The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

School book bans and challenges, at record highs, are rising again

Cries to remove books from classrooms and library shelves is nothing new. Some of what has shifted are the storylines, characters and authors being silenced. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Illustration: Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)
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Attempts to ban books from school libraries in America are on track to rise again this school year, after reaching historic highs last year, a pair of national reports has found.

The studies, released over the weekend by the American Library Association (known as ALA) and PEN America, a nonprofit devoted to free expression, both suggest that the number of books being targeted for removal from school libraries is on track to exceed the thousands targeted last year. And both counts are likely significant underestimates.

The association’s report documents 681 attempts to ban or restrict access to 1,651 different books in schools between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of this year. In 2021, the association tracked 729 efforts to ban or restrict access to 1,597 books — which at the time represented the highest tally of attempted book bans in one year since the association began studying the issue two decades ago. For comparison, book challenges and bans hovered around the high 200s and the high 400s between 2018 and 2020.

The PEN America report found that, between July 2021 and June 2022, there were 2,532 attempted book bans targeting 1,648 unique books. This newest count builds on a PEN America report published in April that found slightly more than 1,500 attempted book bans, targeting 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 texts being challenged are overwhelmingly those written by or about people of color or LGBTQ individuals.

Both Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, and Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom, warned of dire consequences for the current generation of students — even in the cases where attempted book bans fail and texts are returned to shelves, or where students find ways to access books on their own outside of school.

“When you dictate what people can read, what people can choose from, that’s the mark of an authoritarian society, not a democratic society,” said Caldwell-Stone. “We really have to question what we intend for the education of our young people,” she said.

Friedman argued that children can learn to feel ashamed of certain identities when books featuring them become banned. “That stigma can have psychological impacts on young people and their sense of belonging,” he said, “and the imagination they have about the stories they themselves could eventually write.”

The spike in book bans and challenges come amid an education culture war that has seen parents, teachers, school officials, students, politicians and pundits battle over 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 that limit teaching in all of these categories.

At least six states have also passed laws targeting school libraries. These mandate parental involvement in reviewing books, making it easier for families to remove books or restrict the texts available at school. Five more states are considering such legislation. Because of laws like these, and similar district-level policies, librarians and schoolchildren alike have less freedom this year to pursue their reading interests, The Washington Post previously reported.

Students lose access to books amid ‘state-sponsored purging of ideas’

The most challenged book for the second year in a row was Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer,” a memoir about being gender nonbinary, the ALA found. Of the 10 most challenged titles, five feature LGBTQ content or characters and five feature protagonists of color.

The PEN report tracked attempted or accomplished book bannings in 138 school districts across 32 states, together representing a combined enrollment of close to 4 million students. Forty-one percent of the targeted titles included LGBTQ themes or main characters, while 40 percent included protagonists or strong secondary characters of color. Twenty-two percent featured sexual content and 21 percent involved discussions of race and racism.

For both reports, it is unclear how often book challenges led the removal of those titles from libraries. There have been some instances where challenged titles are returned to shelves.

The PEN report found that 1,157 books were fully banned from libraries or classrooms or both, while 1,375 books were banned pending investigations. Friedman of PEN America said that some of those books may have since been returned to shelves, while others were returned with restrictions — for example requiring parental permission for viewing — and some remain in limbo.

It is almost impossible to know the exact numbers, said Friedman, because challenges often last for months on end and districts do not always announce the outcomes. And with the decline of local news outlets, there are few media organizations able to follow book banning efforts at the district level, he said. PEN America tried to follow up to determine the outcome in every case, but was often unable to find clear answers or received no replies.

Besides, not all book challenges are proceeding through a formal process involving public review and notification of outcomes, Friedman said. He estimates a minority of all book challenges are taking place through such channels at this point.

Both PEN America and the ALA have found — and The Washington Post has previously reported — that many book bans are taking place clandestinely, outside the rules. Caldwell-Stone said the ALA is seeing a spike in outcomes where school board administrators ignore written policies and, instead, “immediately remove a book, and often that book just disappears.”

Friedman estimated that what PEN America has tracked might be only 25 percent, at most, of the number of books being challenged or publicly or quietly yanked from shelves in school districts across the country. PEN America’s report was based either on media reports or on the reports of individual district employees who 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 probably captured an even lower 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 journalism school who, as part of a research project, had sent public information requests about book bans and challenges to every school district in the state.

When ALA staffers held up their own database of book challenges alongside the University of Missouri database, they found they had managed to track only about 8 percent of the book challenges the journalism students uncovered.

“And clearly we don’t have the capacity to issue FOIAs to all school districts in all 50 states,” Caldwell-Stone said. “But based on that information, we know we aren’t seeing everything that’s going on.”