PEN: US School-Year Book Bannings Jump 33 Percent Over Last Year

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The surge in book bannings has affected at least 1,207 authors, 268 illustrators, and 14 translators, per PEN America’s new report.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: HapaBapa

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Hyperbolic and Misleading Rhetoric’ Is a Driver
In its new report released today (September 21), PEN America reveals, “The number of public school book bans across the United States increased by 33 percent in the 2022-23 school year compared to the 2021-22 school year.”

One of the key findings of this latest study, Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor, “highlights the disproportionate number of bans occurring in Florida,” the country’s third-largest state with an economy reported to be the 16th largest in the world. Forty percent of the States’ book banning incidents, the new study reveals, were set in Florida as Gov. Ron DeSantis pursued his now flagging challenge to Donald Trump for the Republican presidential primary.

The report’s details include an examination of how state legislation and coordinated pressure campaigns from local groups and individuals have driven mass restrictions on access to literature.

Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor highlights the disproportionate number of bans occurring in Florida — where over 40 percent of all book bans took place in the 2022-23 school year — and shows how state legislation and coordinated pressure campaigns from local groups and individuals have driven mass restrictions on access to literature.

Publishing Perspectives readers–who are watching instances of book censorship in various international publishing markets–will recall that the American Library Association‘s watchdog agency in March of this year had pointed to 2022 as having the largest incidence of book banning efforts in the 20 years of its analysis.

Among some of the specific findings in today’s analysis:

  • PEN America recorded 1,406 book ban cases in Florida; 625 bans in Texas; 333 bans in Missouri; 281 bans in Utah; and 186 book bans in Pennsylvania.
  • These cases are instances in which books were banned from classrooms or libraries, or both, or were banned pending investigation.
  • More than 75 percent of the books banned are reported to be for readers classified as young-adult (YA) or middle-grade, or readers of chapter books or picture books—in other words, books specifically written and selected for younger audiences.
  • Of the 3,362 books reportedly banned in the States this year, 1,263 were banned from classrooms and school libraries compared to 333 books in this category last year, an increase of almost 400 percent.
  • Nearly half of all book bans (48 percent) during the 2022-23 school year deal with violence or physical abuse, including books that include sexual assault.
  • Thirty percent include characters of color and themes of race and racism.
  • Thirty percent represent LGBTQ+ identities.
  • Six percent include a transgender character.
  • Demonstrating the organized operations often behind most of these events, in the 153 school districts across the country that banned a book during the 2022-23 school year, 124 (81 percent) have a chapter or local affiliate nearby of one or more of the three most prominent national groups pushing for book bans—Moms for Liberty, Citizens Defending Freedom, and Parents’ Rights in Education. Those districts are calculated to have comprised 87 percent (2,912) of book bans.

One positive trend highlighted in the report, its authors write, “is the continued growth in student pushback against book bans” in various parts of the market.

“Youth resistance to book bans in numerous school districts has included protests, speaking out at school board meetings, and the establishment of national organizations dedicated to defending access to literature in schools.”

Students Seen Mounting Resistance

In no small part, the new analysis reveals, the era’s glut of bald and bigoted commentary helps to support the banning dynamic.

Kasey Meehan

Kasey Meehan, PEN’s Freedom to Read program director and lead author of the report, ways, “Hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric continues to ignite fear over the types of books in schools. And yet, 75 percent of all banned books are specifically written and selected for young audiences.

“Florida isn’t an anomaly – it’s providing a playbook for other states to follow suit.

“Students have been using their voices for months in resisting coordinated efforts to suppress teaching and learning about certain stories, identities, and histories; it’s time we follow their lead.”

In another interesting observation, the authors of today’s report, write that book bans in the 2022-2023 school year affected the works of more than 1,480 creative people, including:

  • 1,207 authors
  • 268 illustrators
  • 14 translators

Some authors had many of their books banned, while others had a single book banned in numerous districts.

Although publishers are becoming more heavily mobilized in the censorship-resistance space—as in the case of Penguin Random House releasing its “Let Kids Read” anti-censorship resources program—the PEN America series does not yet seem to quantify how many publishers may be affected in banning events. A greater understanding for the international industry of the range and impact of these events on publishers could be a useful development in analysis and quantification of the phenomenon.

Image: PEN America ‘Banned in the USA,’ 2022-2023

In a section on polling, the new report quotes the Ipsos/National Public Radio poll released in May of this year showing that 65 percent of Americans asked said that they oppose book bans, while the same was said by 69 percent of state lawmakers. It is, as this report indicates, “parent- and community-led advocacy groups” that are organizing and “shaping the tone, tenor, and frequency of book bans,” meaning that these incidents often are not the one-off original flash points they may seem.

“Having formed in Florida in 2021,” today’s text reads, “Moms for Liberty now boasts 284 chapters or local affiliates more than 44 states.” Citizens Defending Freedom, PEN reports, claims 20 local affiliates, located primarily in Texas and Georgia. Oregon-based Parents’ Rights in Education has local affiliations in 15 states.

As such networked group activity and state-legislative pressure converge, the report says, “The unfortunate result … is that the very stories and voices that have been traditionally underrepresented on school shelves are continuing to be removed at ever-increasing rates.”

The full report is available here.

Image: PEN America ‘Banned in the USA,’ 2022-2023

More from Publishing Perspectives on book bannings is here, more on censorship in the broader context is here, and more on the freedom to publish and freedom of expression is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.