Why more than half of US states have banned upwards of 1,000 books

Some of the books banned in US schools and school libraries. Credit: AP
  • Words by ITV News Digital Journalist Jocelyn Evans

More than 1,100 books have been banned, or face a ban, in schools in the USA as new research reveals a worrying trend towards censoring publications with themes of racism and inequality as well as sexuality and gender identity. 

PEN America, a literary and free expression advocacy group, looked at 26 states in American which had all targeted books from July 2021 to March 2022.

Among them, well known titles including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-prize winning Beloved, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

So where and why are books being banned, how is the practice allowed to happen, and which books are being targeted?

Where are books being banned?

School districts across 26 states in US have banned or opened investigations into more than 1,100 books in just the past year.

These were both Republican and Democrat states, with Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida the most prolific.

Between them, these three states had more than 1,300 instances of book bans - these include the same title which has been banned in multiple different school districts.

Demonstrators protest as Florida Republicans advanced a bill to forbid discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools. Credit: AP

How and why are lawmakers in the US banning books?

PEN America says both the scale of the bans and the processes, or lack thereof, are "disturbing".

It accuses states of ignoring best practice guidelines around pursuing book bans, and skipping the processes by which concerns are raised.

It says usually decisions are made at school level before state politicians get involved, but now 41% of the bans come from state officials or elected lawmakers.

At a glance, it is clear from the data that common themes are reflected in the publications which have been banned or face a ban.

These include books that prompt a discussion of race, or deal with racism, and content which has an LGBT+ focus or sexual education theme.

PEN America says that, of the titles in the data:

  • 467 contain protagonists or prominent secondary characters of colour (41%)

  • 247 directly address issues of race and racism (22%)

  • 379 titles explicitly address LGBT+ themes, or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBT+ (33%)

  • 283 titles contain sexual content of varying kinds - including novels with sexual encounters as well as informational books about puberty, sex, or relationships (25%)

  • 184 titles are history books or biographies (16%)

  • And another 107 titles have themes related to rights and activism (9%)

These figures point to a deepening political row in the US around the study of racism and inequality in schools, or the discussion of gender and sexual identity.

An ongoing, high-profile example playing out at the moment is in Florida where the so-called 'Don't Say Gay' bill has been signed into law.

The legislation does not outright ban teachings around sexual orientation and gender identity in pre-school to third grade, but it does say it should not be taught when it is not "age appropriate or developmentally appropriate."

Critics say it marginalises LGBT+ people.

Which books have been targeted?

A total of 1,145 books have either been banned, or a review is underway to do so.

The full list can be found at PEN America's Index of School Book Bans.

The five most targeted publications were:

  • Gender Queer: A Memoir - A 2014 autobiography by Maia Kobabe about gender identity.

  • All Boys Aren't Blue - A young adult non-fiction book which tells the story of journalist and activist George M Johnson through a series of essays growing up as an LGBT+ Black man in New Jersey.

  • Out of Darkness - A historical young adult novel by Ashley Hope Pérez which tells the story of a love affair between a Mexican American girl and an African-American boy in Texas in the 1930s.

  • Lawn Boy - A semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel by Jonathan Evison about hardship and self-discovery.

  • The Bluest Eye - The first novel written by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, the books tells the story of a young African-American girl growing up in Ohio following the Great Depression.