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School book bans have increased 33% since last year, but hope is not lost

Emily St. Martin, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Despite growing lawsuits and protests against book restrictions, bans continue to spread rapidly, according to a new report. But students are providing a glimmer of hope.

PEN America's annual report on book bans, released Thursday, revealed a significant ramp-up in the practice during the 2022–23 school year. Between July 1, 2022, and June 31, 2023, the national freedom-of-speech organization recorded 3,362 instances of book bans in US public school classrooms and libraries — an increase of 33% compared to the same period last year.

"The toll of the book banning movement is getting worse," said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, in a statement obtained by The Times. "More kids are losing access to books, more libraries are taking authors off the shelves, and opponents of free expression are pushing harder than ever to exert their power over students as a whole." The bans, she continued, "are eating away at the foundations of our democracy."

According to the report, "Banned in the U.S.," these actions have restricted student access to 1,557 unique book titles by more than 1,480 authors, illustrators and translators. Authors whose books were challenged were disproportionately female, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals. Nearly half of banned books addressed violence or physical abuse, including sexual assault; 30 percent depicted characters of color and themes of race and racism; 30 percent represented LGBTQ+ identities; and six percent included a transgender character.

While the majority of book bans were aimed at middle grade books, chapter books or picture books, titles for teens were a high point of contention, especially those that explored sexuality.

Last week, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) went viral for an awkward reading of excerpts from two books targeted by conservatives during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled "Book Bans: Examining How Censorship Limits Liberty and Literature." One of the titles, listed for older teens, was Maia Kobabe's memoir about gender identity and sexuality, "Gender Queer," which was banned 26 times according to the PEN report.


Even books with historical merit, such as Amanda Gorman's acclaimed poem, "The Hill We Climb," were not exempt from restrictions. Written for and read at Joe Biden's 2021 inauguration, the poem was challenged earlier this year in Miami-Dade County by a parent for being "not educational" and including indirect "hate messages."

That incident sparked discussion over what exactly a book "ban" entails. Gorman defined it in a statement posted to X (formally known as Twitter): "A school book ban is any action taken against a book that leaves access to a book restricted or diminished." PEN America defined it in their report in much the same way, adding that by definition they override the decisions of educators and librarians.

"While I'm encouraged by PEN America's work to protect free expression and intellectual freedom, it's disappointing to see such a steep rise in the banning and restriction of books," said author John Green, whose book "Looking for Alaska" was the third most frequently banned book in U.S. schools according to the report. "We should trust our teachers and librarians to do their jobs. If you have a worldview that can be undone by a book, I would submit that the problem is not with the book."

More than 40 percent of book restrictions occurred in Florida. Across 33 school districts, PEN America recorded 1,406 book ban cases in the state, followed by 625 in Texas, 333 in Missouri, 281 in Utah and 186 in Pennsylvania.


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