Book Bans: How The Media Got It Wrong

June 28, 2023
book bans how the media got it wrong

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Did you know that LGBTQ+ characters and/or themes aren’t even present in 74% of the banned book titles from the first half of the school year? 92% don’t include transgender characters. And, what about this? 70% of the banned titles don’t even include characters of color and/or discuss race or racism.

If those statistics go against what you’ve heard in the mainstream media, stick around.

Different Types of Book Bans

Before we dive in, let’s make sure we’re all talking about the same thing.

Books can be banned on a national level, in public libraries, universities, and/or in K-12 schools. Thanks to the First Amendment, we don’t need to worry about national book bans. According to the American Library Association, 51% of “challenges” (or book ban requests) take place in K-12 schools; 48% take place in public libraries; and 1% take place in universities. The book bans you’re hearing about in the media primarily involve public, tax-payer funded K-12 schools where members of the community are voting to remove certain books from the schools they pay taxes to fund.

Since those bans are what everyone’s talking about, that’s what we’re gonna cover today. (And don’t worry, we’ll touch on state legislation, too….)

Inflated Reporting

While book bans have undeniably increased since 2020, the numbers portrayed in the media are often misleading. For instance:

If the same book is banned in ten school districts, one of the most commonly cited sources – PEN America – counts that as ten book bans. On top of that – again: on a district level – if the book is banned in both the library and classroom, that equals two book bans. Same book, two bans. That’s why the media can report that there’s been 1,477 book bans during the first half of the 2022-23 school year, when in reality, the number of unique book titles that have been banned in schools is 40% lower, clocking in at 874. (In fairness: PEN claims that both totals are likely higher, as new bans are reported from the previous year, et cetera; but regardless, the discrepancy between the two metrics remains.)

Same fine print situation with the American Library Association (ALA). Pay attention! A lot of ALA numbers focus on “demands” to censor library books, not the outcomes.

But let’s zero in on those PEN numbers a little bit more. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there’s 99,239 public schools spread out over 13,318 districts. In the first half of the 2022-23 school year, 66 districts issued book bans – that’s only 0.5% of all public school districts.

And, since it’s all over the news, let’s look at Florida. During the same time period, PEN reports 357 book bans. But if you dig into the data – which I had to do manually, since PEN does not publish this figure in its report – the number of unique titles is actually 34% lower, at 236. And, those bans were only implemented by 13 districts. For reference, Florida has a total of 74.

Why Are Books Banned?

So what about content? Why are books getting banned in public schools?

That’s where the media’s mind games kick into overdrive, with sources like USA Today claiming that “an escalating culture war” has put “books centering racism, sexuality, and gender identity at risk in public schools and libraries.” Where’s that claim coming from? Directly from PEN, which writes: “Overwhelmingly, book banners continue to target stories by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.”

However, the very next sentence – which discusses data – completely negates that description: “In this six-month period, 30% of the unique titles banned are books about race, racism, or feature characters of color.” Meaning 70% don’t. Claiming those books are being “overwhelmingly targeted” is like saying: “30% of the jury voted innocent and 70% voted guilty. So, overwhelmingly, we find the defendant innocent.” Like… what?! PEN goes on to state: “Meanwhile, 26% of unique titles banned have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.” Same thing: How is 26% more overwhelming than the 74% of titles that didn’t feature LGBTQ+ characters or themes?

Even if you wanted to throw both categories together – which seems arbitrary since one’s dealing with sexuality and one’s dealing with race – you’re still not left with an “overwhelming” targeted campaign, because you can’t just add 30 plus 26. The categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Nor, more importantly, are they specific reasons for a ban. You could have a story about an LGBTQ+ character of color that gets banned because of its graphic depiction of violence, and PEN would count that book in all three categories – which again, are just categories PEN made up to look at subject matter trends. They’re not reasons for the ban.

Another important nuance that often goes unnoticed in mainstream media is the existence of other subject matter categories. While PEN and the media stress that LGBTQ+ and minority content is being targeted, they gloss over the fact that of the 874 unique banned titles, 44% include themes of violence and abuse; 24% detail sexual experiences between characters; 17% mention teen pregnancy, abortion, or sexual assault; and 38% include topics like bullying, suicide, and substance abuse.

Since it’s so important, I just want to stress again:

PEN’s subject matter categories are not mutually exclusive (meaning the same book could fall under multiple categories). Also: PEN’s categories are not reasons for book bans, they’re just categories the organization developed to track subject matter trends.

Categorizing exactly why books are banned in each school district requires a case-by-case analysis, because there’s an infinite number of reasons why a local community member might complain about a book. You then have to look into the decision-making process that guided the school board’s decision. That’s why articles like USA Today’s “What Are the Most Banned Books and Why?” can’t give you a straight answer on the “why” part. Instead, the media highlights cases where LGBTQ+ themes or characters of color are simply included in the books. But what about the rest of the content?

What Is The Most Banned Book?

Let’s look at the most banned book of the first half of the school year: Gender Queer.

