Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools
Over the 2021–22 school year, what started as modest school-level activity to challenge and remove books in schools grew into a full-fledged social and political movement, powered by local, state, and national groups. The vast majority of the books targeted by these groups for removal feature LGBTQ+ characters or characters of color, and/or cover race and racism in American history, LGBTQ+ identities, or sex education.
This movement to ban books is deeply undemocratic, in that it often seeks to impose restrictions on all students and families based on the preferences of those calling for the bans and notwithstanding polls that consistently show that Americans of all political persuasions oppose book bans. And it is having multifaceted, harmful impacts: on students who have a right to access a diverse range of stories and perspectives, and especially on those from historically marginalized backgrounds who are watching their library shelves emptied of books that reflect and speak to them; on educators and librarians who are operating in some states in an increasingly punitive and surveillance-oriented environment with a chilling effect on teaching and learning; on the authors whose works are being targeted; and on parents who want to raise students in schools that remain open to curiosity, discovery, and the freedom to read.
PEN America has identified at least 50 groups involved in pushing for book bans at the national, state, or local levels. This includes eight groups that have among them at least 300 local or regional chapters. PEN America has identified these chapters based on the national groups’ own listings, by chapter or regional websites, and by their official chapter and regional group pages on Facebook. Insofar as we have been able to establish, there are at least another 38 state, regional, or community groups that do not appear to have formal affiliations with national organizations or with one another.
These groups share lists of books to challenge, and they employ tactics such as swarming school board meetings, demanding newfangled rating systems for libraries, using inflammatory language about “grooming” and “pornography,” and even filing criminal complaints against school officials, teachers, and librarians. The majority of these groups appear to have formed in 2021, and many of the book bans counted by PEN America can be linked in some way to their activities. Some of the groups espouse Christian nationalist political views, while many have mission statements oriented toward reforming public schools, in some cases to offer more religious education. In at least a few documented cases (for example, in Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania), the individuals lodging complaints about books did not have children attending public schools when at the time they raised objections.
This evolving censorship movement has grown in size and routinely finds new targets and tactics, homing in on the books encompassed in district book purchases or digital library apps. A parallel but connected movement is also targeting public libraries, with calls to ban books; efforts to intimidate, harass, or fire librarians; and even attempts to suspend or defund entire libraries.
Since PEN America published our initial Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students’ First Amendment Rights (April 2022) report, tracking 1,586 book bans during the nine-month period from July 2021 to March 2022, details about 671 additional book bans during that period have come to light. A further 275 more bans followed from April through June, bringing the total for the 2021-22 school year to 2,532 bans. This book-banning effort is continuing as the 2022–23 school year begins too, with at least 139 additional bans taking effect since July 2022.
In addition to the role played in book banning by local, state, and national groups, efforts to restrict access to books were also advanced in the past year by government officials and enabled by both state-level legislation and district-level policy changes. PEN America estimates that at least 40 percent of the bans counted in the Index of School Book Bans for the 2021–22 school year are connected to political pressure exerted by state officials or elected lawmakers. Some officials for example sent letters specifically inquiring into the availability of certain books in schools, such as occurred in Texas, Wisconsin, and South Carolina.
Since March 2022, we have also seen for the first time educational gag orders passed that implicate restrictions on books, most notably in Florida, as well as a range of other new laws that have put pressure on schools to censor their libraries. The Alpine School District in Utah responded to a new law, HB 374 (“Sensitive Materials in Schools”), by announcing the removal of 52 titles in July, but then opted to keep the books on shelves with some restrictions after national pushback. In August, some school districts in St. Louis, Missouri began to pull books from shelves in response to a law that made it a class A misdemeanor to provide visually explicit sexual material to students. These trends are unfortunately likely to continue, as the chilling effect of these legislative measures spreads.
Altogether, this report paints a deeply concerning picture for access to literature, and diverse literature in particular, in schools in the coming school year. Book banning and educational gag orders are two fronts in an all-out war on education and the open discussion and debate of ideas in America. Students have First Amendment rights to access information and ideas in schools, and these bans and legislative shifts pose clear threats to those rights. This climate is also increasingly undermining the professional discretion of educators and librarians when it comes to matters of public education, and disrupting the potential for effective relationships between parents, teachers and administrators that can actually serve to advance student learning and civic engagement.
PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel on book bans for PBS NewsHour, March 10, 2022.
What Types of Book Bans Are Taking Place in Schools?
In total, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans tracked 2,532 decisions to ban books between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022. This includes bans on 1,648 unique book titles. The banning of a single book title could 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 district. PEN America does not count these duplicate bans in its unique title tally, but does acknowledge each separate ban in its overall count.
