A new report found a 28% increase in the number of books removed from classrooms and libraries in public schools across the nation in the first half of the 2022-23 school year compared to the last half of the school year before.
The report from PEN America, a free expression advocacy nonprofit, said there were almost 1,500 instances of books being “banned,” and 874 individual books were taken off of shelves in 27 states. It defines a ban as an action taken against a book based on its content leading to its removal or restriction.
Parent groups, meanwhile, have responded to the report saying they’ll continue to advocate for age-appropriate reading materials in learning environments, which they say are not the same as a ban.
“The heavy-handed tactics of state legislators are mandating book bans, plain and simple,” Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, said in a statement. “Some politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have tried to dismiss the rise in book bans as a ‘hoax.’ But their constituents and supporters are not fooled. The numbers don’t lie and reveal a relentless crusade to constrict children’s freedom to read.”
The report found that of the 1,477 instances of removals, they were most prominent in just a few states: Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah and South Carolina. The most removals (between 100-300 instances) came from just 5% of school districts with 76% of school districts seeing fewer than 20 removal incidents.
PEN America’s report says that some districts removed books while reviewing the titles, so districts returned some books to shelves after evaluations.
The report specifically called out the group Moms for Liberty, which has led the charge in many districts where books have been challenged. The organization says limiting reading material to what is age-appropriate is not the same as banning.
“Sexualizing young children is wrong,” Moms for Liberty cofounders Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich said in a statement. “No amount of so-called ‘reports’ from PEN America will make child pornography acceptable to the majority of parents in America.
“That is why parents in our organization and even those parents outside of Moms for Liberty continue to fight to protect children from pornography in school,” the cofounders continued.
Other parent organizations also criticized the PEN America report and emphasized the need for age-appropriate books.
“The whole conversation about alleged ‘book bans’ has been pretty dishonest and fact-free from the start,” said Erika Sanzi, director of outreach for Parents Defending Education. “PEN America has been very loose with how it defines a ban, and that has made the debate even muddier.”
Sanzi told Chalkboard Review in a statement that her organization believes it is essential to discuss age appropriateness and the differences between school and public libraries, but she emphasized that Parents Defending Education is not interested in banning books.
Sanzi did argue, however, that a sea change concerning which books get picked for the school library shelves would be welcome.
“We do recognize that book curation in an educational setting means that some books are selected, and others are not,” Sanzi said. “No one can deny that in recent years, that process has been steeped in an ideology and activism around race and gender. We think a course correction on that front would benefit everyone.”
An investigation by The Center Square last month found that school districts across the country bought numerous controversial books for their libraries in 2022 about sexuality, gender issues and race. Titles included “Gender Queer,” which contains illustrations that show the main character with blood on his legs and underwear from a period, a blood-covered tampon, a toy vibrator that led to “my first orgasm” and two illustrations of young people engaged in oral sex. Other titles included “Rise Up! How you can join the fight against white supremacy” and “Race Cars: A children’s Book about White Privilege.”
Chalkboard Review reported last week that the American Library Association claimed more than 2,500 individual titles were targeted for removal in 2022, with the majority of those challenges concerning titles in school libraries or curricula.
The most removed book, according to the PEN America report, was “Gender Queer,” followed by “Flamer,” “Tricks,” “The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel” and “Crank.”
The report also notes that of the removed books, 44% contained themes or instances of violence and physical abuse, and 38% discussed health and well-being topics, which include suicide, substance abuse as well as sexual well-being or puberty. Almost a quarter of removed titles include “detailed sexual experiences between characters,” the report found.