Textbook ban challenges and challenges are back, at record levels, on the rise again

Two national reports have found that attempts to ban books from school libraries in America are on track to rise again this school year, after hitting record levels last year.

The studies, released over the weekend by the American Library Association (known as ALA) and PEN America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to free speech, indicate that the number of books targeted for removal from school libraries is on track to surpass the target thousands last year. And both cases are likely to be significantly underestimated.

The association’s report documents 681 attempts to ban or restrict access to 1,651 different books in schools between January 1 and August 31 this year. In 2021, the association tracked 729 attempts to ban or restrict access to 1,597 books — which at the time represented the highest number of attempts to ban books in a single year since the association began studying the issue two decades ago. For comparison, book challenges and bans hovered around the 200s and top 400s between 2018 and 2020.

The PEN America report found that between July 2021 and June 2022, there were 2,532 book ban attempts targeting 1,648 unique books. This new number is based on a PEN America report published in April that found more than 1,500 attempted book bans, targeting about 1,000 titles, between July 2021 and March 2022. Until last year, PEN America did not track these numbers in detail.

Both reports found that the texts that were challenged were overwhelmingly those Written by or about people of color or LGBT people.

Jonathan Friedman, director of freedom of expression and education programs at PEN America, and Deborah Caldwell Stone, director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, have warned of dire consequences for the current generation of students—even in cases where attempts to ban books fail and texts are returned to shelves, or Students find ways to access books on their own outside of school.

“When you dictate what people can read, and what people can choose,” Caldwell Stone said, “that is a sign of an authoritarian society, not a democratic one.” “We really have to question what we intend to teach our youth,” she said.

Friedman argued that children can learn to feel ashamed of certain identities when books depicting them are banned. “This stigma can have psychological effects on young people, on their sense of belonging, and on the imagination they have about the stories they can eventually write themselves,” he said.

The surge in book bans and challenges come in the midst of an educational culture war that has seen parents, teachers, school officials, students, politicians and critics battle over how teachers teach about race, racism, American history, gender identity, gender, and LGBT issues. Hundreds of laws have been proposed—and dozens passed—including bills limiting teaching in all of these categories.

At least six states have also passed laws targeting school libraries. These force parental involvement in book review, making it easier for families to remove books or limit texts available at school. Five other states are considering such legislation. The Washington Post previously reported that due to laws like this and similar policies at the county level, librarians and schoolchildren alike have less freedom this year to pursue their reading interests.

The ALA found the most challenging book for the second year in a row was Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a memoir about being non-binary. Of the 10 most challenging titles, five feature LGBTQ content or characters and five feature heroes of color.

The PEN report tracked attempts to ban or fulfill books in 138 school districts across 32 states, which together represents a combined enrollment of nearly 4 million students. 41 percent of the targeted titles included LGBTQ themes or main characters, while 40 percent included strong minor heroes or characters of color. 22 percent included sexual content and 21 percent included discussions of race and racism.

For both reports, it is unclear how many times book challenges have led to those titles being removed from libraries. There have been some cases where titles that have been challenged have been returned to shelves.

The PEN report found that 1,157 books were banned entirely from libraries, classrooms, or both, while 1,375 were banned pending investigations. PEN America’s Friedman said some of these books may have since been returned to shelves, while others have been returned with restrictions — for example requiring parental permission for viewing — and some are still forgotten.

It’s nearly impossible to know the exact numbers, Friedman said, because challenges often go on for months on end and counties don’t always release results. With local media in decline, he said, there are few media organizations able to follow up on the book ban efforts at the county level. PEN America has tried to follow up to determine the outcome in each case, but often has not been able to find clear answers or receive any responses.

In addition, not all of the book’s challenges go through a formal process that includes public review and notification of findings, Friedman said. It is estimated that a minority of all writers’ challenges occur through these channels at this point.

Both PEN America and ALA have found — and The Washington Post has previously reported — that many of the book bans are done in secret, outside the rules. Caldwell-Stone said ALA is seeing a rise in results as school board administrators ignore written policies and, instead, “remove a book on the spot, and that book often goes away.”

Friedman estimated that what PEN America tracks may be only 25 percent, at most, of the number of books being challenged, publicly or quietly snatched from shelves in school districts across the country. The PEN America report was based either on media reports or on reports from individual area employees who contacted the group directly. The ALA report was based on news reports, public records, advice, and reports submitted directly to the association.

Caldwell Stone said the ALA report probably got a smaller percentage of the total number of book bans and challenges in its report. She noted that the ALA recently compared notes with a group of students at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism who, as part of a research project, sent public information requests about book bans and challenges to every school district in the state.

When ALA employees installed their database of book challenges alongside the University of Missouri’s database, they found that they were able to track only about 8 percent of book challenges discovered by journalism students.

“We obviously don’t have the ability to pass a Freedom of Information Act for all school districts in all 50 states,” Caldwell Stone said. “But based on this information, we know we don’t see everything that’s going on.”

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