Liberty, a conservative group whose “mission is to organize, educate and empower parents,” curating lists of books to be challenged and urging parents to mobilize, the analysis says.
The group also found that at least 96% of the bans were initiated by school administrators or board members and that for the most part, school officials did not follow existing guidelines, raising “serious concerns,” it said.
The report also states that school officials were not transparent or made “opaque or ad hoc decisions” before removing book titles.
Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said the wave of book bans represents a troubling retreat from America’s historic commitment to First Amendment rights.
“By short-circuiting rights-protective review processes, these bans raise serious concerns in terms of constitutionality, and represent an affront to the role of our public schools as vital training grounds for democratic citizenship that instill a commitment to freedom of speech and thought,” Nossel said.