In some cases, books are removed from shelves pending investigations or reviews, and they may be only temporarily restricted, but their restriction is recorded in the Index as a ban since such restrictions are counter to procedural best practices for book challenges from the American Library Association (ALA) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). Detailed definitions can be found in the first edition of Banned in the USA (April 2022).
PEN America’s recent findings on each type of ban for the 2021-22 school year are listed below.
|Type of Ban||# of Books Banned||# of Titles Banned||# of Districts|
|Banned in Libraries and Classrooms||333||215||70|
|Banned in Libraries||337||253||40|
|Banned in Classrooms||487||481||22|
|Banned Pending Investigation||1,375||984||57|
PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman on MSNBC for the Mehdi Hasan Show, Nov. 11, 2021.
The Most Banned Titles in the 2021–22 School Year
The most banned titles include the groundbreaking work of Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, along with best-selling books that have inspired feature films, television series, and a Broadway show. The list includes books that have been targeted for their LGBTQ+ content, their content related to race and racism, or their sexual content—or all three.
- Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe (41 districts)
- All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson (29 districts)
- Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez (24 districts)
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (22 districts)
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (17 districts)
- Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison (17 districts)
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (16 districts)
- Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews (14 districts)
- Crank by Ellen Hopkins (12 districts)
- The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (12 districts)
- l8r, g8r by Lauren Myracle (12 districts)
- Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (12 districts)
- Beloved by Toni Morrison (11 districts)
- Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin (11 districts)
- Drama: A Graphic Novel by Raina Telgemeier (11 districts)
- Looking for Alaska by John Green (11 districts)
- Melissa by Alex Gino (11 districts)
- This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson (11 districts)
- This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (11 districts)
The Most Frequently Banned Authors
The most banned authors include winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Booker Prize, the Newbery Award, the Caldecott Medal, the Eisner Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the NAACP Image Award, the GLAAD Award for Media Representation, the Stonewall Award, and more.
- Hopkins, Ellen – 14 titles – 43 bans – 20 districts
- Kobabe, Maia – 1 title – 41 bans – 41 districts
- Morrison, Toni – 3 titles – 34 bans – 25 districts
- Johnson, George M. – 2 titles – 30 bans – 29 districts
- Myracle, Lauren – 11 titles – 30 bans – 16 districts
- Pérez, Ashley Hope – 1 title – 23 bans – 23 districts
- Thomas, Angie – 2 titles – 19 bans – 17 districts
- Silvera, Adam – 9 titles – 18 bans – 13 districts
- Reynolds, Jason – 6 titles – 18 bans – 11 districts
- Maas, Sarah J. – 8 titles – 18 bans – 10 districts
- Levithan, David – 15 titles – 17 bans – 18 districts
- Alexie, Sherman – 2 titles – 17 bans – 17 districts
- Evison, Jonathan – 1 title – 17 bans – 17 districts
- Andrews, Jesse – 2 titles – 17 bans – 16 districts
- Faruqi, Saadia – 17 titles – 17 bans – 2 districts
- Jules, Jacqueline – 17 titles – 17 bans – 2 districts
- Do, Anh – 17 titles – 17 bans – 1 district
- Green, John – 3 titles – 16 bans – 15 districts
- Atwood, Margaret – 3 titles – 15 bans – 11 districts
- Hutchinson, Shaun David – 6 titles – 15 bans – 7 districts
- Albertalli, Becky – 7 titles – 14 bans – 11 districts
- Miedoso, Andrés – 14 titles – 14 bans – 1 district
- Gino, Alex – 2 titles – 13 bans – 11 districts
- Woodson, Jacqueline – 11 titles – 13 bans – 6 districts
- Asher, Jay – 1 title – 12 bans – 12 districts
- Hosseini, Khaled – 1 title – 12 bans – 12 districts
- Dawson, Juno – 2 titles – 12 bans – 11 districts
- Tamaki, Mariko – 2 titles – 12 bans – 11 districts
- Picoult, Jodi – 3 titles – 12 bans – 10 districts
- Glines, Abbi – 9 titles – 12 bans – 5 districts
- Peters, Julie Anne – 8 titles – 12 bans – 4 districts
- Cast, Kristen – 12 titles – 12 bans – 1 district
- Cast, P. C. – 12 titles – 12 bans – 1 district
- Kuklin, Susan – 1 title – 11 bans – 11 districts
- Telgemeier, Raina – 1 title – 11 bans – 11 districts
- Jennings, Jazz – 2 titles – 11 bans – 10 districts
- Stone, Nic – 3 titles – 11 bans – 10 districts
- Lockhart, E. – 3 titles – 11 bans – 8 districts
- Brown, Monica – 10 titles – 11 bans – 2 districts
- Kendi, Ibram X. – 7 titles – 10 bans – 12 districts
- Anderson, Laurie Halse – 3 titles – 10 bans – 10 districts
- Curato, Mike – 1 title – 10 bans – 10 districts
- Rosen, L. C. – 1 title – 10 bans – 10 districts
- Clare, Cassandra – 5 titles – 10 bans – 8 districts
- Arnold, Elana K. – 7 titles – 10 bans – 5 districts
- Konigsberg, Bill – 5 titles – 10 bans – 5 districts
Who Is Behind Book Bans? The Role of Groups
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 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.
