1,626 Books Were Banned in America Last Year...We Reviewed All of Them
What do these books have in common?
By Arman Madani
The non-profits PEN America and the American Library Association keep a catalog of banned books in the United States up to the 2021-22 academic year. In this 1 academic year alone, 1600+ books were irregularly banned from 138 school districts across America; 3.8 million students have lost access to information in varying degrees as a result. We've expanded the catalog of banned books by scraping open source data from publishers to give us the clearest possible look at common features of these 1,626 irregularly banned books.
Irregular bans are ideologically driven
Books banned between 2021-22, written on: yarn.joinstatecraft.com/books
Title Data: PEN America & American Library Association. Topic/Description Data: Statecraft
Irregular bans are ideologically driven.
They are supplemental to and fall outside of the standard book exclusion process at schools and libraries. Standard exclusions prevent books that promote violent, hateful, or mature/17+” topics from being placed on school bookshelves while irregular bans do not have robust processes and can be influenced by interest groups or local officials. The bans are in effect in 138 school districts and cut off access to information for 3.8M students (7.1% of America's school age year old population).
45%: Activism and Social Justice
The descriptions prominently discuss struggles for civil rights amongst various demographic groups. Movements that question a predominant societal status quo are also featured. While violence and civil unrest are present in some of these books - and used as a basis to ban them, it’s important to note that they are to the end of positive social change. By contrast, large-scale violence is not targeted in a similar fashion; even by the most generous count, books that reflect military violence or war only account for 13 of the 1626 books banned (0.7%).
24%: LGBTQ+ Specific
There is an expectedly heavy overlap between books about LGBTQ+ topics and activism. But venturing beyond that explicit overlap, the LGBTQ+ category overlaps implicitly with topics such as mental health.
19%: Race and Ethnicity
When aggregated, we see that nearly a fifth of the banned books have an explicit minority racial/ethnic group listed as a topic. There is an apparent inconsistency in targeting these books in particular: some of them simply feature a minority protagonist while others make more pointed critiques about coming of age in America (neither justifies a ban). The lack of guardrails or coherent policy around irregular bans provides room for this inconsistency to grow.
Notable, Historic, and Influential Women
Books that feature prominent women in positions of influence and/or STEM fields appear multiple times throughout our dataset and throughout school districts across the country. By our count, there are 115 books in the dataset that feature notable, historic, or influential women.
Only 1.6% Were Given a 17+ Maturity Rating
We did briefly entertain the talking point from ban advocates that the bans are largely driven by age-inappropriate content. This viewpoint does not align with publisher-provided maturity ratings nor does it align with the information shared above.
The chart above lends the clearest picture into the implied rationale behind the bans. Namely, they are not and have not been about the physical removal of a book from a shelf. The bans instead are meant to:
- Virtue signal by people in positions of institutional power to voting-age parents interested in school choice, parental rights, and wedge social issues to the detriment of non-voting age students
- Reject and exclude topics that challenge a perceived status quo from the public discourse (e.g. non-heteronormativity, non-cis identity, non-traditional gender roles, and non-Judeo-Christian books are targeted)
Fortunately, book bans are widely unpopular amongst parents across the ideological spectrum. The bans today look strikingly similar to bans in the 1980s. At that time, ban advocates argued books like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five were “anti-American”, “anti-Christian”, and “filthy”. Appeals against the bans made it to the Supreme Court in 1982, where the court split on a decision (Island Trees School District v. Pico); this left the First Amendment question looming.
Today, PEN America and Penguin Random House are suing Escambia School District of Florida for its bans. Perhaps this time, 40+ years later, we can get closure on the bans for good.