It’s Banned Books Week, an annual campaign that began in 1982 to celebrate the First Amendment and encourage the protection of controversial materials. But now, four decades later, book bans are on the rise, according to a new report from the free speech nonprofit PEN America.
Between July 2021 and June 2022, the report—Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools—found 2,532 instances of individual bans, which covered 1,648 unique books. PEN America tracks the bans in a public spreadsheet, which indicates that the most-banned book is Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir.
The bans took place in 138 school districts across 32 states; in total, those school districts enroll nearly 4 million students. (These numbers only account for the bans that PEN America was able to track, and the organization says that more likely exist.) The report found that 96 percent of the bans did not follow the best practice guidelines for book challenges outlined by the American Library Association (ALA) and the National Coalition Against Censorship.
About 41 percent of the banned titles explicitly address LGBTQ themes, making these the biggest target of the bans. Books involving sexual content—such as stories about teen pregnancy, sexual assault and abortion—account for 22 percent of the titles. About 21 percent directly address race and racism, while 40 percent feature major characters of color.
The team behind Banned in the USA wanted to determine where book bans originated. They found that in many instances, the bans were the calculated result of work by advocacy groups.
“[T]he large majority of book bans underway today are not spontaneous, organic expressions of citizen concern,” the report states. “Rather, they reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.”
PEN America identified 50 groups, some with hundreds of regional chapters, pushing for book bans across the country. The majority of those groups—73 percent—have formed since 2021.
“These groups probably do not necessarily represent a range of beliefs from our democracy,” PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman, one of the report’s authors, tells Education Week’s Eesha Pendharkar. “So they’re having an outsized impact in a lot of places on what it is that everybody gets to read.”
Such groups have played a hand in many of the book bans that took place over the last school year; 20 percent of bans can be directly linked to their work, while they appear to have influenced an additional 30 percent.
“This is a concerted, organized, well-resourced push at censorship,” Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, tells the New York Times’ Elizabeth A. Harris. “[The effort] is ideologically motivated and politically expedient, and it needs to be understood as such in order to be confronted and addressed properly.”
Last week, the ALA released its own report, which examines book bans since the beginning of 2022, and found a similar increase in bans.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, tells Hillel Italie of the Associated Press (AP). “It’s both the number of challenges and the kinds of challenges. It used to be a parent had learned about a given book and had an issue with it. Now we see campaigns where organizations are compiling lists of books, without necessarily reading or even looking at them.”