Many of the books targeted for banning have been labeled “obscene.” These complaints are not supported. The legal test for obscenity requires a holistic evaluation of the material, setting a bar that is highly unlikely to be met by materials selected for inclusion in a school library. Many targeted books have achieved bestseller status or received the highest literary honors. Some contain nothing more “obscene” than the mere suggestion of a same-sex couple in an illustration, as in the board book Everywhere Babies, which was included on one list of books misleadingly labeled “pornographic” along with And Tango Makes Three, a story about two male penguins making a family together, based on the true story of two male penguins who formed a pair bond in New York’s Central Park Zoo. The most frequently banned book, Gender Queer, has been called “obscene and pornographic” by the groups who lobby for its removal, as have dozens of books with LGBTQ+ themes or characters.
In these cases, the term “obscenity” is being stretched in unrecognizable ways because the concept itself is widely accepted as grounds for limiting access to content. But many of the materials now being removed under the guise of obscenity bear no relation to the sexually explicit, deliberately evocative content that the term has historically connoted.
In evaluating these trends, it is critical to remember that only a limited number of children’s and young adult books are published annually that are written by or about either LGBTQ+ people or people of color. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison, has compiled statistics on diversity in children’s literature since 1985. In its 2021 report, the center states that of the 3,420 books received at the institution in 2021, 1,152 titles were “books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color” (34 percent). Although the center does not continuously maintain similar statistics on books about LGBTQ+ characters or plots, such books have not historically been published in great abundance. The targeting of these books in schools reflects a disproportionate focus on what is likely a small fraction of holdings in most public school libraries.
Over the 2021–22 school year, PEN America also tracked efforts to ban not only books, but also whole academic courses, textbooks, and digital literacy apps. In Bossier Parish, Louisiana, the Epic reading app was removed from student iPads after parent objections about the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content. The school district in Brevard County, Florida, canceled its math app, Prodigy, for similar reasons. Along with educational gag orders targeting classroom discussions, efforts to censor and control public education are ranging beyond the physical collections of school libraries.