Sweeping book challenges and bans across the country resulted in thousands of titles being removed from library and classroom shelves during the 2021-22 school year, according to the nonprofit organization that tracks book bans.
Among them were also hundreds of picture books, typically meant for the youngest readers, at the K-5 level.
Many of the most frequently banned picture books are nonfiction, and include stories about people that pushed for civil rights and LGBTQ rights. Others are fiction, and include imagery of animals or babies. Most of them, however, feature an LGBTQ character or protagonist of color, according to PEN America, the free speech advocacy organization that documents book bans nationwide.
Three hundred and seventeen individual picture book titles were banned in the 2021-22 school year, the organization found. These titles are meant for a K-5 audience, demonstrating the impact of book banning on the youngest readers.
Picture books often focus on visuals or illustrations accompanied with minimal text, intended to begin familiarizing students with text.
“We know picture books are such important tools for students and their literacy,” said Kasey Meehan, the Freedom to Read Program Director at PEN America.
“Just the visual representation of characters that look like them or look like their friends or family or even, you know, characters that don’t look like them, helps a student reader build that empathy towards people.”
The most frequently banned picture books
Most book challenges, especially those that have followed in the wake of a national push to restrict the discussion of LGBTQ issues and race in classrooms, have centered on the secondary school level. They’ve included literature like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, graphic novels about the Holocaust, like Maus, and young adult literature like All Boys Aren’t Blue or Lawn Boy.
Now, books for the youngest children are being challenged.
Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag, by Rob Sanders and Steve Salerno is an illustrated book about Harvey Milk, a civil rights leader who became one of the first openly gay politicians in the country. It was in a three-way tie for the most banned picture book, banned 5 times, with I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings, and Shelagh McNicholas, a story of a transgender child based on Jennings’ life experience.
The third book is And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell, Justin Richardson, and Henry Cole, a true story of two male penguins at the Central Park zoo who took in a baby penguin.
“This is unfortunately a book that we see banned under this context around banning books that have any references to LGBTQ or same sex identities,” Meehan said.
“It’s an innocuous book, it’s a sweet, heartwarming book. But we see because of that theme of having penguins of the same sex, it’s lumped under the rationale of banning books that have LGBTQ content.”
The book was banned along with All Boys Aren’t Blue—one of the most frequently banned books in 2021-22—in Escambia County, Fla., this month. Some parents cited the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill as a reason for challenging the books.
Book bans against books with LGBTQ characters continue to escalate
Book bans overall have shown no signs of slowing down since they started to escalate in 2021. PEN America documented about 1,648 titles banned somewhere in the United States during the 2021-22 school year.
With some titles restricted in multiple places, the total number of books banned was more than 2,500. Forty one percent of these books included LGBTQ characters or themes, 40 percent included a primary or secondary character of color, and 21 percent were about race and racism.
Picture book bans fall along the same lines, and are being swept up amid mass challenges in the same districts where some other books are being challenged, according to Meehan.
PEN America also found that books are often challenged for being inappropriate, explicit or pornographic when they contain any mention of sex or LGBTQ identities. Right-wing parent organizations are often responsible for challenging books in a coordinated fashion, such as by circulating lists of books that can then be challenged in several districts by their members.
When books about LGBTQ characters or minorities are banned, it sends a message that these identities are inappropriate, and that kind of terminology has real implications on students and their families and how they see themselves and perceive their value, experts have said.
“Unfortunately, I think picture books are going to continue to appear on our list of books that have been banned,” Meehan said. “When I look at a picture book, they just are so innocuous that I think it elevates the absurdity of the moment that we’re in.”