Today, books in the US are under profound attack. They are disappearing from library shelves, being challenged in droves, being decreed off limits by school boards, legislators, and prison authorities. And everywhere, it is the books that have long fought for a place on the shelf that are being targeted. Books by authors of color, by LGBTQ+ authors, by women. Books about racism, sexuality, gender, history.

Book bans in public schools have recurred throughout American history, with notable flare-ups in the McCarthy era and the early 1980s. But, while long present, the scope of such censorship has expanded drastically and in unprecedented fashion since the beginning of the 2021–22 school year.

This FAQ answers some of the most common questions about Book Bans in America.

What is a school book ban?

PEN America defines a school book ban as any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials, 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.

Books available in schools, whether in a school or classroom library, or as part of a curriculum, were selected by librarians and educators as part of the educational offerings to students. Book bans occur when those choices are overridden by school boards, administrators, teachers, or even politicians, on the basis of a particular book’s content. 

The phrase “book ban” does not:

  • apply to initial decisions by a school district or school on which books to purchase or assign to students. 
  • refer to situations in which educators initially determine that certain books are more appropriate for access at or above particular grade levels. 
  • Nor does it apply to situations where professional educators and administrators engage in regular curriculum review or updates and make decisions about which books will or will not be assigned in class. if books are deaccessioned from libraries following best practices of collection maintenance and “weeding” that are content-neutral, and the result of regular updating, that is not a ban. 

A book ban occurs when an objection to the content of a specific book or type of book leads to that volume being withdrawn either fully or partially from availability, or when a blanket prohibition or absolute restriction is placed on a particular title within a school or a district.

School book bans take varied forms, and can include prohibitions on books in libraries or classrooms, as well as a range of other restrictions, some of which may be temporary. While some decisions to remove or restrict books can be the outcome of established processes, they are nonetheless of concern because they result in diminished access to literature for young people, or the diminished ability of librarians or teachers to use particular educational materials. Book removals that follow established processes may still improperly target books on the basis of content pertaining to race, gender, or sexual orientation, invoking concerns of equal protection in education.

Why do school book bans matter? Can’t students access books elsewhere?

As public institutions, schools must serve our diverse democracy. School libraries provide a vital resource for educators, students, and parents in both supporting literacy and helping young people learn about the world. School libraries are places of voluntary inquiry, and efforts to restrict what information and ideas are available therein often entail efforts to suppress or censor particular viewpoints, stories, and histories. 

There is also no guarantee that students will have easy or equitable access to books in other locations. Many students in the United States attend schools without libraries, or, in districts without ready access to public libraries. Not all parents and families have the time or means to access public libraries, or to purchase books. This makes the ready availability of materials to students in school libraries unique and consequential to American democracy. In the 2021-22 school year, efforts to censor or ban books have also spread to public libraries and booksellers, belying the idea that current efforts to censor books are only focused on schools.

Public schools are part of the fabric of our democracy, and public school libraries have been recognized as demanding special First Amendment protection. This means that even if particular book titles can be accessed elsewhere, the restriction of them in libraries is nonetheless a potential infringement of students’ constitutional rights. As noted in Counts v. Cedarville School District, a 2003 U.S. federal district court decision: “The Supreme Court has held that ‘one is not to have the exercise of his liberty of expression in appropriate places abridged on the plea that it may be exercised in some other place.’”

Ready access to ideas and information is a necessary predicate to the right to exercise freedom of meaningful speech, press, or political freedom in our democracy, for young people and adults alike. Consider the following excerpt from the 1978 decision of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts in Right to Read Defense Committee of Chelsea v. School Committee of the City of Chelsea:

The library is ‘a mighty resource in the marketplace of ideas’ … There a student can literally explore the unknown, and discover areas of interest and thought not covered by the prescribed curriculum. The student who discovers the magic of the library is on the way to a life-long experience of self-education and enrichment. That student learns that a library is a place to test or expand upon ideas presented to him, in or out of the classroom… The most effective antidote to the poison of mindless orthodoxy is ready access to a broad sweep of ideas and philosophies. There is no danger in such exposure. The danger is in mind control.

How does PEN America count book bans?

PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists instances where students’ access to books in school libraries and classrooms in the United States is restricted or diminished for either limited or indefinite periods of time.

