Attempts to ban books from school libraries in America will surge again this school year after hitting historic highs last year, two national reports have found.
The studies, released over the weekend by the American Library Association (known as ALA) and PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to free speech, both suggest that the number of books being removed from school libraries is increasing is on track to exceed the target of thousands last year. And both numbers are likely gross underestimates.
The association’s report documents 681 attempts to ban or restrict access to 1,651 different books in schools between January 1 and August 31 this year. In 2021, the association tracked 729 attempts to ban or restrict access to 1,597 books — what was then the highest number of attempted book bans in a year since the association began investigating the problem two decades ago. For comparison, book challenges and bans hovered around the high 200s and high 400s between 2018 and 2020.
PEN America’s report found that between July 2021 and June 2022 there were 2,532 book ban attempts targeting 1,648 unique books. This latest tally builds on a PEN America report released in April, which found just over 1,500 attempted book bans for about 1,000 titles between July 2021 and March 2022. Until last year, PEN America had not tracked these numbers in detail.
Both reports found that the contested texts were overwhelmingly written by or about people of color or LGBTQ people.
Both Jonathan Friedman, director of free speech and educational programs at PEN America, and Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA Office of Freedom of Thought, warned of dire consequences for the current generation of students — even in cases where attempted book bans and texts fail returned to shelves, or where students find ways to access books even outside of school.
“If you dictate what people can read, what they can choose from, that’s the hallmark of an authoritarian society, not a democratic society,” Caldwell-Stone said. “We really need to question what we’re trying to do for our young people’s education,” she said.
Friedman argued that children could learn to be ashamed of certain identities if books featuring them were banned. “That stigma can have a psychological impact on young people and their sense of belonging,” he said, “and on the imagination they have of the stories they might eventually write themselves.”
The rise in book bans and challenges comes amid an educational culture war, in which parents, teachers, school officials, students, politicians and experts are arguing about how educators should teach about race, racism, American history, gender identity, sexuality and LGBTQ issues. Hundreds of laws have been proposed — and dozens passed — including bills restricting education in all of these categories.
At least six states have also enacted legislation targeting school libraries. These mandate parental involvement in book reviews and make it easier for families to remove books or limit the texts available at school. Five other states are considering such legislation. Because of laws like these and similar district-level policies, librarians and schoolchildren have less freedom to pursue their reading interests this year, the Washington Post previously reported.
The most challenged book for the second year in a row was Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a treatise on gender nonbinaryness, the ALA found. Of the 10 most challenged titles, five contain LGBTQ content or characters and five have protagonists of color.
The PEN report tracked attempted or completed book bans in 138 school districts in 32 states, representing a combined enrollment of nearly 4 million students. 41% of target titles contained LGBTQ themes or main characters, while 40% contained protagonists or strong supporting characters of color. 22% contained sexual content and 21% involved discussions about race and racism.
For both reports, it is unclear how often book challenges resulted in those titles being removed from libraries. There have been a few instances where contested titles have been brought back to the shelves.
The PEN report found that 1,157 books were banned outright from libraries or classrooms or both, while 1,375 books were banned pending investigation. PEN America’s Friedman said some of those books may now have been returned to shelves, while others have been returned with restrictions – such as parental viewing permission – and some remain on hold.
It’s almost impossible to know the exact numbers, Friedman said, because challenges often last for months and districts don’t always announce results. And with the demise of local news outlets, few media organizations are able to track efforts to ban books at the district level, he said. In each case, PEN America attempted to follow up to determine the outcome, but often could not find clear answers or received no answers.
Also, not all book challenges go through a formal process that involves public review and notification of results, Friedman said. He estimates that a minority of all book challenges currently take place through such channels.
Both PEN America and the ALA have noted — and the Washington Post has previously reported — that many book bans are clandestine and outside the rules. Caldwell-Stone said the ALA is seeing a spike in findings where school management administrators ignore written policies and instead “remove a book immediately, and often that book just disappears.”
Friedman estimated that what PEN America has been tracking accounts for at most 25% of the number of books being contested or publicly or quietly ripped from shelves in school districts across the country. PEN America’s report was based either on media reports or on reports from individual district staff who had contacted the group directly. The ALA report was based on news reports, public records, and tips and reports given directly to the association.
Caldwell-Stone said the ALA report likely captured an even smaller percentage of the total number of book bans and challenges in its report. She noted that ALA recently compared notes with a group of students at the University of Missouri School of Journalism who, as part of a research project, had sent public information requests to every school district in the state about book bans and challenges.
When ALA staffers maintained their own database of book challenges alongside the University of Missouri’s database, they found that they had managed to track only about 8% of the book challenges the journalism students uncovered.
“And of course we don’t have the capacity to issue FOIAs for all school districts in all 50 states,” Caldwell-Stone said. “But because of this information, we know that we don’t see everything that’s going on.”