School libraries banned more books than ever before in 2021

Two reports this week show the US is facing an unprecedented wave of school book bans – prompting Congress to hold a hearing on Thursday on the issue, which free speech advocates say will undermine democracy.

PEN America, a nonprofit organization that champions free speech, found there were 1,586 book bans in schools over the past nine months. The bans targeted 1,145 unique books by more than 800 authors, and a plurality of books — 41% — featured prominent people who are people of color. Thirty-three percent of the banned books, meanwhile, included LGBTQ themes, strong protagonists or supporting characters, and 22 percent “address issues of race and racism directly.”

Also this week, the American Library Association released its annual book censorship report, revealing that it tracked 729 attempts to remove materials from libraries, schools and universities in 2021, resulting in 1,597 challenges or book deletions. This is the highest number recorded since the association began tracking the phenomenon 20 years ago. By comparison, the association counted 273 book challenges or bans in 2020, 377 in 2019, and 483 in 2018. Most titles targeted in 2021 were written by or about LGBTQ or Black people.

Librarians and parents: Tell us about the book challenges in your school district

“Book challenges in American schools aren’t new, but this kind of data has never been accounted for, and frankly, the results are shocking,” said PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman, who was the lead author of the report. “What is happening in this country in terms of book bans in schools is unprecedented in its frequency, intensity and success. … This is an orchestrated attack on books whose subjects have only recently gained a foothold on the shelves of school libraries and in classrooms.

The two reports come as a bottom-up conservative-led movement examines and questions almost every aspect of public education. Right-wing politicians, pundits and parents oppose the way teachers discuss race, racism, history, gender and sexuality in schools, alleging that some curricula – supposed to include a wider range of identities – equivalent to liberal indoctrination and even sexual “grooming.”

Republican lawmakers are also passing state-level legislation that limits what teachers can say about race, sex and gender. Since January 2021, 15 states have enacted laws limiting how teachers can discuss issues such as racism and sexism, according to an analysis by PEN America, while 175 similar “educational gag bills” have been enacted. introduced in 40 states. Last month, Florida passed a law banning teachers from discussing gender identity or sexuality in kindergarten through 3rd grade.

At the district level, meanwhile, book bans are proliferating, as both reports suggest and as The Washington Post previously reported. The Post reported that many book takedowns are taking place in secret, by administrators wary of controversy — a finding that the PEN America report supports.

Schools across the country are quietly removing books from their libraries

The report found that 98% of the more than 1,500 book bans it tracked took place when administrators acted covertly or outside of the normal processes schools have in place to handle book issues. Schools typically maintain processes that require the formation of review committees to review disputed books and decide, after weeks or months of study, whether they should stay, be shelved, or disappear.

“Most bans and restrictions have taken place without proper written forms, review boards or transparency,” the report concludes. “While school boards and administrators have some discretion over the library and instructional materials, there are safeguards and best practices designed to protect students’ First Amendment rights that are largely abrogated.”

Citing findings from the American Library Association and news reports about banned books, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform held a hearing Thursday to consider what members called, in a statement, “efforts in across the country to ban books from schools and public libraries”. ”

The committee called witnesses, including high school students from Pennsylvania and Washington; librarians, teachers and parents from Pennsylvania and Virginia; and Ruby Bridges, civil rights activist and author. One of the most challenging books of the past year has been the children’s book “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” which chronicles Bridges’ experiences in 1960 as the first black child to enter a school in New York. -Orleans.

“My books are written to bring people together. Why would they be banned? Bridges asked the committee. “When I share my experiences and my story in these books, I’m sharing our shared history, good, bad and ugly.”

Kicking off the panel Thursday morning, Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.) said “fundamental intellectual freedoms are under attack.”

He added, “Everyone is offended by something, and that’s why the level of offense of others cannot be the measure” to decide what is worth learning or reading.

The state that saw the most book bans, according to PEN America, was Texas, with 713. Pennsylvania was second with 456 book bans and Florida third with 204 bans.

The top three banned tracks, according to PEN America, are Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer,” George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” and Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy.” “Gender Queer,” a Graphic Novel About Being Non-Binary, Is Banned in 30 Districts; “Not All Boys Are Blue,” a memoir about growing up black and queer, has disappeared from 21 districts; and “Lawn Boy,” a young adult novel that includes a description of a sexual encounter between two fourth-grade boys, was pulled from 16 districts.

“The Bluest Eye,” by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, is the fifth most banned book, having been checked out of 12 districts, according to PEN America.

PEN America has counted 42 children’s books that have been censored in the past nine months, including biographies of people of color — not just Bridges but Martin Luther King Jr., Duke Ellington, Katherine Johnson, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cesar Chavez , Sonia Sotomayor, Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai.

In compiling its report, PEN America defined a textbook ban “as any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parental or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct action or threatened by lawmakers or other governments. officials. »

In their testimony before Congress on Thursday, the three high school students shared how books and book removals have shaped their lives so far.

Olivia Pituch, a senior from York County, Pennsylvania, who identifies as LGBTQ, said she would have “been able to hug and love herself a lot sooner” if she had been able to easily find books featuring people like her.

Christina Ellis, a high school student from the same county who is black, said she spent much of her school career straightening her hair to avoid standing out and to keep her peers from touching her hair. She also refrained from bringing Caribbean food to lunch “to avoid sarcastic comments”. She said she wanted to testify before Congress to make sure kids who look like her don’t have similar experiences.

“Banning books by people from minorities and unique backgrounds silences their voices and erases their history,” she said. “It’s not indoctrination, it’s education.”

Most of the other speakers also stressed the importance of access to a wide range of books.

Samantha Hull, a school librarian from Lancaster, Penn., said school librarians are struggling to keep books on shelves across the country. She also took issue with the argument, made by many on the right, that lessons and books on systemic racism and white supremacy should be cut back because they make white children uncomfortable.

“Growth doesn’t always happen when we’re comfortable,” Hull said. “Without safe places to read, reflect and discuss, we have no future.”

A witness called by the committee’s minority, Jonathan Pidluzny of the conservative education group American Council of Trustees and Alumni, argued that the country’s real censorship crisis was taking place on college campuses. He said students yelled at speakers they disagreed with and liberals “flag young Republicans for every conceivable instance of bad thinking.”

This mirrored arguments made by Republican members of the committee during questioning, who all insisted that the real problem is a culture of fear and censorship at the college level.

Toward the end of his statement, Pidluzny said he realized the hearing was supposed to focus on K-12 issues. He said he had three points to make about K-12 censorship: First, that schools are funded by taxpayers, who should have the right to shape what children learn. Second, it is “the essence of representative democracy” that elected officials at the district and state levels set school curricula in response to constituent concerns. Third, the books available in schools should be age appropriate; Pidluzny alleged that challenged books in K-12 settings “generally contain age-inappropriate sexual content”.

Rep. Nancy Mace (RS.C.) said conservatives face attacks “every day” for their beliefs.

Censorship on college campuses and “social media censorship — that’s way more dangerous, I think, than what we’re hearing from our witnesses today,” she said. “And I experienced it myself,” she said, referring to an incident in the summer of 2021 when her house was spray-painted with profane slurs.

At the close of the hearing, Raskin noted that it can be very easy to feel that a person, or any other group one identifies with, is being unfairly targeted and victimized.

“I think we’re going to advance the First Amendment values ​​that we all hold dear if we can all get past our own sense of grievance and outrage a bit,” he said. “As if we were the first group to be marginalized.”

About Joey J. Hott

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