This week, PEN America’s Kasey Meehan and Laura Schroeder joined writers and organizations including the Florida Freedom to Read Project, We Need Diverse Books, Human Rights Watch, National Council of Teachers of English, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, PFLAG, and the American Libraries Association for a roundtable discussion on book bans with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley’s (MA-7) in Washington, DC.

Over the past two years, PEN America documented 5,894 books banned across the United States affecting millions of school children in 41 states;  books about race and racism and LGBTQ+ identities and books written by authors of color and LGBTQ+ authors have been the primary targets of book bans.

Libraries are often referred to as the “living rooms of America” where everyone deserves to see themselves and their diverse stories reflected in the books on their shelves. Limiting the freedom to read and access information is an affront to free expression.

During the discussion, Kasey Meehan, Freedom to Read program director at PEN America, said, “Over the last few years, across the United States, we have witnessed alarming attacks on free expression, particularly the freedom to read. These attacks rely on authoritarian tactics of fear, intimidation, and silencing – straining and fostering mistrust in our public schools, and undermining our schools, educators, and librarians’ ability to meet their goals of educating students with knowledge and critical thinking and facilitating the ongoing unification that undergirds a pluralistic society.” 

Laura Schroeder, PEN America’s Congressional Affairs lead, said: “Book banning is an attack on the freedom to learn, to write, to think and these freedoms are inherent to our country and our democracy.”

Prior to the convening, Congresswoman Pressley introduced the Books Save Lives Act, which PEN America welcomes the spirit of the legislation in its efforts to increase access to diverse books and document the negative impact that book banning has on underrepresented communities. She noted other reinforcing, federal bills introduced this year including the Fight Book Ban Act, introduced by Congressman Maxwell Frost (FL-10), Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-8), and Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (FL-24), and the Right to Read Act, introduced by Representative Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-07) and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI).

Groups and authors around the table stressed the importance of diverse and inclusive books, named the harms the current wave of book bans are having on students, parents, educators, librarians, authors, and schools, and uplifted current counter-efforts and messaging strategies pushing back against book bans in defense of the freedom to read and write. 

PEN America has been at the forefront of documenting and defending against the unprecedented rise of school book bans nationwide. Depriving students of classic and contemporary literary works flies in the face of basic constitutional freedoms and PEN America is suing Escambia County, Florida, over its book bans. The wave of book banning is worse than anything seen since the McCarthyism Red Scare era of the 1950s.

Pressley concluded the roundtable with a reading of Langston Hughes’ poem, Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

       Or fester like a sore—

       And then run?

       Does it stink like rotten meat?

       Or crust and sugar over—

       like a syrupy sweet?


       Maybe it just sags

       like a heavy load.


       Or does it explode?