In the short period since their formation and expansion, these groups have played a role in at least half of the book bans enacted across the country during the 2021–22 school year. PEN America estimates that at least 20 percent of the book bans enacted in that time frame could be linked directly to the actions of these groups, with many more likely influenced by them. This 20 percent is based on publicly available information and includes cases where a parent or community group took direct action to seek the removal of books by making a statement at a school board meeting, submitting a list of books for formal reconsideration, or filing formal reconsideration paperwork; in many of these cases, the groups also openly touted their role in pushing for book removals. In an additional approximately 30 percent of bans, there is some evidence of the groups’ likely influence, including the use of common language or tactics.
In Madison County Schools, Mississippi, for example, a parent who identified herself as the point person for Mississippi’s chapter of MassResistance (a national group also classified as an anti-LGBTQ+ “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center), expressed “concerns regarding critical race theory” and worked with parents to review the schools’ online library catalogs, seeking books that had been challenged in other parts of the country. By April 2022, the district had said the books were being placed in “restricted circulation” (requiring a parent’s permission to check out) while they were being reviewed.
MassResistance—which claims the January 6 attack on the US Capitol was “clearly a setup” and alleges a “Black Lives Matter and LGBT assault” on schools—took credit for bringing these restrictions about, declaring, “MassResistance gets involved—things start happening!” and referencing “‘groomer moms’ in the community” who opposed the removal of the 22 books. In August, the school board voted to place some of the books back in full circulation, but a list of 10 books remain restricted, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye, along with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Another parent who was a vocal critic of the books at a local school board meeting was also identified as the chair of the Moms for Liberty Madison chapter.
Some groups without significant national operations have also had far reach. The Florida Citizens Alliance (FLCA), for example, was founded in 2013 to “champion education reform.” But its leaders have spent considerable time and energy opposing climate change education, arguing for the elimination of sex education in K–12 schools, and publishing the misleading 2021 Objectionable Materials Report: Pornography and Age-Inappropriate Material in Florida Public Schools (provocatively named the Porn in Schools Report on their website). With a mailing of their “Porn in Schools” report and follow-up via their legal representative, the Pacific Justice Institute, the FLCA pushed for bans across the state. Ultimately they have played a role in bans in several counties in Florida, such as Jackson County School District, Orange County Public Schools, St. Lucie County Schools, Polk County School District, and Walton County School District. In Walton County School District, the superintendent responded to their email by directing the removal of all books on the list, despite admitting, “I haven’t read one paragraph of the books at this time.” Their advocacy was also connected to ‘warning labels’ being applied to over 100 books in school libraries in Collier County, Florida.
Even smaller, less formal groups have had an impact too. Between February and April 2022, Nixa Public Schools in Missouri received 17 complaints about 16 books, each citing “inappropriate and sexually explicit content,” which were subsequently banned. The woman who filed the most requests confirmed that she was a member of “Concerned Parents of Nixa,” a private Facebook group where community members gather to fight “questionable books, curriculum, and other materials such as sex education in Nixa Public Schools.” Concerned Parents of Nixa recently changed its name to Concerned Parents of the Ozarks. While it is unclear whether their list was solely from another group, the titles they challenged are the same ones seen over and over again amongst school libraries who have had to pull or otherwise eliminate access to them as a result.
Attendees of a Spotsylvania County, Va., School Board meeting raise and shake their hands in support of speakers criticizing the board for suggesting that sexually explicit books be banned at county schools on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. The meeting was held in the auditorium of Chancellor High School to accommodate the large crowd. (Peter Cihelka/The Free Lance-Star via AP)
These groups have employed a range of common tactics to advance book banning in public schools. Most of these tactics, it should be emphasized, are tactics that many advocacy and community organizing groups employ to a wide range of ends. Citizens are free to organize and advocate; these liberties are protected under the First Amendment’s safeguards for freedom of association. PEN America’s concern is not with the use of such standard organizing and mobilization tactics but rather with the end goal of restricting or banning books. That said, in some cases, members of these groups have also crossed a line, using online harassment or filing criminal complaints to pressure local officials and educators.
