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A reader holds "Maus" by Art Spiegelman, an award-winning 1986 graphic novel on the Holocaust that was targeted for banning by a Tennessee school board in 2022. (Photo: Maro Siranosian/AFP via Getty Images)

'Heed This Warning': 2,500+ Book Bans Threaten US Schools and Democracy

"More books banned. More districts. More states. More students losing access to literature. 'More' is the operative word for this report on school book bans," says author PEN America.

Brett Wilkins

As Banned Books Week began Monday in the United States, a leading advocacy group published an updated report warning of a surge in right-wing efforts to censor and ban titles—many of them related to the struggles of marginalized peoples—in American schools. 

"More books banned. More districts. More states. More students losing access to literature. 'More' is the operative word for this report on school book bans," begins the update to PEN America's Banned in the USA: Rising School Book Bans Threaten Free Expression and Students' First Amendment Rights, which was published in April and covered the first nine months of the 2021-22 scholastic year.

"This is a concerted, organized, well-resourced push at censorship," PEN America chief executive Suzanne Nossel told The New York Times, adding that the effort "is ideologically motivated and politically expedient, and it needs to be understood as such in order to be confronted and addressed properly."

The revised report—which shares the Banned in the USA title with the first music album to ever carry a parental advisory sticker—notes that PEN America's Index of School Book Bans now lists at least 2,532 instances of 1,648 titles being banned. That's up from 1,586 banning incidents involving 1,145 books reported in the April publication.

The bans occurred in 138 school districts across 32 states. In 96% of cases, bans were enacted without following the best practice guidelines for challenging controversial titles outlined by the American Library Association and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

More than 40% of the banned books in the report deal with LGBTQ+ themes, while 21% "directly address issues of race and racism," 22% "contain sexual content," and 10% are "related to rights and activism," according to PEN America.

PEN America identified at least 50 national, state, and local groups pushing to ban or restrict books in U.S. schools.

The largest of these groups, the right-wing Moms for Liberty, has over 200 local chapters and has gained notoriety for its anti-LGBTQ+ advocacy, for vehemently opposing Covid-19 mask mandates in schools, and for spreading the baseless claim that one local school district was placing litter boxes in bathrooms for students who identify as cats.

Another right-wing group named in the report, MassResistance, is a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group that claims the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol was "clearly a setup" and that there is a "Black Lives Matter and LGBT assault" on American schools.

The group also called parents who opposed its book-banning efforts "groomers," a slur conflating the LGBTQ+ community with pedophilia.

"Book challenges impede free expression rights, which must be the bedrock of public schools in an open, inclusive, and democratic society," PEN America said in the updated report. "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 group added, "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."

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