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Report: Last year ended with a surge in book bans

<strong>Cumulative book bans in the United States, July 1, 2021 - December 31, 2023. <a href="https://pen.org/report/narrating-the-crisis/">See the full PEN America report here.</a></strong>
PEN America
Cumulative book bans in the United States, July 1, 2021 - December 31, 2023. See the full PEN America report here.

PEN America says there was an "unprecedented" surge in book bans during the latter half of 2023, according to a new report.

The free expression group says that from July-December of last year, it recorded 4,349 instances of book bans across 23 states and 52 public school districts. The report says more books were banned in those six months than in the 12 months of the 2022-2023 school year.

PEN America says it draws its information on bans from "publicly available data on district or school websites, news sources, public records requests, and school board minutes."

Among the key takeaways:

  • The vast majority of school book bans occurred in Florida, with 3,135 bans across 11 of the state's school districts. A spokesperson with Florida's Department of Education declined NPR's request for comment.
  • Book bans are often instigated by a small number of people. Challenges from one parent lead to a temporary banning of 444 books in a school district in Wisconsin.
  • Those who ban books often cite "obscenity law and hyperbolic rhetoric about 'porn in schools' to justify banning books about sexual violence and LGBTQ+ topics (and in particular, trans identities)," the report says.
  • There is a similar surge in resistance against the bans, says the report. Authors, students and others are "fighting back in creative and powerful ways."


Who's doing the banning?

A study by The Washington Post found that in 2021-2022, "Just 11 people were responsible for filing 60 percent" of book challenges.

At a press conference today, free expression advocates from around the country that joined PEN America to discuss bans talked about the seemingly-outsized power of a small, but vocal, group.

High school senior Quinlen Schachle, the president of the Alaska Association of Student Governments, said when he attends school board meetings, "It's, like, [the same] one adult that comes up every day and challenges a new book. It is not a concerned a group of parents coming in droves to these meetings."

Laney Hawes, Co-Director of the Texas Freedom to Read Project said books are often banned because of "a handful of lists that are being circulated to different school districts" and not because of "a parent whose child finds the book and they have a problem with it."

PEN America defines a book ban as "any action taken against a book based on its content...that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished."

The conservative American Enterprise Institute took exception to PEN America's April 2022 banned books report. In a report for the Education Freedom Institute, AEI said it found that "almost three-quarters of the books that PEN listed as banned were still available in school libraries in the same districts from which PEN claimed they had been banned."

You can read PEN America's full report here.

This story was edited by Jennifer Vanasco.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair
Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.