The L.A. Times describes it as a book “praised for its honest, open discussion of what it’s like to be a nonbinary person,” noting it’s also “been attacked for its frank depiction of sexual behavior.” How frank? Well, on page 167, the graphic novel includes multiple images of oral sex with the preceding dialog focused on sex toys and the sharing of detailed sexual fantasies. Page 38 describes the main character’s daydreams about getting breast cancer so she’d have an excuse to remove her breasts, and discussions of exploring one’s personal body parts and fluids on page 62 are so graphic that our discussion, on this website, of Gender Queer will need to stop there.

With that information in mind: Gender Queer has been banned from public schools 15 times in the first half of this school year (which I can’t help but say: seems like a shockingly low number). Now, do you think this particular book was banned because school boards hate non-binary people? Or, do you think their decisions could possibly have something to do with not wanting minors to be exposed to the subject-matter we just reviewed? Keep in mind: These are tax-payer-funded institutions. No one’s banning the sale of Gender Queer. And for those who would point to the expense of having to purchase the book, there’s no national library ban. As a parent, you’re welcome to read the book to your child any time you want.

State Laws Banning Books

Before we wrap up, I’ll list the rest of the top banned books in public schools this year, but first: let’s address that legislation issue.

Are state governments banning books in public schools?

Once again, Florida’s on everyone’s mind, so let’s start there.

Florida’s House Bill 1467 places the “constitutional duty and responsibility to select and provide adequate instructional materials for all students” on school districts. So no, the state government of Florida is not issuing a list of banned books. It’s up to school boards to ban pornography in K-12 schools, along with content that is inappropriate for the grade level or age group for which the material is used.

Same thing goes for Texas. Right now there’s a lot of talk about House Bill 900 (which, at the time of writing, hasn’t been passed into law). That bill outlines standards – including a prohibition on sexually explicit material – and then school districts will need to review books to comply.

State governments are not issuing bans on specific books.

And, while PEN and the ALA may not track reasons for each specific book ban, the state of Florida does. Recent data shows that 87% of removed books were identified as “pornographic, violent, or inappropriate for their grade level.”

Given the media’s claims that books discussing race are being targeted in public schools, now would also be a good time to point out that in 2022, Florida Governor DeSantis signed House Bill 7, which expands the instruction of African American history in public schools and specifically allows for curriculum regarding topics such as “sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation, and racial discrimination.” The bill gained a bad rap in the press for also requiring that curriculum teach that “no person is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex.” Which is confusing, because it’s a pretty straightforward pledge to not judge or assign characteristics to people based solely on their sex or race – putting the whole anti-sexism, anti-racism lesson into practice.

National & Publisher Censorship

Now, up until this point, we’ve been talking about books in K-12 schools – books predominantly distributed to minors via taxpayer funded public institutions. Which is a completely different story than banning books on a national level, which I think we can all agree is a much scarier, less acceptable concept (which is why the media is able to borrow from all the fear surrounding that phrase: “banned books”).

However, the same people who say they want to protect your access to books often work behind the scenes to restrict it. For instance, in 2021, over 600 publishing professionals signed a letter stating that “no one who incited, suborned, instigated, or otherwise supported” the events of January 6 should have their philosophies “disseminated through our beloved publishing houses” – and that they would do “whatever is in our power to stop it.”

There’s also been a movement to literally rewrite books that certain groups don’t like. Again, arguably a larger issue since we’re no longer talking about controlling the context in which minors access content but instead the national distribution of literature. For instance, classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda have been edited to include more “inclusive” language.

Top 2022-23 Banned Books

To bring it all home: Are requests to ban books in schools on the rise? Absolutely. Are cumulative bans – remember, that’s school-district-level, including title and library/classroom redundancy – on the rise? You betcha. According to PEN, cumulative bans are up 28% from the previous 6-month period.

But can it all be blamed on racist, homophobic, Republicans? For the reasons we just covered, I’m gonna vote no. And, if you’re still on the fence, I recommend you check out the following books yourself. According to PEN, these are the most banned books of the first half of the 2022-23 school year:

  • Gender Queer: A Memoir
  • Flamer
  • Tricks
  • The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel
  • Crank
  • Sold
  • Push
  • A Court of Mist and Fury
  • This Book Is Gay
  • The Bluest Eye
  • Milk and Honey

Book Ban Reminders & Resources

As a reminder, don’t judge a book by its cover. For instance, while it’s easy to assume This Book Is Gay was banned because of its homosexual content, perhaps school board members took issue with its graphic – just need to stress that word again: graphic – instruction on how to perform countless sex acts? Keep in mind: We’re talking about literature provided to minors in taxpayer funded institutions.

Now, if you still disagree with these books being banned, that’s completely fine. In fact, I’ve linked PEN’s complaint page where you can report book bans or challenges you disagree with. My goal in sharing today’s information is to just make sure that we’re all operating with the same set of facts. That, when presented with those facts, two different people might develop two different opinions is a hallmark of democracy!

But we need to be careful that the media isn’t segregating us into two angry groups based on political motivation, broad numbers, and vague claims. It’s my personal belief that if every American actually read the banned books that are being debated, we’d find that we’re not that divided after all. We might still disagree on certain books or degrees of age-level content, but there’s no way we’re as far apart as the media wants us to believe.


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