Double The Book Bans In Half The Time: PEN America’s Latest Book Ban Report

Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She’s the editor/author of (DON’T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Following closely on the heels of the American Library Association’s report on the top 10 most banned books in the United States last week comes a report from PEN America diving further into the ever-evolving reality of book bans. Titled “Banned in the USA: Illustrating Book Bans Across Public Schools,” the report not only offers a look at the number of books being banned but also frames the themes present in the ways in which book banners are targeting these books.

In the first six months of the 2023-2024 school year—July through December 2023—there have been twice as many book bans in public schools than there were in the whole of the 2022-2023 school year. Ban here represents books that were removed from shelves where they once were, regardless of whether or not the title has undergone any formal review process. Over 4,000 books were banned in that time frame, compared to 1,841 in the last semester of the 2022-2023 school year alone. This massive growth in book bans is thanks to increased legislation of books and schools which have removed books by the hundreds or thousands during the “review” process.

As has been mentioned in our censorship coverage, PEN’s report confirms that book bans are happening nationwide. The state’s political leanings don’t matter: 42 states, both red and blue, reported book bans in public schools over the three years of PEN’s record keeping. This includes 23 states and 52 districts in the July-December 2023 time frame alone. The top states for book bans in the first half of this school year are:

Themes covered in the new report highlight the tactics and topics being utilized and targeted in public school book bans. Among them is the increased censorship of books that explore sexual violence—a timely topic, given that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This section focuses on books pulled in districts like West Ada in Idaho, Collier County in Florida, and in Kentucky, as well as the specific books under fire in those schools, including Nowhere Girls, Milk & Honey, and the nonfiction title Defining Sexual Consent.

Despite sexual violence being a crucial theme and topic for young readers, book banners continue to point to obscenity laws to get the books removed. This doesn’t come as a surprise, given that the past three and a half years have proven that actual understanding of the law doesn’t matter—truth and fact are not important factors in the arguments made by book banners. They push to just create new policies.

As the report explains:

Like in West Ada, many have attempted to add a legal justification for their bans by characterizing specific works in schools and libraries as “obscene,” a category of speech which is not protected under the First Amendment. These claims are not supported. The legal threshold for obscenity was decided by the Supreme Court in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), which created a three-pronged test for obscenity: the so-called Miller test. To satisfy the test, a work must be “taken as a whole” and found to lack “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” However, to circumvent these actual legal requirements, states and districts have increasingly introduced new terms or manipulated other existing statutes, instead.

Other themes through the report related to book bans include both the continued hostility toward LGBTQ+ books—something readily seen in the weekly roundups of book banning news and in the ongoing slates of “most banned books” from both PEN and the American Library Association.

Additionally, it’s trans books which have become even further under fire by censors. “Gender ideology” is a key phrase related to the attacks on these books, and they’re part of a longer and larger organized effort to suppress and disappear trans people more broadly. In 2024 so far, over 540 bills across the country specifically target trans people and their rights. Again, one read through the book ban news will showcase not only the increased presence of books by or about trans people but, looking a bit deeper, will show those attacks are concurrent with attacks on other trans rights in schools, including access and participation in sports, bathroom regulation, pronoun usage, and more (for example: not only did Iowa legislation try to pass SF 496 to ban books last year, with specific targets on the titles by or about queer people, but within that very bill is legislation that does not allow students to go by preferred names or pronouns at school without explicit parental/guardian permission).

It isn’t surprising to see that “Critical Race Theory” continues to be a key theme among book banners, either. Books by or about people of color continue to top the list of most banned works—even though that in and of itself does not constitute “Critical Race Theory,” invoking that phrase is a dog whistle for right-wing political attacks.

From the report:

This school year, in September 2023, seventeen books were also removed from
school libraries in nearby Lexington School District Two after a local group called Parents Advocating for Children’s Education (PACE) challenged their presence in local schools. PACE members challenged books for allegedly teaching children that they need to defeat their “inner white demon” and for containing topics like white privilege and “racially and politically divisive material.” In total, PACE challenged 30 books, resulting in 17 being removed and 3 being restricted to high school shelves. The group referred to the process as a “detox.”

Books removed entirely from shelves include Me and White Supremacy: Young
Readers’ Edition by Layla F. Saad; Rise Up! How You Can Join the Fight Against
White Supremacy by Crystal Marie Fleming; and This Book Is Anti-Racist by Tiffany Jewell. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas was restricted to 11th and 12th graders.

PEN’s report notes that small and vocal groups, such as the above-named PACE and dozens of others, are disempowering the majority of parental voices. The “parental rights” movement and groups like Moms For Liberty are shouting over other parents and unduly influencing boards across the country—particularly when they’ve worked to install members of their own group onto these “nonpartisan” boards.

It’s not all doom and gloom in the report. PEN ends with examples of where and how there is resistance and pushback to the bans across the country. Although the groups and tools out there are certainly positive, the report’s optimistic outlook may be a bit premature; indeed, the report seems to agree with that statement, noting that “[T]he crisis is not over. Every day, librarians are laid off and public libraries thrown into disarray, their already precarious funding further threatened. Educators are left unsure of their job security and physical safety, undermining their ability to do their jobs.”

We can build and create a billion resources—and without question, we have—but until there are butts in seats at board meetings and bills in state and federal legislature that protect the First Amendment Rights of every person to exist and access information, we’re only going to continue seeing book bans doubling every six months.

You can read the report in full here.

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