Book banning in U.S. schools has reached an all-time high: What this means, and how we got here

Grid takes a comprehensive look at culture wars and censorship in America’s public learning spaces.


As kids, teachers and librarians head back to school this fall, bookshelves around the country are a bit emptier than usual.

According to data collected by PEN America, 1,145 books have been banned by school districts across the United States between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022.

These numbers are at a historic high, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who has tracked and analyzed book bans across the country during her more than two decades with the American Library Association (ALA).

Caldwell-Stone, currently the director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the ALA, said in the past, the norm was for one or two titles to be challenged per year in schools. Today, it’s common for four to six unique books to be challenged each day, she said.

The uptick is part of a culture war taking center stage in political races, on social media and at school board meetings — between those who believe that parents should have a greater say in school curricula; those who think that certain histories and narratives should not be taught in classrooms; and others who resist censorship of any form, encouraging all titles onto shelves.

Caught in the middle of the debate are questions along legal, geographic and economic lines — mainly, how book bans really relate to the First Amendment, their impact in the internet age (more significant than you would guess) and consequences of bans — both intended and unintended.

Books written by LGBTQ and diverse authors are disproportionately under attack

Around 2015, said Caldwell-Stone, a massive shift in the book-banning movement began to take shape: the focus changing from narratives that explored sex and secularism to those that included gender and racial diversity.

Instead of fornicating teenagers and Harry Potter wizardry, the books facing the most challenges now have characters or authors that are from various racial and ethnic backgrounds and/or the LGBTQ community.

What people are going after today “almost exclusively deal with gender identity and sexual orientation,” said Caldwell-Stone. Books that include African American lives and experiences are also disproportionately targeted, she said, “particularly those that offer an alternative take on the United States’ history with racism, slavery or that offer an honest assessment of the impact of police violence on Black lives.”

Among the 10 most-challenged titles of 2021 were those from prominent Black writers Ibram X. Kendi, Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas, according to the ALA. And five of the top 10 were challenged specifically because of their LGBTQ content.

From a broader perspective, of the 1,000-plus books banned from July 2021 to March 2022, 41 percent had main characters of color, 22 percent directly addressed race and racism, and 33 percent directly included LGBTQ themes and characters.

This shift is not limited to the U.S.; it’s taking place on an international scale as well, said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk Programs. Writers from around the world, many that are part of marginalized communities and from countries with fewer protections than the U.S., often face jail sentences and legal action cases, Karlekar said.

The argument for banning certain books

According to Caldwell-Stone’s analyses, those in the U.S. who support banning books most often cite sexually explicit content (the most common complaint against books with LGBTQ relationships or depictions), offensive language and critical race theory as reasons to ban them.

Groups such as Moms for Liberty — an organization “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America” and advocating for “parental rights at all levels of government,” including the right to control what their kids read in school — resist the word ‘ban.’

Moms for Liberty, which claims to have over 100,000 members across 38 states, says removing titles from school libraries and classrooms protects childhood innocence,” Tiffany Justice, the organization’s co-founder, told Grid. In most cases, she said, these books should be inaccessible to students until they are out of high school and offer warning labels and age recommendations. According to the ALA, 39 percent of book challenges in 2021 were introduced by parents.

“I’ve yet to meet a person who, once they see it, believes ‘Gender Queer’ belongs in a classroom,” Justice said. She said the graphic novel — a coming-of-age memoir that explores the gender binary and includes drawings of oral sex — is inappropriate for schools, as is the topic itself.

“[Gender identity instruction] is pseudoscientific nonsense in my opinion,” Justice said, going on to say that schools are more focused in turning students into “social justice warriors” than they are about raising literacy rates. “The least interesting thing about a child should be their sexual orientation.”

The First Amendment doesn’t always apply when it comes to banning books in schools

Robert Corn-Revere, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment rights, said, “Speech is presumptively protected by the Constitution, and it is the government’s burden to prove in a series of well-defined and narrow exceptions when it isn’t protected.”

But First Amendment discussions get murkier when it comes to schools and school districts, said Corn-Revere, who is with the firm Davis Wright Tremaine. State governments have the authority to create curricula (including book choices) through their departments of education and local schoolboards that give them the ability to dictate what books are and aren’t taught and stocked in libraries.

Because states have this authority over school jurisdiction, “there’s less room for a First Amendment argument” to counter book bans. With this level of control, school districts can censor books for any number of reasons they deem fit, Corn-Revere said.

Ahead of this school year, 18 states have laws that ban the “consideration of divisive concepts” in schools — language, Caldwell-Stone said, that is most often used when describing race and gender.

“Some [state] laws do use the phrase ‘critical race theory.’ And some laws even go so far as to ban schools from discussing, using or reading [specific works such as] the 1619 Project,” she said.

Justice said Moms for Liberty isn’t against teaching slavery’s impact on American history but disagrees with how many of the narratives are presented. “These children are left in the ‘60s, with no conversations or stories about redemption or where we have come as a country since the time of Jim Crow laws.”

Books that are commonly banned in schools — such as “New Kid,” “The Hate U Give” and “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” — critically consider this idea of redemption and discuss modern-day racism from the Black perspective.

And in addition to schools, increasingly, there have been efforts to ban books from public library systems and commercial bookstores, a trend that Corn-Revere believes will continue.

He is currently defending a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where a parent is suing the store for selling two “obscene” books: “Gender Queer” and “A Court of Mist and Fury,” a fantasy novel.

Because this is not the state’s jurisdiction, in this public realm, Corn-Revere said, the First Amendment defense does apply.

