Two million students in 86 school districts across the country have had their access to books restricted because of book bans this school year, according to a new report by PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization.
While book bans—specifically books with LGBTQ characters and people of color, or about race and racism—have been reported by media outlets across the country this year, the report sheds light on how widespread the book bans actually are through anecdotal accounts and by tracking what kinds of books are being targeted.
There are 13,452 public school districts and more than 50 million students in America.
Parents and community members have complained that many books provided by schools contain explicit or inappropriate content. Administrators have also preemptively pulled books from libraries or classrooms to avoid controversy and publicity, according to the report.
Between July 2021 and March 2022, PEN America analyzed news stories on challenges, restrictions, and bans on books, to find that books had been banned in 2,899 schools across the country over the nine-month period. PEN America also found 1,586 decisions to ban a book from a library, classroom or curriculum. The banning of a single book title can mean anywhere from a single copy to hundreds of copies being pulled from libraries or classrooms in a school district, according to researchers.
“Because of the tactics of censors and the politicization of books, we are seeing the same books removed across state lines: books about race, gender, LGBTQ+ identities and sex most often,” said Jonathan Friedman, Director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program and lead author of the report. “We are witnessing the erasure of topics that only recently represented progress toward inclusion.”
Here are five numbers describing the quantitative scope of book bans:
More than 1,100 unique books have been banned.
In the nine-month period of PEN America’s study, 1,145 unique book titles were banned across the country.
Of those, 21 have been banned in five districts or more.
The work of 874 different authors, 198 illustrators, and nine translators has been impacted by the book bans, PEN America found.
Most of the books being banned are fiction —a total of 819 titles—although some of the most commonly banned ones, such as Gender Queer, are graphic novels.
Districts in 26 states have banned books
Texas has the largest number of districts enacting bans, with 713 titles being banned in 16 districts across the state. Pennsylvania and Florida also have seen 456 and 204 book bans respectively.
Five states have at least five different districts that have banned books: Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Virginia, and Missouri.
The district with the most books banned is The Central York School District in Pennsylvania, where 441 books were banned. But after students protested and the bans got national attention, the school board reversed its decision.
The top five most commonly banned books account for 106 book bans
The most commonly banned book is Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir, which has been removed from school libraries or classrooms at least 30 times, PEN America found. It’s a graphic novel about the author’s own struggle with, and explanation of gender identity.
All Boys aren’t Blue, a young-adult memoir by George M. Johnson of growing up in New Jersey as a young Black queer boy, is the second most-commonly banned book, removed from libraries and classrooms 21 times over the past nine months.
The other most-commonly banned titles include Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison and Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Pérez, which have both been banned 16 times; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, which has been banned 12 times; and Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin, banned 11 times.
A third of books deal with LGBTQ issues
Books with protagonists of color made up a significant part of banned books nationwide, including 467 titles, or almost 41 percent of all book bans.
Books that are explicitly about LGBTQ topics, or have LGBTQ protagonists or prominent characters have been disproportionately targeted during the last nine months of bans, PEN America found. Thirty three percent of all banned books—or 379 books—contained LGBTQ themes, including a subset of 84 titles that deal with transgender characters and topics.
Books about race and racism were also commonly banned, accounting for more than a fifth of all bans. About 22 percent—or 247 books—about race and racism primarily in the United States, including fiction and nonfiction titles, have been banned.
This includes frequently banned books such as Perez’s Out of Darkness, a book about a relationship between a teenage Mexican-American girl and a teenage African-American boy in 1930s New London, Texas, How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, within which the author proposes ways to fight systemic racism, and Dear Martin by Nic Stone, a novel about a Black teenager writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to make sense of the racial injustice he experienced.
Almost all of the bans were initiated by administrators
Of the 1,586 book bans, just 4 percent have been the result of parents or community members filing formal challenges to library or classroom materials. A vast majority have instead been decisions by school administrators or board members, often following comments from the community in public meetings, PEN America found.
In Wicomico County, Md., the superintendent pulled All Boys Aren’t Blue after a board meeting during which public comment was dominated by complaints about the book, the report said.
Sometimes, books were removed from reading lists based on a single parent’s complaint. According to the report, in Pitt County, N.C., an English/language arts teachers at one middle school allegedly changed plans to read five books after a single parent objected.