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NEW YORK – The literary and free expression organization PEN America today released a new Index of School Book Bans and accompanying report, Banned in the USA, that documents the alarming spike in censorship of books in school districts across the country over the past nine months, with individual books and even whole categories of books—many related to race, racism, sexual orientation and gender identity— disappearing from school library shelves and barred from classrooms and curricula. The organization said the widespread censorship was unparalleled in its intensity and frequency and represents a serious threat to free expression and students’ First Amendment rights.  This report constitutes the first detailed, book by book, district by district account of what books are being banned, where in the country, and through what procedures.

Here are the topline findings:

  • The Index lists 1,586 book bans that have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states between July 1, 2021 and March 31 of this year. These districts represent 2,899 schools with a combined enrollment of over 2 million students. 
  • These bans have targeted 1,145 unique book titles by 874 different authors, 198 illustrators, and 9 translators, impacting the literary, scholarly, and creative work of 1,081 people altogether.
  • Texas led the country with the most bans at 713; followed by Pennsylvania (456); Florida (204); Oklahoma (43); Kansas (30); and Tennessee (16).
  • Processes aimed to uphold the First Amendment in the context of school book challenges are not being followed. Of bans in the Index, 98%  involve departures from best practice guidelines for how school authorities may remove books; most bans and restrictions have occurred without proper written forms, review committees, or transparency. While school boards and administrators do have some discretion over library and instructional materials, there are safeguards and best practices meant to protect students’ First Amendment rights that are being widely abrogated.
  • Among titles in the index:
    • 467 titles (41%) included protagonists or prominent secondary characters who were people of color;
    • 247 titles (22%) directly address issues of race and racism
    • 379 titles (33%) explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes, or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+
    • 184 titles (16%) are history books or biographies. 107 have explicit or prominent themes related to rights and activism (9%).
    • 42 children’s books were censored, including biographies of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, Duke Ellington, Katherine Johnson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cesar Chavez, Sonia Sotomayor, Nelson Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai.
    • The majority of the books targeted have been works of fiction, however 28% are non-fiction and include history books, analytical and/or personal essays, and children’s reference and informational works.

The top 3 banned titles all are centered on LGBTQ+ individuals or touch on the topic of same-sex relationships: Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe banned in 30 districts, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, banned in 21 districts, and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, banned in 16 districts. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, a love story between a Black teenage boy and a Mexican-American girl set in 1930s Texas, was also banned in 16 districts. The Bluest Eye by the late Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison is the fifth most banned book, in 12 districts.

Jonathan Friedman, Director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program and lead author of the report, said: “Book challenges in American schools are nothing new, but this type of data has never been tallied and quite frankly the results are shocking. Challenges to books, specifically books by non-white male authors are happening at the highest rates we’ve ever seen. What is happening in this country in terms of banning books in schools is unparalleled in its frequency, intensity, and success. Because of the tactics of censors and the politicization of books we are seeing the same books removed across state lines: books about race, gender, LGBTQ+ identities and sex most often. This is an orchestrated attack on books whose subjects only recently gained a foothold on school library shelves and in classrooms. We are witnessing the erasure of topics that only recently represented progress toward inclusion.”

Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said: “A probing look at the surge in book bans across the country exposes an alarming pattern of mounting restrictions targeting specific stories and ideas and the widespread abandonment of established procedures aimed to safeguard the First Amendment in public education.  Parents and community members deserve a voice in shaping what is taught in our schools; but the embrace of book bans as a weapon to ward off narratives that are seen as threatening represents a troubling retreat from America’s historic commitment to the First Amendment rights of students, and to reacting to speech considered objectionable with more speech, rather than censorious prohibitions. 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.” 

As many news outlets have reported, book bans have become a favorite tool for state-wide and national political mobilization, departing from prior patterns whereby such bans tended to originate locally and spontaneously. National groups including Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, and Parents Defending Education are collating lists of books that they view as “racist” and “indoctrination” to mobilize under the banner of “parents’ rights” and press their case to disaffected parents and responsive school authorities. At the same time, state legislators are introducing — and in some cases passing — educational gag orders to censor teachers, proposals to track and monitor teachers, and mechanisms to facilitate greater ease of book banning in school districts.

In response, opponents are mobilizing nationwide. On Thursday, Red Wine and Blue, a nationwide group of suburban Democratic-leaning women fighting the red-state proposals, has organized a nationwide “read-in” of banned books hosted by Dolly Parton’s sister Stella that features the authors of targeted books such as “I Am Rosa Parks” and “Heather Has Two Mommies.”

In addition to bans and restrictions, PEN America has also been tracking the spike in educational gag orders being proposed by lawmakers across the country, and the many bans on topics, materials and books that teachers can use in the classroom. Since January 2021, these include:

  • 175 educational gag order bills have been introduced in 40 different states.
  • Fifteen have become law in 13 states; 103 are currently under consideration.
  • Of these, 97 target K-12 schools and 42 target higher education.

In compiling the Index of School Book Bans, PEN America defined a school 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, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.