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Pulitzer Center Update September 25, 2023

What You Should Know About Book Bans: Frequently Asked Questions

Capitol dome building exterior, Washington DC, USA, with image overlay of social media hologram

This project explores book bans in the U.S. and emerging efforts to regulate AI.

During the first six months of the 2022-2023 academic year, states across the country banned a total of 1,477 books. The continuous implementation of book bans nationwide leave many Americans wondering how their schools, libraries, and children will be affected. The following frequently asked questions, answers, and resources aim to provide clarity on this prevalent issue facing our nation.

Is there a difference between a book challenge and a book ban? If so, what is it?

Both book challenges and book bans pose a threat to literary materials in school and public libraries. Yet, there is a difference between the two terms. According to the American Library Association (ALA), a book challenge is just an “attempt” to remove or restrict access to literary materials; a book ban is the actual removal of those materials.

People or groups propose book challenges because they object to a book’s content or themes. Often, book challenges occur due to parents’ desire to protect their children from certain content or information. The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom found that materials most commonly challenged contained “sexually explicit” content, “offensive language,” or were “unsuited for any age group.”

Book challenges do not always result in a book ban, according to Education Week. But, librarians still “err on the side of caution” when choosing which books to make available. In light of the ever-growing number of book challenges and bans, parents, teachers, librarians, and students try their best to protect literary materials from such censorship.

Is book banning new to the United States?

The first instance of book bans in the United States began with the restriction of anti-slavery materials in the 19th century. In 1873, Congress passed a law known as the Comstock Act, which prohibited possessing, selling, or sending by mail “obscene” or “immoral” materials.

Book bans continued into the 20th century, with the most notable movements occurring during the Cold War and in the early 1980s. In 1982, book censorship made its way to the Supreme Court and led to the lawsuit Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico by Pico. Here, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision ruled against book bans; however, it did not completely rid the United States of book censorship. As a result, book bans continue across the nation.

What kinds of books are impacted by challenges and bans?

Based on the data collected by PEN America, there are categories normally targeted by proposers of book challenges and bans. Specifically, 44 percent of book bans have subject matter pertaining to violence and physical abuse; 38 percent discuss health and well-being for students; 30 percent have characters of color or themes of race; and, 26 percent have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

The most banned books of the first half of the 2022-2023 school year are: Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, Flamer by Mike Curato, and Tricks by Ellen Hopkins.

For more detailed information and infographics regarding specific book bans, click here.

Have libraries in my state implemented book bans?

According to PEN America, a literary advocacy organization tracking book bans nationwide, districts in 32 states have implemented book bans in their school and public libraries. However, districts and states vary nationwide on the number of instances of banned books. In the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, 76 percent of districts experienced one to 19 book bans. Contrarily, 5% of districts had 100 to 300 instances of book bans. The states with the highest number of book bans include: Texas (438 bans), Florida (357 bans), Missouri (315 bans), and South Carolina and Utah with 100-plus bans each.

To discover the prevalence of book bans in each state, please visit the following resources below:

What are some examples of the legislation creating or impacting book bans?

Florida: In 2022, Florida enacted three laws that indirectly led to an increase in book bans in school districts across the state. The first, HB 7, alters classroom instruction on African American history and prohibits requiring training or instruction on racial discrimination for employment or membership purposes. The second, HB 1557, prohibits lesson plans from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity for children in kindergarten through third grade. The third, HB 1467, requires schools to publish their selected materials for classroom instruction and library use. Although each did not directly implement book bans in Florida, many school administrators and librarians have removed books as a result of these laws.

Missouri: The recent enactment of SB 775, a law criminalizing the act of providing “explicit sexual materials to students,” has increased the prevalence of book bans in Missouri. The “explicit sexual materials” provision was not originally intended to be part of this law, as the bill as a whole addresses sexual assault victims’ rights. However, Missouri state Sen. Rick Brattin, a Republican, pushed to incorporate it into the legislation. An individual in violation of the law is charged with a class A misdemeanor and could be punished with one year of jail time and a $2,000 fine.

Utah: HB 374, also known as Utah’s “Sensitive Materials in Schools Act,” went into effect during the 2022-2023 academic year. This Utah law defines “sensitive materials,” requires guidance and training to public school officials on identifying such “sensitive materials,” and prohibits the “sensitive materials” in public schools. Among some of the banned books in response to this statute were The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Looking for Alaska by John Green.

Tennessee: SB 2407, the “Age Appropriate Materials Act,” took effect in Tennessee schools for the 2022-2023 academic year. The law requires public schools to maintain and publish a list of the materials covered in school lesson plans and within the school’s library collection. Additionally, the schools must provide a feedback and evaluation procedure for students, parents, and school employees. A school is required to remove books from the library collection when it receives negative feedback and disapproval from the local board of education.

What should I do if a book has been banned?

The American Library Association encourages the community to innovatively take action in light of book challenges and bans. Above all, the association prioritizes staying informed. Individuals can stay informed by reading the Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy (found here) or by signing up for the free Intellectual Freedom News newsletter (found here).

To support banned or challenged authors, the association suggests writing letters of encouragement, hosting a letter-writing program, or reaching out to them via social media. The association’s “Dear Banned Author” page outlines ways individuals can help, in addition to authors’ contact information.

Finally, the ALA encourages readers to “exercise [their] reading rights” by checking out banned books and continuing discussions surrounding them.