In rural and/or economically depressed areas, book banning is a powerful strategy

Even in the internet age — when digital access to stories and themes are at the fingertips of many — it’s a misconception, Caldwell-Stone said, that all young people have the resources and power to access all information. A book ban, for many communities and schools, leaves a significant void — especially for those in low-income communities.

These barriers are particularly potent for young people who come from economically challenged backgrounds or areas with limited public services. Rural communities and tribal lands, she said, often lack public libraries or libraries that are well-stocked. As a result, many children still rely on book mobiles or rotating book fairs as their only means of accessing new titles.

“It’s easy to argue that no book has really been banned, because of online book selling and ebooks. But that requires regular and uninterrupted access to the internet, which costs money, and you need a credit card to purchase or rent the books.”

Caldwell-Stone recalled previously working in Jonesboro, Arkansas, which at the time, like hundreds of communities around the country today, she said, had no public transportation system, no public library and unreliable internet access. “Removing a book from the consolidated high school library meant it was actually gone from every student’s hands,” she said.

Rural libraries are “definitely underfunded and understaffed,” and “seldom within walking distance of where people live,” said Wendy Johnston, a program manager at Rural Impact Network where she leads the rural library fellowship. In some states, such as West Virginia, she noticed libraries closing down in less populated areas or focusing their funds away from books and instead on computer labs.

And when libraries are in need of help — such as when floods last week in Hindman, Kentucky, damaged the town’s only public library and many of the county’s school libraries — public donations are often the only way to rehabilitate their collections.

Shiela Keaise has been a librarian at the Colleton County Memorial Library in Walterboro, South Carolina, for 27 years. “In rural communities, because funds are so slim, if we start banning books, we will start limiting our already limited access,” Keaise said.

Ironically, banning books popularizes them

An unintended consequence of book bans, Corn-Revere said, is that those titles become more popular. Many bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble, are able to market ‘banned books’ as a commercial appeal. According to market research data from the NPD Group, after a book was banned and made headlines, its sales spiked — this was true for “Gender Queer,” “Antiracist Baby,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “Maus,” as well as others.

Librarians and libraries are being targeted and facing pressure

During Keaise’s nearly three decades as a librarian in South Carolina, she has helped stock the shelves with a growing amount of books by African American authors. She said that her library supervisors — who have the authority to pull a book from the shelves — are always under pressure from the public to remove certain titles.

And in some communities, these pressures have organized into groups that use both physical and subversive methods to keep certain books out of public libraries and schools.

According to Cynthia Robinson, the executive director of the Illinois Library Association, parents and political groups have taken to disrupting library spaces and programming through protests at the library. There have also been efforts to check out certain books en masse, with clear intentions of never returning them.

“If a group manages to get materials off library shelves, they feel like they’ve done something,” Robinson said. “Or people will go into libraries and try to provoke the staff to respond to them, so that they can put their videos out on social media.”

And it isn’t just books that these groups are hoping to disrupt. According to data from the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, 9 percent of censorship challenges were against school or library programs, meeting rooms, displays and exhibits — the vast majority of which promote ‘banned’ book reading lists and these books’ themes.

Drag Queen Story Hour, an organization with chapters in 28 states and seven countries, hosts readings — often centered around inclusive and diverse stories — for children in bookstores, libraries and schools. But these spaces have been interrupted by protesters, and stories of drag queen hosts facing abuse are becoming more common.

School and library board meetings have perhaps been the most common spaces for contentious debate.

“In Victoria, Texas, the Moms for Liberty chapter showed up at the school board meeting, demanding the removal of some 15 titles,” Caldwell-Stone said. “And then a week later, they showed up at the public library board meeting with the same list of books.”

During this past school year in Downers Grove, Illinois, Robinson said, affiliates of the Proud Boys attended school superintendent meetings in efforts to pressure the administration to ban the book “Gender Queer.”

Book banning is coming to a campaign near you

Politicians on both sides are also very aware of how divisive the book-banning issue is, said Caldwell-Stone, and are using it as part of their platforms to garner voter attention and support.

In April, Tennessee Republican State Rep. Jerry Sexton made headlines by saying he would “burn” books the state declared obscene. This August, the Houston Chronicle reported that Texas politicians were leading the book-banning charge more than parents.

Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom of California posted a picture of himself in March, captioned, “Reading some banned books to figure out what these states are so afraid of.” Ironically, one of the books in the image, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” is banned in some liberal California school districts — a crucial reminder that efforts to censor books aren’t always so clearly drawn along right-left political lines.

People on both ends of the political spectrum have made pushes to ban books, Corn-Revere said. And sometimes the same titles, but for different reasons.

“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Corn-Revere said, has faced criticism from the left for its use of racial slurs, and the right has gone after its portrayals of racism and slavery. “To Kill a Mockingbird” has also angered progressives for its white savior narrative arc and angered conservatives for what some think is an unfairly negative portrayal of the American South during that time.

“Harry Potter” has been targeted for its witchcraft but also for its lack of diversity and as a response to criticisms of author J.K. Rowling’s views on gender identity.

Caldwell-Stone expects a lengthy and intensifying public debate about book bans in the coming years — leading up to 2024 — as candidates learn just how many votes they may be able to win from this issue alone.

Keaise said the book banning issue, ultimately, comes down to believing one’s own individual views are more important or correct than others. “Libraries are gateways to health, to knowledge, to wealth and networking at a higher level,” she said. “I prefer not to read books with profanity, but there are many people who do. And so if I limit that, then I am limiting someone else’s expression.”

“People are in those books,” she continued. “If you start banning books, then you start banning culture, and you start banning people.”

“These books are needed,” Caldwell-Stone said. “They can be life-saving and affirming, especially for young people who are themselves gay, queer or transgender, or have friends who are dealing with issues around their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

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