U.S. school book bans on the rise due to advocacy groups, report says

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A woman sorts books at a Diogenes Verlag booth prior to the opening of the book fair in Frankfurt

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) -Book bans accelerated across the United States during the 2021-2022 school year, largely because of advocacy groups that called on public schools to remove more than 1,600 titles, the writers' group PEN America said on Monday.

There were 2,532 separate book bans affecting 1,648 titles at 5,000 schools with 4 million students, according to the report. The research found 1,000 more book bans than were documented in the group's initial April report.

PEN America said the rapid rise came as a growing number of groups have targeted books largely dealing with race or LGBTQ issues. The report identified at least 50 groups pushing for book bans, the vast majority of which have formed since 2021.

The advocacy is intertwined with political movements that grew out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the report said, including fights over mask mandates, virtual school and the teaching of what critics consider to be divisive concepts about race.

"This rapidly accelerating movement has resulted in more and more students losing access to literature that equips them to meet the challenges and complexities of democratic citizenship," said Jonathan Friedman, lead author of the report.

While proponents of book bans emphasize the importance of parental control, PEN America said the movement has gone beyond the normal give-and-take between parents and educators and morphed into a sophisticated and well-resourced campaign.

Sheri Few, a founder of United States Parents Involved In Education, disputed that characterization, saying her group, which has 20 chapters across the country, is a grass-roots effort run mostly by volunteers.

Few, who is based in South Carolina, said the books her organization opposed contain what members view as inappropriate content for children. She also objects to books that she asserts paint white people broadly as oppressors, with other racial and ethnic groups depicted as victims.

"It's not the concern that parents are expressing over the content of these books that is causing schools to become a battleground – it's the very content they are pushing on children that has caused the schools to become a battleground," Few said in an interview.

More than 40% of the banned titles address lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer themes or have prominent queer characters, according to PEN America. The most frequently banned book was "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe, which was banned by 41 school districts.

Race also drew the attention of censors, with 40% of the banned titles featuring prominent characters of color. The most banned authors include the late Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, whose works largely deal with race, and other winners of prestigious literary awards.

Other banned books touched on sexual content, rights and activism, or stories with religious minorities.

Texas accounted for the most bans, with 801 in 22 districts, followed by Florida and Pennsylvania.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Diane Craft and Josie Kao)