There is a “rapid acceleration” of book censorship occurring across the US, with more than 2,500 different book bans taking place over the past school year, a new report has found.
A total of 1,648 individual book titles, many of them that mention issues relating to race or sexuality, were the subject of bans by school districts in 32 states in the last school year, according to the new analysis.
More than 5,000 schools nationally have had books barred from access by students in libraries and classrooms, according to the report compiled by Pen America, a non-profit that supports freedom of expression in literature.
There has been a “proliferation of organized efforts to advocate for book removals”, the report states, from rightwing politicians in states such as Texas, Georgia and Wisconsin to at least 50 groups that have sprung up either in person or on Facebook.
Many of the books have been banned for simply featuring people who identify as LGBTQ+, with a third of all banned books from April to June featuring people with such identities, often under a spurious justification that the titles are “obscene”. Race and discussion of the US’s racist past is also a target of book bans, with 40% of titles banned featuring prominent characters of color.
“While we think of book bans as the work of individual concerned citizens, our report demonstrates that today’s wave of bans represents a coordinated campaign to banish books being waged by sophisticated, ideological and well-resourced advocacy organizations,” said Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of Pen America.
“This censorious movement is turning our public schools into political battlegrounds, driving wedges within communities, forcing teachers and librarians from their jobs and casting a chill over the spirit of open inquiry and intellectual freedom that underpin a flourishing democracy.”
While book bans have long been a part of America’s education fabric, the Pen report suggests they are now driven less by the complaints of individual parents and more by organized, ideological groups and overt pressure from politicians.
About 40% of the book bans in the past year have been connected to political pressure or legislation designed to restrict and reshape teaching, the report estimates. In November, for example, Henry McMaster, the Republican governor of South Carolina, demanded that the book Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, be removed from school libraries for being “sexually explicit” and “pornographic”.
Kobabe’s book was the most banned book in the past school year, banished by 41 school districts, followed by All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M Johnson, banned in 29 districts, and Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Pérez, prohibited in 24 districts. Among the most banned authors is Toni Morrison, the Nobel laureate. Texas led the way with book bans, followed by Florida and Pennsylvania.
The push to ban certain books has prompted backlash in some states. Shortly after the Texas state lawmaker Matt Krause called for the state’s school libraries to consider 850 books for possible removal, a group of librarians created a broad online campaign to fight the bans, deluging state politicians with tweets and emails over the issue.
In Wisconsin, meanwhile, a school district’s decision to ban the title When the Emperor Was Divine, a book by Julie Otsuka about the internment of Japanese-Americans during the second world war, provoked a furious response from local teachers, parents and students, who organized protest rallies over the move. Such bans have continued unabated across the US, however.
“This rapidly accelerating movement has resulted in more and more students losing access to literature that equips them to meet the challenges and complexities of democratic citizenship,” said Jonathan Friedman, a lead author of the Pen report.
“The work of groups organizing and advocating to ban books in schools is especially harmful to students from historically marginalized backgrounds, who are forced to experience stories that validate their lives vanishing from classrooms and library shelves.”