PEN America’s Sobering New Report

“More” is the keyword in a newly released report from PEN America, the free speech group that tracks and details bills of censorship and gag orders across the country. The report, which updates her April Banned In the USA, includes new data and information about the increase in book bans over the past year.

Among the findings:

  • 2,532 individual books were banned between July 2021 and June 2022, and of these there are 1,648 unique titles, all of which can be viewed, sorted and searched in their updated banned books database
  • The 1,648 titles come from 1,261 different authors, 290 illustrators and 18 translators

PEN figures come from reports submitted to the organization as well as reports covered in the media. This does not take into account the likely hundreds of unreported book bans, nor the likely hundreds of titles banned through quiet/soft censorship.

Where are books banned?

Book bans are not limited to a select few states. They are a nationwide phenomenon affecting 32 different states.

PEN estimates that approximately 4 million students are affected by these book bans, which have been reported in over 5,000 different schools.

Which books are banned?

In PEN’s first report in the spring, books by and about people of color topped the list of most censored works. But since then there has been a shift and now books by or about LGBTQ+ people top the list of most banned books.

PEN topic of forbidden content diagram.

Forty-one percent of banned books deal directly with LGBTQ+ issues. Books by or about trans people make up 9% of that number.

Further statements on the blocked content:

  • 659 titles (40 percent) contain protagonists or prominent colored supporting characters
  • 338 titles (21 percent) deal directly with race and racism issues
  • 357 titles (22 percent) contain sexual content
  • 161 titles (10 percent) have themes related to rights and activism
  • 141 titles (9 percent) are either biographies, autobiographies or memoirs
  • 64 titles (4 percent) feature characters and stories that reflect religious minorities, such as Jewish, Muslim, and other faith traditions
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Note that there is no category for books about violence. Book banners are far more interested in erasing identities and experiences of queer people and people of color than talking about violence resembling that in which they play a role. Groups like Moms For Liberty and more local groups like Awake Illinois have encouraged violence and threats over books and library programs that do not fit their political perspective (including a recent cancellation of a privately funded drag queen bingo program at Downers Grove Public Library in Illinois for credible violent threats and a previous threat to “shoot” a school librarian over materials in the library.

Types of banned books chart from PEN report

In addition, most banned books are published for young adults, while picture books and chapter books were also among the most frequently banned.

PEN thought so too 96% of book bans imposed did not meet best practice guidelines for book challenges such as those outlined by the American Library Association or the National Coalition Against Censorship.

Book blocked groups

What is likely to be underestimated – thanks in part to the challenge of documenting and tracking accurate counts – PEN reports that at least 50 groups are working to ban books in schools and public libraries across the US. Within those 50 groups, there are eight that operate regional or local chapters, totaling over 300 (think Moms For Liberty and their county-by-county groups).

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The vast majority of these groups have formed since 2021 – 73% – and PEN reports that 20% of book bans over the past year were directly related to these groups’ efforts. Another 30% of book bans are likely influenced by them as well, given the language and use of tactics that reflect these groups.

All of this comes despite the deep unpopularity of book bans among Americans of all political persuasions, and the response of parents to the possibilities in states like Florida to restrict their students’ library materials, which is among the most draconian of new “parental rights” policies.

The PEN report can be read in full on its website, and it pays to gain a better understanding of the wide range of book bans, who are behind them, and the tactics these groups use to find, challenge, and ban titles that don’t fit their agenda.

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