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Book Challenges May Deprive Students of Critical Life Lessons

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A persistent pattern of attempts to remove certain books from public schools and libraries, combined with a lack of diversity in Children’s and Young Adult (CYA) book publishing, narrows the range of stories and perspectives available to U.S. students, PEN America says in a new report released today.

Missing from the Shelf: Book Challenges and Lack of Diversity in Children’s Literature details how local challenges to books–including highly awarded literary works like Toni Morrison‘s Beloved and bestsellers like J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter series–remain surprisingly frequent across the United States. According to the report, the American Library Association documented 275 book challenges in 2015 alone, a conservative estimate as a majority of such challenges are never reported. Of those, some ten percent result in the book’s removal from circulation. The report also shows that books by or about people of color, people who identify as LGBT, and people with disabilities (“diverse books”) are significantly more likely to be challenged or banned even as they make up a disproportionately small fraction of all published literature.

Combining quantitative research with interviews from teachers, librarians, students, authors, publishers, and advocates, the new PEN America report describes instances of soft censorship playing out in schools and libraries nationwide. A parent, community member, or sometimes even a student files a complaint about a book, usually citing “age inappropriate” content, including strong language, sexual content, or violence. In most cases, the complaint is reviewed by a school board or a special committee to determine the book’s future availability. In other cases, books are immediately removed from shelves or reading lists by teachers, librarians, or school administrators eager to avoid complaints and criticism. Even if a particular book challenge fails, teachers and librarians fearful for their jobs can sometimes avoid increased scrutiny by simply not assigning potentially controversial books or keeping them out of circulation or off displays. The prevalence of book challenges directed at works that address race and sexual orientation, or that portray diverse characters, can mean that narratives depicting the full range of human experience are less available to students. Significant underrepresentation of both authors and characters of color in CYA literature compounds this effect.

“While book bans and challenges may seem like a thing of the past, they are alive and well in schools and libraries around the country and, disturbingly, tend to disproportionately target books that speak to the experiences of LGBT people and people of color,” said Suzanne Nossel of PEN America, which earlier this year awarded Rowling with the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award for her leadership in the fight against censorship. “As our society grows more diverse and we seek to eradicate inequality, children’s literature has the potential to serve as a catalyst to foster understanding across social divides. American students need and deserve access to diverse and challenging literature that reflects the breadth and complexity of our society.”

The issue of diversity in children’s literature came to the forefront in January 2016 when Scholastic recalled A Birthday Cake for George Washington after the book was accused of whitewashing slavery with its portrayal of cheerful and contented slaves working for the president. PEN America joined a statement from the National Coalition Against Censorship that acknowledged the book’s problematic content, but criticized the decision to withdraw it from circulation. As the statement argued, “There are books that can–and should–generate controversy. But those who value free speech as an essential human right and a necessary precondition for social change should be alarmed whenever books are removed from circulation because they are controversial.”

Missing from the Shelf offers a range of practical recommendations to encourage the publication of and access to diverse books. Chief among these, PEN America advises librarians, teachers, principals and school administrators to take a firm stand against blanket bans that deprive an entire community of books that some may find uncomfortable. PEN America also recommends that publishers make a concerted effort to hire diverse editors and provide adequate professional development for these employees to create a pipeline that fosters more diverse books for the future.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.