An alleged “banned book list” from the state of Florida that includes classics like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” recently began circulating online. The list has since been deemed a fake, but not before spurring mass outrage online.
For many people, it was another chapter in a story that has become all too familiar in recent years, as book bans have increased in school districts nationwide, according to a report from PEN America.
The free speech advocacy organization found that between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022, 1,586 books were banned in classrooms across the country. The comprehensive list of bans includes cases from 86 school districts in 26 states that affected more than 2 million students in 2,899 schools.
“It breaks my heart,” says Jaci Urbani, an associate professor and director of the early childhood special education program for Mills College at Northeastern in Oakland, California. “To say that there was going to be a time in my life where there was this mass of banned books–we’re going in the wrong direction.”
There were 713 book bans in Texas alone, and Pennsylvania had 456 bans, largely from a single mass ban.
And while Florida’s “banned book list” was fake, book bans are far from rare in the state. According to the report, there were 204 book bans within nine months in Florida alone. In fact, Florida’s Palm Beach County did remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” from its school libraries earlier this year, only to return the book after reviewing the book’s content.
For Urbani, the recent book bans are troubling particularly because they target works by or about people of color, LGBTQ people and members of other marginalized groups. By further limiting whose story gets to be told in schools, Urbani says, U.S. schools are failing not only students but teachers.
“Books are a way for those of us who are uncomfortable with some of these conversations to start those conversations in classes,” says Urbani, who was a classroom teacher in Philadelphia for 12 years. “There are so many wonderful, complex conversations we can have with these books.”
Book bans are far from a new phenomenon. Whenever there is a “culture war” book bans tend to occur, says Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education programs and author of the report. However, the wave of book bans over the last year represents something different from the typically isolated cases of outraged parents.
“We’re talking about the growth of a coordinated effort to encourage people to file the same kinds of challenges against the same books for the identical reasons spreading across multiple states and school districts,” Friedman says. “What’s really surprising about it is also the fact that it’s been quite successful.”
Unlike in the past, the recent deluge of book bans is not driven solely by concerned parents. Politicians have now become major drivers of book bans in their states, Friedman says.
In October 2021, Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican state lawmaker in Texas, sent a list of 850 books to school superintendents in districts throughout the state. He asked for a detailed accounting of whether their schools had any copies of these books and, if they did, where they were being held and how much money had been spent to acquire them.
According to Friedman, the work put into compiling the list was tantamount to a “witch hunt.”
“It looks like him or someone on his staff did keyword searches in a library database, like ‘LGBTQ’ or ‘racism,’ and that’s how they made the list,” Friedman says.
Of the bans included in the report, 41 percent, or 644 bans, were initiated by state officials or elected leaders.
Although book bans are troubling, Urbani says they are a symptom of a broader problem in the U.S. public education system.
“We don’t talk about race; we don’t talk about injustices in school and really in society,” Urbani says. “Over the past several decades we’ve been so focused on standardized testing, and we haven’t been focused on teaching kids how to think critically.”
When Urbani saw a mob storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, she saw this playing out in real time.
“If there’s any reason to say we need to put more money in education, there’s evidence right there because there was so much overwhelming evidence that that election wasn’t lost,” Urbani says. “People need to be able to take the evidence that’s out there and think through it themselves, and that’s not what we’ve done in education.”
However, just because there are more book bans, it doesn’t mean they have staying power. In cases where large numbers of books were banned, the bans were often reversed, like in the case of Pennsylvania’s Central York School District.
In the wake of the George Floyd protests, Central York banned 441 books that were included on a list of optional resources for teachers who wanted to initiate conversations about race with their students. The list included an entire series of books featuring characters of color and children’s biographical books about Rosa Parks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Ultimately, students organized a successful effort to overturn the ban, but the case is illustrative of how “spurious” large-scale bans like this often are, Friedman says.
However, in some cases, school districts are going beyond just banning books.
In May, Rapid City Area Schools in Rapid City, South Dakota, banned five books that had been selected for a 12th grade English class by teachers but were deemed by administrators to contain “inappropriate, explicit sexual content.” About 350 new copies of these five books, which included the landmark LGBTQ graphic novel “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” and dystopian novel “The Circle,” ended up sitting in a warehouse.
In May, the school district went a step further. Tucked away in the minutes of a Rapid City Board of Education meeting were mentions of investigating the content of the books to determine whether they should be destroyed.
“As we’re standing 25 minutes from Mount Rushmore, those four heads carved out of stone would be weeping knowing that books were being not only pulled from shelves–depriving young adults–but being destroyed,” Dave Eggers, author of the “The Circle,” told a crowd assembled outside Mitzi’s Books in Rapid City during a May event held in response to the ban.
“You don’t want to be in the company of book burners,” he added.