The number of books banned in American school districts is increasing, a new report by PEN America has found. Between July 2021 and June 2022, books were banned 2,532 times in public schools across the U.S., according to the nonprofit, which works to defend free expression.
PEN American says 1,648 unique book titles were banned in that period. Between July 2021 and March 2022, PEN tracked 1,586 book bans. Since that report was published in April, 275 more book bans were recorded between April and June 2022.
Many books – 41% – that were banned included LGBTQ themes, protagonists or prominent secondary characters. A whopping 40% that were banned included people of color. Books with issues of race and racism (21%) and books with themes of rights and activism (10%) were also among those banned. About 22% of the books that were banned had sexual content. Biographies, autobiographies and stories about religious minorities are also on the list of banned books.
There are several reasons why books may be banned from schools and libraries. Last year, dozens of Republican state lawmakers introduced bills that would ban content they deemed offensive in schools.
PEN America estimates that at least 40% of book bans are connected to either legislation “or to political pressure exerted by state officials or elected lawmakers to restrict the teaching or presence of certain books or concepts.”
PEN America has also identified at least 50 groups, many of which have local or regional chapters, that they say have played a role in at least 50% of the book bans enacted across the country during the 2021–2022 school year.
Under legislation that targets content with themes of race and sexuality, and campaigns by members of the public, schools may feel pressure to remove books from their classrooms and libraries.
American Library Association (ALA) keeps a record of frequently banned books and some titles are extremely popular — like the “Harry Potter” series, which was on the top 10 most frequently banned books list in 2019. This series was banned for “referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use ‘nefarious means’ to attain goals,” according to the ALA.
Most books, however, are banned because they include themes about race or sexuality.
Some states ban books that include themes about race by using the term “critical race theory” in their legislation. Critical race theory is most often taught at the college or law school levels and acknowledges racial disparities have persisted in U.S. history and are reinforced in U.S. law and institutions.
While there is no evidence that critical race theory is taught in K-12 schools, it is often used as a catch-all term in states’ legislation – including Texas’ — as a way to limit discussions about race in the classroom.
Books that include themes of sexuality, like “Gender Queer,” are often deemed “obscene” and “pornographic” by people who want to ban them, PEN America said in its report.
“Gender Queer,” the most frequently-banned book, according to PEN America, is written by Maia Kobabe and is described by its publisher as a “useful and touching guide on gender identity.”
Deborah Stone, director of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom, told CBS News last year that books “that reflect the lives of LGBTQIA persons and families” provide important representation.
“You might not be the audience, your child might not be the audience, but more often than not, there is an audience for the books and often they are desperately needed,” she said.
PEN America said there is evidence that the effort to ban books is continuing in the 2022–2023 school year — at least 139 additional bans have taken effect since July 2022.
“This movement to ban books is deeply undemocratic, in that it often seeks to impose restrictions on all students and families based on the preferences of those calling for the bans and notwithstanding polls that consistently show that Americans of all political persuasions oppose book bans,” PEN America said, citing a CBS News poll that found more than 8 in 10 Americans don’t think books should be banned from schools for discussing race and criticizing U.S. history, for depicting slavery in the past, or, more broadly for political ideas they disagree with.