“We cannot stress enough how these censorious efforts will not end with book bans. It’s only a matter of time before regressive, suppressive ideologues will shift their focus toward other forms of art and entertainment…” PEN America
By Jake Johnson
A new report released Thursday by the free expression group PEN America warns that the Republican-led book banning movement is intensifying nationwide, with U.S. classrooms and libraries prohibiting more than 1,500 unique titles during the 2022-23 school year.
PEN recorded 3,362 total instances of book bans across the U.S., a 33% increase compared to the previous school year. More than 40% of all book bans in the U.S. in 2022-23 took place in Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis—a GOP presidential candidate—has launched a massive assault on public education.
“Florida isn’t an anomaly—it’s providing a playbook for other states to follow suit,” said Kasey Meehan, director of PEN America’s Freedom to Read program and lead author of the new report. “Students have been using their voices for months in resisting coordinated efforts to suppress teaching and learning about certain stories, identities, and histories; it’s time we follow their lead.”
PEN noted that officials and outside groups pushing for book bans often deployed “hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric about ‘porn in schools’ and ‘sexually explicit,’ ‘harmful,’ and ‘age inappropriate’ materials led to the removal of thousands of books covering a range of topics and themes for young audiences.”
“Overwhelmingly, book bans target books on race or racism or featuring characters of color, as well as books with LGBTQ+ characters,” the group found. “This year, banned books also include books on physical abuse, health and well-being, and themes of grief and death. Notably, most instances of book bans affect young adult books, middle-grade books, chapter books, or picture books—books specifically written and selected for younger audiences.”
Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s chief executive officer, said in a statement that “the toll of the book banning movement is getting worse.”
“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,” said Nossel. “Those who are bent on the suppression of stories and ideas are turning our schools into battlegrounds, compounding post-pandemic learning loss, driving teachers out of the classroom, and denying the joy of reading to our kids. By depriving a rising generation of the freedom to read, these bans are eating away at the foundations of our democracy.”
PEN’s report comes days after the American Library Association said that a record number of library books—1,915—have been challenged during the first eight months of this year.
As The Associated Press reported earlier this week, “The most sweeping challenges often originate with such conservative organizations as Moms for Liberty, which has organized banning efforts nationwide and called for more parental control over books available to children.”
PEN noted that 80% of the U.S. school districts that banned at least one book during the 2022-23 school year “have a chapter or local affiliate nearby of one or more of the three most prominent national groups pushing for book bans—Moms for Liberty, Citizens Defending Freedom, and Parents’ Rights in Education.”
“These districts are where 86% (2,902) of book bans have occurred,” PEN found.
But the group stressed that book bans aren’t just happening in traditionally conservative areas, noting that 42% of the states with book bans during the 2022-23 school year voted Democratic in the 2020 presidential election.
“However, Republican-leaning states had more districts banning books than Democratic-leaning states; 50 districts out of 153 (33 percent) are in states that voted Democratic in the 2020 presidential election, while 103 districts are in states that voted Republican,” the group added. “These 103 districts account for 88 percent of all book ban cases in the 2022–23 school year.”
Author John Green—whose bestselling book “Looking for Alaska” was the third-most banned book in U.S. schools during the 2022-23 school year—said in a statement that “it’s disappointing to see such a steep rise in the banning and restriction of books.”
“We should trust our teachers and librarians to do their jobs,” said Green. “If you have a worldview that can be undone by a book, I would submit that the problem is not with the book.”
Hundreds of other authors, artists, celebrities, and activists signed an open letter earlier this week echoing that sentiment and urging “everyone to join us in pushing back against these book bans.”
“We cannot stress enough how these censorious efforts will not end with book bans,” the open letter states. “It’s only a matter of time before regressive, suppressive ideologues will shift their focus toward other forms of art and entertainment, to further their attacks and efforts to scapegoat marginalized communities, particularly BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folks.”
“We refuse to remain silent as one creative field is subjected to oppressive bans,” the letter continues. “As artists, we must band together, because a threat to one form of art is a threat to us all.”
Jake Johnson is a senior editor and staff writer for Common Dreams, where this article originally appeared. Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely. Photo: Kennedy Library Licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0).