Students in a Pennsylvania school district are not allowed to read a biography of the first black president, Barack Obama.
In some Tennessee classrooms, a non-fiction comic about Holocaust atrocities is banned.
And a school district in Wisconsin has banned a picture book about a murdered gay rights activist from libraries.
Over the past nine months, hundreds of books in dozens of states have been banned at an alarming rate. The majority of bans relate to books written by authors who are People of Color, LGBTQ+, Black, and Indigenous, and feature characters from marginalized groups.
And now Republican state lawmakers are joining the movement, spurred by ultra-conservative groups, to ban books from schools and public libraries.
This year in Arizona, state Republicans introduced a measure who would be prohibit schools from teaching or requiring students to study any “sexually explicit” material. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill to give parents a greater opportunity to review, and possibly object to, books in the school library that they find “inappropriate”.
And in Idaho, State House Republicans have passed a bill that would allow librarians to be prosecuted for allowing minors to view materials deemed harmful.
Some of the states with the most aggressive book bans include Texas with 713 bans, Pennsylvania with 456 bans, and Florida with 204 bans.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said book bans over the past 10 years have addressed “the lives of LGBTQIA people, either by reflecting their experiences or talking about issues that concern the LGBTQIA community.”
She said these bans ranged from picture books depicting same-sex couples to books for young adults about gender identities.
Caldwell-Stone said “the only thing that has interrupted this” trend of banning books centered on LGBTQ+ themes comes after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police officer Derek Chauvin.
“There were an increased number of challenges for books dealing with race and racism which accelerated when we started to see complaints from organized groups about critical race theory,” she said.
“And so when I talk about critical race theory, I’m not using it in the sense that it should actually be used, which is to describe a university-level academic analysis of law and political systems, but this use of it to describe books and materials that offer alternative perspectives on American history that reflect black lives and their experience of slavery, their experiences with police violence, and we we have therefore seen an increasing number of challenges to these books.
Some of these groups that have challenged school boards include Moms for Liberty, an organization that has strong ties to the GOP and has local chapters that “target local school board meetings, school board members, administrators and teachers” to advance right-wing policies, such as reported by Media Matters. Moms for Liberty has more than 100 local chapters in 35 states.
“We see nationally organized groups creating local chapters and using social media to amplify their demands,” said Caldwell-Stone. “They will tell you that they claim the right of parents to direct the education of their children, but the impact of their activities is to deny other parents the right to make decisions about the education of their own children, and especially for older teens who refuse First Amendment rights, and an agency for older teens to read and access materials they feel are important to their lives.
Congressional Democrats have also raised concerns about increasing book bans across the country. At a recent hearingMaryland Democrat Rep. Jamie Raskin, quoted a report by PEN America – an organization that champions the protection of free speech – which discovered from July 2021 to the end of March this year, more than 1,500 books were banned in 86 school districts in 26 states.
Ruby Bridges, a civil rights icon who was the first black child to desegregate an all-white school in Louisiana, was a key witness at the hearing. Children’s books about her story – “Brand New School, Brave New Ruby” and “The Story of Ruby Bridges” – have been banned from classrooms in Pennsylvania.
“The truth is that children of color or immigrants rarely see themselves in these textbooks that we are forced to use,” Bridges told lawmakers. “I write because I want them to understand the contributions their ancestors made to our great country, whether that contribution was made as slaves or volunteers.”
Banning books is nothing new, and since the 1980s, the American Libraries Association has celebrated books that are taken off the shelves for its “Banned Books Week.”
Books have been banned for racist depictions or language, such as Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” due to its racial slurs. And in 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announcement it would no longer reprint six Dr. Seuss books, including “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo”.
“These books portray people in hurtful and false ways,” Dr. Seuss Enterprises said in a statement.
But the rise and speed at which books are now being challenged and banned in schools has alarmed many free speech advocates such as Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN’s Free Expression and Education program and author of the report Raskin referred to during a House hearing.
“It’s not just a parent who gets upset about a book in a one-off way,” he said in an interview with States Newsroom.
Friedman said some parents or local activists would submit hundreds of books to be challenged and taken off the shelves.
“It’s happening everywhere, so it’s not just one part of the country. A list of books that might be considered illegal by a group of parents in one state is also used in other states,” he said.
Friedman said he noticed most of the escalation in book bans happened in the fall of 2021, and pointed to a wide range of book bans that began in Leander, a school district from Texas.
“I think a lot of the energy around this (trend), sparked anti-mask energy, and you know, kind of pandemic frustration,” Friedman said.
At a school board meeting, a parent read an excerpt from Ashley Hope Pérez’s “Out of Darkness” which has a euphemism for anal sex that is historically accurate for the time the book is set. i.e. the 1930s.
This book was one of 120 that students could choose from based on an elective program, such as a book club.
“And in response, the district suspended the entire program and started a review, a sort of book-by-book review, much of which seems to be growing on the fly,” he said. “So they went through a year-long process, but some seriously question how fair that process was.”
Banning books from the classroom is an issue that the Supreme Court addressed in 1982 in Island Trees School District vs. Pico. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of the student, asserting that the First Amendment limits the power of middle and high school administrators to remove books from school libraries based on the content of the books.
But in that court ruling, because “given the sensibilities of young people,” schools had discretion to remove books deemed “pervasively vulgar” or “educationally inappropriate,”said Caldwell-Stone.
“Because the court hasn’t really defined those terms, they become kind of a magic word,” she said. “If we say these magic words that will make it legal for us to withdraw this book when in fact the real motivation behind the withdrawal of the book is because the book is about two gay teenagers finding each other and falling in love.”
Fifteen of the 26 states where States Newsroom has a newsroom have banned many books. Here is a list of the most frequently banned books in these school districts. Other states that ban the books are Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, New York, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and the State from Washington.
Four districts have banned 16 books, from JM Barrie’s “Peter Pan” to “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s comic book about Holocaust atrocities.