One common trend is that many of these groups circulate to their audiences lists of books to target. PEN America saw dozens of lists that circulated online during the 2021–22 school year, and these also occasionally morphed or grew in the process of being shared among groups.
Some groups appear to feed off work to promote diverse books, contorting those efforts to further their own censorious ends. They have inverted the purpose of lists compiled for teachers and librarians interested in introducing a more diverse set of reading materials into the classroom or library. For example, one group, the Idaho Freedom Foundation, referenced multiple lists celebrating books about equity, inclusion, and human rights under the header “Federal Agencies Are Sexualizing Idaho Libraries,” accused the federal government of using “taxpayer dollars to promote a pernicious ideology to young children,” and called on the Idaho legislature to reject federal funds for libraries. Another group, the Michigan Liberty Leaders, took an image of books from the Welcoming Schools bullying prevention program created by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation—including books designed to support LGBTQ+ students—and added alarmist language about the books being in schools.
In another example, the list of books created by the FLCA in their “Porn in Schools” report originated from the website Christian Patriot Daily, which said it received its list from a graduate student in early childhood development promoting LGBTQ+ resources for caregivers. This list has in turn appeared to spread across state lines. In March 2022, in Cherokee County School District in Georgia, a parent presented a list of 225 book challenges. In that list, 41 titles were not only identical to those in the 2021 FLCA report, but they were in the same order, with the same typos found in the original list. The same list also appears in a database of books on the website of Forest Hills Parents United, based in Michigan.
The books on these lists are often framed as dangerous or harmful, and the lists have been used to quicken the pace of book banning, often in violation of or with disregard for established, neutral processes, with demands that all books on such lists be removed from schools immediately.
Members of these groups also flood school districts with official challenges to books and mobilize supporters to dominate discussions at public board meetings. In some cases, parents have screamed to disrupt meetings, or threatened violence. In response to such threats, the Sarasota County, Florida, school board placed limits on public comments at board meetings. School boards in Carmel Clay, Indiana, and Sonoma Valley, California, are considering similar restrictions.
Some groups have at times also helped spur complaints from community members without children in public school. In St. Lucie County Schools, Florida, a complainant submitted official reconsideration challenges for 44 titles from the FLCA’s “Porn in Schools” report, only 20 of which were found in the district. The complainant told a reporter that although they personally did not have children in the district, they were “picked” after attending a meeting hosted by FLCA. “I got picked because I took it seriously,” the complainant said.
In the fall of 2021 in Williamson County Schools, Tennessee, Moms for Liberty pushed for a review of the reading curriculum, stating that the curriculum violated a state law (which PEN America counts as an educational gag order). The complaints said materials were too focused on the country’s segregationist past and might make children feel uncomfortable about race. After the review, the district published a report that outlined the relationship of complainants to the school district, and only 14 of the 37 complainants had children enrolled and affected by the curriculum targeted by the complaint. Another 14 had no children in the school system at all, while 9 had children enrolled in middle or high schools. One book, Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech, was ultimately banned permanently, and multiple books had bans placed on what content could be taught, including restrictions on showing students pages 12–13 of Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea by Chris Butterworth—pages that included an illustration of the sea creatures twisting tails, rubbing tummies, and mating.
The role of organized local, regional, and national groups in book-banning campaigns has several implications that are distinct from prior patterns where book challenges tended to originate locally and spontaneously by individual parents. The groups behind these bans often furnish materials, messaging templates, and other kinds of directions that easily facilitate book challenges and imbue their efforts with a degree of focus and determination that can take local school officials by surprise. Groups that enjoy political ties and advocacy resources are able to marshal political support behind their censorious campaigns, putting local teachers, administrators, and school board officials under pressure. Mobilization on social media or at board meetings can also create an atmosphere of intimidation that may undermine the ability of a community to discuss and adjudicate concerns in a measured way.
Most schools’ book reconsideration policies have been created to respond to challenges filed by individual parents over particular books their children read; now that challenges are coming with such increased frequency and scope, schools and districts have sometimes struggled to keep up, as well as to withstand the heightened political pressure and public scrutiny.
The other key implication of the organized nature of these banning campaigns is their ability to reach scale. Whereas traditional book challenges were one-off incidents, the current pattern of escalating, copycat banning efforts across the country is a testament to the ability of campaigners to leverage tools and communications channels to push for censorship across the country. As their tactics and methods evolve, it stands to reason that a growing number of schools, communities, and legislatures will confront similar challenges.
