PEN America is having quite the year, emerging as an organization that has helped us all keep tabs on the new wave of attempts to ban books. Now they've released a report looking at the whole picture of the rising tide of educational gag orders, and while I recommend that you go read the whole thing for yourself, including their index of school book bans, let me just pass along some of the more striking items in the report.
And let me underline the fact that this covers just a nine month period. Nine months, covering 26 states and 86 school districts.
The index lists bans on a grand total of 1,145 books, with 874 authors and 198 illustrators having their work targeted. 819 works of fiction. 209 children's picture books. 31 graphic novels. 150 chapter books. 537 young adult titles.
Nobody wants to argue that every book is appropriate for every student, nor do school libraries have infinite space. Furthermore, I agree with those critics who say that schools and school personnel work for the public and do not function as independent agents answerable to nobody. For all those reasons, groups like the American Library Association have guidelines for best practices in making decisions about books, and most school districts have a procedure by which parents can challenge the presence of a work. But what PEN America found is that many of these bans are completely circumventing any such procedures. In the worst cases, we're finding schools where administrators are quietly yanking books they think have potential to draw criticism, without following any procedure at all.
A mere 4% of the books banned "have been the result of processes that began with the filing of formal challenges to library or classroom materials by community members." In other words, lots of "concerned citizens" are skipping right past the procedures available to them to address their concerns and are skipping ahead to pitchforks, torches, and rants at board meetings. It's almost as if they are not as concerned about addressing the concerns about the books as they are in sowing chaos and eroding support for the district. There are several specific examples in the report; none of them will make you feel better. In one case, a single parent got five books booted from a class, including Night by Elie Weisel.
The greatest number of titles are being banned from classrooms (470), plus the 143 titles banned from both libraries and classrooms. 506 titles are banned "pending investigation."
The report finds that 41% of the bans came not from concerned parents or community members, but came from state officials or elected lawmakers. That, PEN America notes, is a big change in how these things happen.
The index does not include books that have been, well, partly banned. In Williamson County, Tennessee, a district with an exceptionally noisy Moms For Liberty group, several books have had select pages banned-- teachers may not read certain pages aloud. The infamous seahorse book has two pages banned from student view; those are the sex pages, which are displayed in the report, and let me tell you--they are some hotttt stuff. Okay, not really, but they do show seahorses twining tails and also mention that the female puts the eggs in the male's pouch, so maybe that's the problem.
Here's how the bans break down by states and districts. Way to go, Texas.
Some of these bans are being reversed on review, or by court challenge, or just some level of respect for the First Amendment prevailing.
PEN America broke the bans down by topic. Here's how that looks.
LGBTQ+ topics or prominent characters: 379 titles
Protagonists of color: 467 titles
Jewish or Muslim characters and themes: 18 titles
Sexual or health-related content: 283 titles, including titles about sex, abortion, teen pregnancy, puberty, sexual assault.
Race and racism: 247 titles
History: 184 titles, including picture books about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ruby Bridges, Duke Ellington, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sonia Sotomayor, Nelson Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai.
Death, grief and suicide: 122 titles. Which, yes, is scary stuff. But maybe keeping students with questions from searching for answers is not a big help.
The report has several great quotes with it, but I'll leave you with this one from author Ashley Hope Perez:Book challengers may convince themselves that they want to save the kids. But it’s a damaging myth that removing a story about painful aspects of human experience will in any way protect young people. This is like arguing that a school-wide moratorium on discussions of bullying will eliminate the problem. Silence is the real threat.