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School book bans show no signs of slowing, new PEN America report finds

A PEN America report found that the number of books permanently removed from U.S. school libraries and classrooms has quadrupled — to 1,263 books in the last school year from 333 the year before.
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A PEN America report found that the number of books permanently removed from U.S. school libraries and classrooms has quadrupled — to 1,263 books in the last school year from 333 the year before.

Updated September 21, 2023 at 9:26 AM ET

School book bans and restrictions in the U.S. rose 33% in the last school year, according to a new report from the free speech group PEN America, continuing what it calls a worrisome effort aimed at the "suppression of stories and ideas." Florida had more bans than any other state.

Overall, PEN America said it found 3,362 cases of book bans, up from 2,532 bans in the 2021-'22 school year.

The organization counts any move that restricts access to a book as a ban, including books removed from classrooms or libraries or both, as well as books temporarily removed while they're being challenged.

If you count only the books that have been permanently removed from school libraries and classrooms, the report's lead author, Kasey Meehan, says the increase is even more alarming. That number has quadrupled — to 1,263 books in the last school year from 333 the year before.

"We keep wondering if we've reached the peak yet," Meehan says. "And all signals suggest that there's still growing momentum, and it really is against kind of public opinion."

Recent NPR/Ipsos polling found that 64% of Americans oppose book bans by school boards, and 69% oppose book bans by state lawmakers. But PEN says book banning efforts are being "supercharged" by local and national coordinated pressure campaigns and by punitive state laws, which are having a chilling effect on teachers and librarians.

Just under half the books involved deal with violence or physical abuse, including sexual assault; a little less than a third focus on LGBTQ+ identities; and nearly a third include characters of color and themes of race or racism.

The restrictions came disproportionately from Florida, which accounts for more than 40% of book bans in the last school year, or 1,406 instances. Texas was next with 625, followed by Missouri, Utah and Pennsylvania.

Those pushing book restrictions say they're happening more often because there is a growing number of inappropriate books in schools.

"Of course, it's going to explode," says Michelle Beavers, a member of a local Moms for Liberty chapter in Florida. "Once you show people what's in their kids' schools, their mouths drop ... and they feel compelled to do something."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.