Reading & Literacy

Challenges to Books in Public Schools Aren’t Slowing Down

By Eesha Pendharkar — October 06, 2023 3 min read
Books targeted in school challenges are stacked at an exhibit at the American Library Association's annual conference, Saturday, June 24, 2023, at McCormick Place in Chicago. Attendees are invited to climb atop a giant chair to read their favorite banned book.
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Book bans and challenges have continued to increase for the second year in a row, according to the most up- to-date data available.

Book bans and challenges increased by 20 percent compared to last year, according to 2023 preliminary data compiled by the American Library Association released last month.

The ALA compiled reports from library professionals and from news stories across the country between January and August of this year and found 695 attempts to censor library materials and services to 1,915 unique titles. That number marks a 20 percent increase from the same reporting period in 2022, which was previously the year with the highest number of book bans and challenges in 20 years.

The ALA defines a book challenge as an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. It defines a ban as an instance in which a school district removes those materials, either permanently or temporarily.

According to the ALA data, bans or challenges were issued in 220 public districts across the country.

Throughout the 2022-23 school year, PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization, found 3,362 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,557 unique titles. This represents an increase of 33 percent compared with the 2021-22 school year.

PEN America also relies on direct reports and news to compile the number of book challenges and bans. The organization also scans school board meeting minutes, and files public records requests to compile a nationwide banned books list.

According to both ALA and PEN, these numbers are lower than the total bans, since not every challenge or ban is reported to the organizations or covered in news.

A vast majority of these challenges and bans continue to impact books about LGBTQ+ characters, and books by and about people of color, according to the ALA. A majority of book challenges—about 92 percent—were issued as part of mass book challenges, the ALA report said.

Students’ access to culturally relevant books and instructional materials are at risk nationwide because of book challenges, according to Royel Johnson, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California.

Not all book challenges are created equal

Challenging books and learning materials is about parents having control over their children’s learning, said Nicole Neily, the CEO of a conservative parental rights group, Parents Defending Education, in her testimony before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary last month.

“[Reports about—and concern over—book bans are] a manufactured crisis that distracts from families’ valid concerns about the quality of their children’s education and whether students are safe from drugs, assaults, and bullying in schools today,” she said.

Parents Defending Education did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Several parent groups and Republican lawmakers have objected to commonly banned books, such as All Boys Aren’t Blue; Gender Queer: A Memoir, or Lawn Boy on the basis that they contain “pornographic” materials or “indoctrinate” kids.

Anyone who is part of the school community—parents, staff, and students—should have the ability to raise concerns about books, and there should be a process in place for addressing those concerns that provides due process to everyone, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“If there’s a family that has [a] particular concern they should be able to guide their children’s reading, and librarians are always anxious to help parents with that process,” she said. “But it shouldn’t dictate what other people are able to read.”

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