PEN America also tracks the banning of unique titles. If the same book is banned in 10 school districts, that would count as 10 bans, but one unique title.

The banning of a single book title can mean anywhere from one to hundreds of copies are pulled from libraries or classrooms in a school district, and often, the same title is banned in libraries, classrooms, or both in a single district. 

PEN America does not count these duplicate bans in its unique title tally, but does acknowledge each separate ban in its overall count. 

PEN America’s data is gathered by reviewing relevant news stories on challenges, restrictions, and bans to school library books, curriculum, and classroom libraries anywhere in the United States. We consulted school district websites, corresponded with librarians, authors, and teachers, and reviewed letters to school districts organized by the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). 

In the 2021-22 school year there have been numerous accounts of quiet removals of books in libraries and classrooms by teachers and librarians, what is frequently called ‘soft censorship.’ PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans therefore is best thought of as a minimum count of these trends. This is a similar conclusion to that of the American Library Association, which routinely estimates that its counts reflect only a portion of the true number of books banned in schools.

What types of book bans does PEN America track?

PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans differentiates between four discrete categories of bans: Banned in libraries and classrooms; Banned in libraries; Banned in classrooms; and Banned pending investigation. The same title can be banned in libraries, classrooms, or both, in different districts. 

Banned in libraries and classrooms: These represent instances where individual titles were placed off-limits for students in either some or all libraries and classrooms, and simultaneously barred from inclusion in curricula.

Banned in libraries: These represent instances in which administrators or school boards have removed individual titles from school libraries where they were previously available. Books in this category are not necessarily banned from classroom curriculum. This category includes decisions to ban a book from one school-level library (e.g. a middle school) even if it is included in libraries for higher grades (e.g. a high school), or other forms of grade-level restrictions. In many such cases, the decisions to ban books from lower-level libraries do not align with publishers’ age recommendations, nor are they the result of considered processes.

Banned in classrooms: These represent instances where school boards or other school authorities have barred individual titles from classroom libraries, curriculum, or optional reading lists. These constitute bans on use in classrooms, even in cases where the books may still be available in school libraries.

Banned pending investigation: These are instances where a title was removed during an investigation to determine what restrictions, if any, to implement on it. In cases where such investigations have concluded, and particular titles have been further restricted or banned as a result, PEN America uses one of the categories above. Though timelines vary across districts, pending investigations can drag out, resulting in bans on particular titles that last months at a time.

What if a book is challenged, but is ultimately kept available in a school library?

PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists decisions to limit or diminish access to books, not instances where books are challenged.

In response to challenges, however, books are frequently pulled from shelves during investigations, for limited or sometimes indefinite periods of time. This is counter to procedural best practices from the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and the American Library Association (ALA), which state that a book should remain in circulation while undergoing a reconsideration process. This is because, if schools suspend access to books in response to any challenge from any corner, it would render them incapable of serving students. A considered, due process is a more fair, democratic approach to challenges, which also safeguards students’ First Amendment rights.

If a book is challenged and remains on the shelves during the review process, and is ultimately retained, access to the book has never changed, and that is not counted as a ban in the Index.

If a book is challenged and the administration pulls it from the shelves or the school board orders it removed or restricted while under review, then it is counted in the Index as having been Banned Pending Investigation. Even if it is later returned to the shelves, it was effectively banned from students for the period it was under review.

What if access to a book is restricted?

In some cases individual schools or school districts opt to place some kind of restriction on a book title. When this is done in response to challenges or public demands, without considered review processes that involve professional educators and librarians, it can constitute a book ban, in that it reflects a decision to restrict or diminish access to a book from where it was previously accessible. This is different from regular acquisition processes where educators make determinations regarding which grade levels a book is appropriate for, or engage in processes of regular review of those decisions. 

If a grade-level restriction is placed on a book without any review consideration process, this constitutes a ban on the book. Access has been restricted for those students to whom it was previously accessible (e.g. a book is restricted to a high school library, and effectively banned from the middle school library where it was previously accessible as determined by professional librarians and based on publishers’ age recommendations).

If a school district removes a book from its libraries and places it in a different space in the building (ie, counseling or guidance or restricted shelving), then that constitutes a ban from libraries. If a school restricts a book only to an AP English classroom, when it was previously accessible in the library for all students, that too can constitute a ban on the book.