The unrelenting wave of challenges to the inclusion of certain books in school libraries—whether promulgated at the urging of an individual community member, grassroots organization, or government official—has spurred another phenomenon: preemptive book banning. In April, May, and June 2022, PEN America tracked several cases where school administrators have banned books in the absence of any challenge in their own district, seemingly in a preemptive response to potential bills, threats from state officials, or challenges in other districts.
The most significant ban of this type occurred in Collierville, Tennessee, where a school district removed 327 books from shelves in anticipation of a state law that ultimately did not pass. Administrators sorted the books into tiers based on how much the books focus on LGBTQ+ characters or story lines; tier 3, for instance, reflected that “the main character of the book is part of the LGBTQ community, and their sexual identity forms a key component of the plot. The book may contain suggestive language and/or implied sexual interactions.” If a book reached tier 5, according to the sorting guidelines, “the books are being pulled.”
Other preemptive bans were responses to actions at the state level or in neighboring districts. For example, according to Texas media reports, bans in Katy ISD, Clear Creek ISD, and Cypress-Fairbanks ISD were the result of administrators responding either to what was happening in other districts or to an 850-book list compiled and circulated to education officials by Texas state representative Matt Krause.
Silent Bans and Other Restrictions
Finally, PEN America has tracked other instances of books included in banned book displays, or other disputed materials, being quietly removed to avoid controversy. Books are also being labeled or marked in some way as “inappropriate” both in online catalogs and on physical titles themselves. In the Collier County School District in Florida, for instance, warning labels were attached to a group of more than 100 books that disproportionately included stories featuring LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color. While these cases are not included in the Index because they do not meet PEN America’s definition of school book bans, these types of actions could have a chilling effect—applying a stigma to the books in question and the topics they cover—and they merit further study.
While several stories of preemptive and silent book bans have made it into the news or to the attention of PEN America, it is clear that mounting censorship and the punitive approach being taken to the enforcement of book bans is having wide ripple effects. The Supreme Court has sharply restricted viewpoint- and subject-matter-based restrictions on speech precisely because in addition to rendering certain ideas, stories, and opinions off-limits, such measures cast a wider chilling effect on expression. Given the rapid spread of book bans across the country, it seems inevitable that the resulting climate of caution and fear will result in a reluctance among teachers, administrators, and librarians to take risks that could affect their own employment, their budgets, their reputations, and even their personal safety. Emerging data, like a recent survey of school librarians by the School Library Journal in which 97% said they “always,” “often,” or “sometimes” weigh how controversial subject matter might be when deciding on book purchases is pointing clearly to these alarming trends.
Beyond formal book bans, there have also been efforts to keep books out of the hands of children even if they remain in circulation. One prominent example of such activity was “Hide the Pride,” an initiative of CatholicVote.org in June 2022. CatholicVote encouraged members to check out books from the Pride 2022 displays in children’s sections of public libraries and to take pictures of the empty shelves. Although the group instructed participants to “return your library books on time” and to follow the “letter of the law, so to speak,” Hide the Pride was an attempt to remove library materials from availability and to limit students’ access to LGBTQ+-affirming books. In the same month, there were efforts to ban displays of LGBTQ+ materials entirely in some public libraries, such as in Smithtown, New York, and Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. The latter resulted in an effort to terminate a librarian for allegedly violating the prohibition.
The unprecedented flood of book bans in the 2021–22 school year reflects the increasing organization of groups involved in advocating for such bans, the increased involvement of state officials in book-banning debates, and the introduction of new laws and policies. More often than not, current challenges to books originate not from concerned parents acting individually but from political and advocacy groups working in concert to achieve the goal of limiting what books students can access and read in public schools.
As noted previously, the resulting harm is widespread, affecting pedagogy and intellectual freedom and placing limits on the professional autonomy of school librarians and teachers. The repercussions extend further, however, to the well-being of the students affected by these bans. Children deserve to see themselves in books, and they deserve access to a diversity of stories and perspectives that help them understand and navigate the world around them. Public schools that ban books reflecting diverse identities risk creating an environment in which students feel excluded, with potentially profound effects on how students learn and become informed citizens in a pluralistic and diverse society.
Book challenges impede free expression rights, which must be the bedrock of public schools in an open, inclusive, and democratic society. These bans pose a dangerous precedent to those in and out of schools, intersecting with other movements to block or curtail the advances in civil rights for historically marginalized people.
Against the backdrop of other efforts to roll back civil liberties and erode democratic norms, the dynamics surrounding school book bans are a canary in the coal mine for the future of American democracy, public education, and free expression. We should heed this warning.