PEN America: Texas Leads the Country in 'Deeply Undemocratic' Push to Ban Books in Schools

PEN America says several Texas school districts have yanked more than 800 books from libraries.
PEN America says several Texas school districts have yanked more than 800 books from libraries. Mutant669, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Texas leads the country when it comes to banning books in schools, according to a new report published by a free speech advocacy group.

PEN America’s new report found that Texas ranked first in the number of titles yanked from school bookshelves across several districts, citing “political pressure” from state lawmakers and “groups involved in pushing for book bans.”

At least 801 books were banned across 22 Texas school districts during the 2021–22 school year, the report says. PEN America defines a ban as “action taken against a book based on its content.”

The report mentions Republican state Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth, who last year sent a list of 850 books to school districts, “asking them to investigate and report on which of the titles they held in libraries or classrooms.”

“Political pressure of this sort in Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Georgia and elsewhere has been tied to hundreds of book bans,” the report added.

Krause sent the letter amid a statewide drive against "critical race theory," a type of scholarship not taught in public schools.

Florida came in second, with 566 books banned and 21 districts banning certain titles. According to PEN America’s study, 32 states and 138 school districts around the country had banned books. All told, book bans have hit more than 5,000 schools with more than four million students, the report explains.

Altogether, PEN’s list includes 2,532 “instances of individual books being banned” and at least 1,648 “unique book titles.”

Of that total, 41% of the books “explicitly address” LGBTQ issues, while around 9% make up “a specific subset of titles for transgender characters or stories.”

"Political pressure … has been tied to hundreds of book bans." – PEN America

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More than one-in-five deal with subjects of race and racism, and another 20% focus on rights and activism. Some 4% of titles – 64 books – are about characters from religious minority groups, including Muslims and Jews.

PEN America described the nationwide push to remove titles from school bookshelves as “deeply undemocratic.”

The report also pointed to the rise of “a growing number of advocacy organizations that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.”

Those include Facebook groups and national nonprofits such as Moms for Liberty, which has more than 200 chapters. More than 50 such groups are working to have books removed from schools in states around the nation, the report adds.

PEN America released its new report as many around the country, including libraries in Dallas, mark Banned Book Week, an awareness campaign that lasts until Sept. 24 and includes events in which books that have been banned or challenged are read and highlighted.

One of the most frequently banned books was Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir, which details the author’s struggles with gender identity and includes a handful of pages with explicit depictions of oral sex.

Other frequently banned titles include Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a novel that follows a young African American heroine growing up in the wake of the Great Depression, and Ashley Hope Pérez’s Out of Darkness, a novel about a 1930s romantic relationship between a Mexican American girl and a Black boy in East Texas.

In the past, Texas Republicans have defended their push to have certain titles removed from bookshelves. In a November 2021 letter to the Texas Association of School Boards, Gov. Greg Abbott asked schools to investigate whether their libraries carried “obscene” or “pornographic” materials.

“A growing number of parents of Texas students are becoming increasingly alarmed about some of the books and other content found in public school libraries that are extremely inappropriate in the public education system,” Abbott wrote in that letter.

“The most flagrant examples include clearly pornographic images and substance that have no place in the Texas public education system,” the governor added.

In a recent interview with Insider, Krause said he created the original list of books to ensure that districts were in line with the state’s law on “race and sexuality,” although Texas lawmakers have not yet passed any law specifically related to LGBTQ curriculum.

Meanwhile, PEN America’s report mentions several North Texas school districts, including Frisco, Keller and Carroll ISDs.

Frisco ISD recently revised its policy on obscenity in books carried in its libraries and taught in its classrooms, a move that PEN America says will increase “policing of content in books for young people, as well as the continued erosion of their right to access these materials.”

In Keller ISD, a book that gets challenged and banned cannot be considered again for 10 years, while in Carroll ISD a banned book “cannot be requested again for students for five years,” the report explains.
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Patrick Strickland is the news editor at the Dallas Observer. He's a former senior reporter at Al Jazeera English and has reported for the New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Politico EU and The New Republic, among others.