If a district mandates that students must acquire permission from parents to read or check out specific titles, then that constitutes a ban, as it restricts access for those to whom the book was previously accessible. This precise issue was taken up in Arkansas in Counts v. Cedarville School District (2003), where it was decided that mandating parental permission on specific book titles could have a “stigmatizing effect” on a student, and that even though it was a minimal infringement, “The loss of First Amendment rights, even minimally, is injurious.” 

Some students may also have an unsafe home environment, for whom accessing a particular book might offer an important lifeline, but in which case parental permission would not be an option. Part of the role of public schools is to serve precisely such students. Each of these restrictive policies can thus place undue burdens or unfair hurdles on how some students access literature in public schools.

How should school districts approach book reconsideration processes?

In Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), the Supreme Court stated: “Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas.” The ruling affirmed the “special characteristics” of the school library, making it “especially appropriate for the recognition of the First Amendment rights of students,” including the right to access information and ideas. The central holding of Pico, on page 872 of the decision, was [L]ocal school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion. The Court further recognized that while school boards have “broad discretion in the management of school affairs,” including to take action due to books’ “educational suitability” or “pervasive” vulgarity, a board’s motivation should be demonstrated by the use of “established, regular, and facially unbiased procedures for the review of controversial materials.” The Court noted that the school board in Pico used a “highly irregular and ad hoc” removal process that ignored literary experts, district superintendent, librarians, and teachers, as well as guidance from book-rating publications.

In alignment with the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, the National Coalition Against Censorship  (NCAC) and American Library Association (ALA) have developed guidelines for handling formal complaints to school library collections, which are meant to safeguard students’ First Amendment rights by limiting the ability of community members of school boards to exercise content- or viewpoint-based censorship. They recommend that community members complete formal reconsideration requests in writing to school principals, and that schools form “reconsideration” committees, made up of teachers, librarians, school administrators, and members of the community, who will receive training in intellectual freedom and library policies, before they read, discuss, and collectively reevaluate the availability of a particular book in the school. ALA guidelines make clear that committee members are to “set aside their personal beliefs” and use objective standards, and that books are to remain in circulation until the process is complete and a final decision is made. They also provide guidance on how school-level committees should make initial decisions before they can be appealed to district-level committees, which would then be formed to continue to evaluate a book title’s availability. Finally, the district committee’s decision could be appealed to the school board for a final, district-wide determination. As the NCAC explains, these kinds of policies help “ensure decisions about instruction advance fundamental pedagogical goals and not subjective interests.”

While it is possible for such school-level or district-level “reconsideration” committees to decide to remove or restrict books, legal precedent and expert best practices demand that committee members, and principals, superintendents, and school boards act with the constitutional rights of students in mind, cognizant that it is better to allow access to literature for those who might want it than to eliminate that access for all based on the concerns of any individual or faction.

Is book banning new?

Book banning has a long, global history. The tactic is frequently associated with authoritarian governments who have enacted society-wide bans on particular texts, such as occurred in Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa. The United States has also previously banned the import or sale of particular texts, such as Ulysses by James Joyce and Howl by Allen Ginsberg.  

Although less extreme, there have been efforts to bar and restrict books in public schools going back decades, with notable flare-ups in the McCarthy era and the early 1980s. At various points throughout the 20th century, certain books have stirred controversy, with titles like Of Mice and Men and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings being some well-known examples. There have also been parallel efforts to pass state laws to prohibit and control what can be discussed in public schools and textbooks, most notably in the 1920s, with bans on the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution. These efforts mirror the significant wave of educational censorship we see today, including efforts to pass legislation that PEN America has called educational gag orders, and to enact book bans in schools. 

PEN America calls this the ‘Ed Scare,’ paralleling the ‘Red Scares’ which followed the First and Second World Wars. While there are historical parallels, the growing movement in 2022 to censor books in schools is unique, in both the scope and scale. Lists of books hundreds long have been assembled with demands that they be purged from school libraries by an expanding array of groups and individuals. 

Whereas past censorship in schools focused on particular topics, the ‘Ed Scare’ is also notable in the way it is increasingly focused on an evolving array of subjects, themes, and identities — including U.S. history, race and diversity, social emotional learning, LGBTQ+ identities, and sex education. This is also continuing to shape the kinds of books that are being targeted for removal in schools.

While PEN America conducted a formal count of books banned for the first time in the 2021-22 school year, our organization has fought back against book bans for decades. In recent years PEN America has typically encountered a handful of such cases each year.  But since 2021, the scale and force of book banning in local communities is escalating dramatically. The book bans we’ve tracked in the past twelve months stand out for the scope and scale, occurring across dozens of states, with hundreds of titles targeted, and the extent to which they have also been driven by political pressure and rhetoric from elected officials.

In 2016, PEN America published Missing from the Shelf: Book Challenges and Lack of Diversity in Children’s Literature, which described instances of ‘soft censorship’ taking place in schools and libraries in response to parents’ challenges of books. The report also highlighted the disproportionate targeting of books by or about people whose identities and stories have traditionally been underrepresented in children’s and young adult literature, such as people of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, or persons with disabilities. In 2022, this remains a central focus of the movement to ban books.

Who is behind today’s movement to ban books?

Since 2021, a campaign has emerged in many parts of the United States to advocate for the censorship of books in public schools. This campaign is in part driven by politics, with state lawmakers and executive branch officials pushing for bans in some cases. In Texas, for example, Republican state representative Matt Krause sent a letter and list with 850 books to school districts, asking them to investigate and report on which of the titles they held in libraries or classrooms. Political pressure of this sort in Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Georgia, and elsewhere has been tied to hundreds of book bans. 

Another major factor driving this dramatic expansion of book banning has been the proliferation of organized efforts to advocate for book removals. Organizations and groups involved in pushing for book bans have sprung up rapidly at the local and national levels, particularly since 2021. These range from local Facebook groups to the nonprofit organization Moms for Liberty, a national-level organization that now has over 200 chapters. Broadly, this movement is intertwined with political movements that grew throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including fights against mask mandates and virtual school, as well as disputes over “critical race theory” that in some states fueled the introduction of educational gag orders prohibiting discussion of “divisive” concepts in classrooms. 

As of September 2022, PEN America has identified at least 50 such groups operating at the national, state, or local levels to campaign and mobilize around what they view as the dangers of books in K-12 schools, and advocating for book restrictions and bans. Of these 50 groups, eight have regional and local chapters that, between them, number at least 300 in total; some of these operate predominantly through social media. This presents a minimum count, based on news coverage, school board meetings, and groups’ public presence online.

The varied groups involved do not all share identical aims, but they have found common cause in advancing an effort to control and limit what kinds of books are available in schools. While many of these groups use language in their mission statements about parents’ rights or religious or conservative views, some also make explicit calls for the exclusion of materials that touch on race (sometimes explicitly critical race theory) or LGBTQ+ themes.

These politicians and groups appear to be aiming to stir their bases and ignite the culture wars ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, and they’ve chosen to target vulnerable communities to further their own political agendas. At the same time there is a backlash to what are seen as new forms of cultural expression and acceptance, particularly of LGBTQ+ identities or the normalization of racial justice as a social ideal.

What are “parents’ rights” when it comes to school libraries?

Although “parents’ rights” is a powerful piece of political rhetoric, in most instances, it is being invoked to mean rights for a particular group of parents with distinct ideological views, rather than a neutral effort to engage all parents and students in ensuring that schools uphold free speech rights.

While parents and guardians ought to be partners with educators in their children’s education, and need channels for communicating with school administrators, teachers, and librarians, particularly concerning the education of their own children, public schools are by design supposed to rely on the expertise, ethics, and discretion of educational professionals to make decisions. In too many places, today’s political rhetoric of “parents’ rights” is being weaponized to undermine, intimidate, and chill the practices of these professionals, with potentially profound impacts on how students learn and access ideas and information in schools.

Parents ought to be encouraged to engage with schools through regular channels of dialogue, including parent-teacher conferences, PTA meetings, discussions with school leadership, and speaking at school board meetings. Most school districts have a way for parents to raise objections about the appropriateness of school library materials, and to have those concerns addressed by considered review processes by public schools and districts. But no parent ought to have the right to dictate or control what it is other parents, and all students, have the opportunity to read in schools.

What Can I Do To Help Fight Book Bans?

Book banning often happens at a local level, and community voices can be the most powerful in standing up for students’ freedom to read. Here are ways you can take action: