Examining the Growing Campaign to Ban Books - and Efforts to Stop It

In this lesson, students read about and discuss the banning of books from schools and libraries, and what some young people and adults are doing to challenge it.

To the Teacher

Recently, we have witnessed an escalating pattern of attempts to ban books in states across the country. 

This lesson consists of two readings on the wave of book bans that has materialized in the United States over the last several years. The first reading provides an overview of organized efforts to restrict access to books, either in schools or public libraries. The second reading profiles some of the organizations and activists who are pushing back against these bans—with particular attention to how young people have gotten involved in campaigns to protect access to books. Questions for discussion follow each reading.


Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash


Ask students:

  • What do you know about efforts to ban books from schools and libraries around the country? 
  • What books are being banned – and why?
  • What responses have people had to these efforts at book banning?
  • Have you yourself been affected by book bans? How? What impact did it have on you?

Tell students that today we’ll read about and discuss book bans and efforts to counter them. 


Reading One

Book Bans Reach Historic Highs

In recent years, there has been an escalating pattern of attempts to ban books from schools and libraries across the United States. In a March 14, 2024 article for the New York Times, reporter Alexandra Alter discussed this trend and the peak that it had reached. Alter wrote:

After several years of rising book bans, censorship efforts continued to surge last year, reaching the highest levels ever recorded by the American Library Association.

Last year, 4,240 individual titles were targeted for removal from libraries, up from 2,571 titles in 2022, according to a report released Thursday by the association.

Those figures likely fail to capture the full scale of book removals, as many go unreported. The American Library Association, which has tracked book bans for more than 20 years, compiles data from book challenges that library professionals reported to the group and information gathered from news reports.

“I wake up every morning hoping this is over,” said Emily Drabinski, the president of the organization. “What I find striking is that this is still happening, and it’s happening with more intensity.”

The stark rise in book challenges comes as libraries around the United States have emerged as a battleground in a culture war over what constitutes appropriate reading material. While book bans aren’t new, censorship efforts have become increasingly organized and politicized, with the rise of conservative groups like Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United, which encourage their members to file complaints about books they deem inappropriate and have lobbied for legislation that regulates the content of library collections….

Many of the titles that drew challenges feature L.G.B.T.Q. characters, or deal with race and racism, the American Library Association said. Such books accounted for nearly 50 percent of challenges, according to the report. The same titles often get targeted in libraries around the country; in recent years, some of the most challenged books have included classics like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” popular young adult titles like John Green’s “Looking for Alaska,” and works with L.G.B.T.Q. themes like Juno Dawson’s “This Book Is Gay” and Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer."



While the push to ban books started most intensely in public schools in the aftermath of the Covid-19 outbreak, groups aiming to remove certain books from public facilities have expanded their efforts into public libraries this past year, when such spaces experienced a 92% increase in challenges to books across the country. 

In a September 2023 article for the New York Times, reporters Elizabeth Harris and Alexandra Alter quoted Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, who commented on the surge in censorship at public libraries: “A year, a year and a half ago, we were told that these books didn’t belong in school libraries, and if people wanted to read them, they could go to a public library,” Caldwell-Stone stated. “Now, we’re seeing those same groups come to public libraries and come after the same books, essentially depriving everyone of the ability to make the choice to read them.”

Outspoken school teachers and librarians have been harassed by proponents of books bans, sometimes even receiving threats of physical harm against them. Public educators report that his hostility has taken a mental toll and has even pushed some to leave their jobs.

Students also report being directly impacted. In an October 2023 article for the Nebraska Examiner, journalist Ariana Figueroa interviewed a high school student in Missouri about her experience. Figueroa writes:


One of Thomasina Brown’s favorite books is a memoir about a girl who deals with the grief of losing her father and struggles with her sexual identity.

Brown, a 16-year-old student at Nixa High School in Nixa, Missouri, said in an interview that she felt a connection with the book, as she grieved the loss of her own father and came to terms with her own queer identity.

That book, “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” is one of the more than 3,300 books that have been banned during the 2022-2023 school year, a 33% increase from the previous school year, according to a report by PEN America, a group that is dedicated to fighting book bans and advocates for the First Amendment.

“I saw myself very much so reflected in those pages,” Brown said of the book by Alison Bechdel that the Nixa school board banned. “And so for adults and the school board to deem it inappropriate felt kind of like they were telling me I was inappropriate, and I don’t think that’s fair.”

In the last few years, there has been an unprecedented wave of book bans and censorship spurred by parents and conservative groups to target books that center the LGBTQ+ community, Black history and diverse stories. During the 2022–23 school year, book bans occurred in 153 districts across 33 states, according to the PEN America report….

The main group that has challenged school boards is Moms for Liberty, an organization formed in 2021 that has strong GOP ties and local chapters that “target local school board meetings, school board members, administrators, and teachers” to push right-wing policies, as reported by Media Matters. Moms for Liberty has about 300 chapters across 47 states….

Brown, who runs a club with several other students to push back against book bans, often attends school board meetings where books she’s read are being challenged.

“We’re telling this group of adults, how these things directly impact us,” she said. “They’re the books that we read in our schools, in our libraries. We’re telling them our stories, our identities, and they’re telling us that it’s inappropriate, and we don’t know what’s best for ourselves, even though some of us that get up there and talk are 18 and are able to vote on these issues and definitely can have a say in what they can be reading.”

She said she feels sad when she attends those school board meetings. When a book is banned, there are typically cheers from adults in the audience, she said.



In 2023, there were seventeen states where more than 100 attempts to ban a book had occurred: Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. With the number of book removal attempts soaring, there is good reason to assume that the issue of book bans will persist into the future. 


For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read? 
  2. What personal connections, thoughts, or feelings did you have about what you read?
  3. According to the reading, what types of books have been most frequently targeted in the recent wave of book bans? What do you make of this trend?
  4. What are some of the different groups that have been affected by attempts to ban books? How have these people been impacted?
  5. In the reading, high school student Thomasina Brown recounts how some adults at school board meetings are “telling us… we don’t know what’s best for ourselves, even though some of us that get up there and talk are 18 and are able to vote on these issues and definitely can have a say in what they can be reading.” How did you react to her statement? Do you agree with her perspective?
  6. Has your community witnessed attempts to ban books from public schools or libraries? If so, what was the outcome? If not, how do you think that your community would react to an attempt to ban one or more books from your school or library system? 


Reading Two

Free Speech Advocates Push Back Against Book Bans

While organized groups have attempted to remove an increasing number of books from schools and public libraries in recent years, others have pushed back against their efforts. Students, teachers, librarians, and parents who oppose the censorship of books in public schools contend that exposure to a wide range of topics and perspectives is important for students—even if some of the perspectives they encounter may be challenging. Across the country, groups of such activists have formed free speech advocacy campaigns which call on officials to resist book bans. 

In a February 2024 article for The American Prospect, writer Jack Styler profiled some of the organizations pushing back against book removals. Styler writes:

In 2021, the book ban movement came to Orange County, Florida, when a small group of parents read the most explicit parts of books out of context at a school board meeting and urged the board to remove the books from the library.

The incident inspired Stephana Ferrell to start the Florida Freedom to Read Project to help parents facing similar challenges find resources to keep books in their schools. The Florida Freedom to Read Project now has 2,700 members on Facebook. Ferrell says that she routinely dedicates more than 60 volunteer hours per week to the project.

Submitting public records requests has been one of the most effective tools for the Florida Freedom to Read Project. In 2023, the organization, which Ferrell runs with two other parents, submitted over 500 public records requests. Their requests have repeatedly uncovered school districts banning or restricting seemingly innocuous titles. For example, in May 2023, records requested by the Florida Freedom to Read Project revealed that Miami-Dade schools had restricted access to the poem “The Hill We Climb,” which poet Amanda Gorman recited at President Biden’s inauguration….

In October 2021, a group of librarians concerned about anti-library rhetoric spreading in the state founded the Texas FReadom Fighters. One of its co-founders, Carolyn Foote, told the Prospect that increased book challenges have left librarians overworked and burned out….

“We are exhausted,” said Foote. “The general vilification has been difficult to take in a profession that is really well loved.”


Beyond public record requests, groups have used a variety of other tactics to oppose book bans. In a December 2023 article for USA Today, national correspondent Deborah Barfield Berry profiled the organization Red, Wine & Blue—an advocacy group mobilizing suburban women to fight book bans. The group organizes members to attend school board meetings, share personal stories, and offer relevant statistics to push back against censorship efforts. The group has also started bookmobiles offering banned books and hosted online banned book clubs.

Some students have taken the call to fight back against book bans to heart. In a March 2024 article for The Tennessean, reporter Angele Latham interviewed one such student activist from Hendersonville, Tennessee who spoke at a school board meeting where a book was considered for removal in late 2022. Latham writes:

On a quiet Friday afternoon in February, tucked into a classroom at Hendersonville High School, 10 students sat huddled around a presentation by fellow student Julia Garnett for the school’s new Student Advocates for Speech club.

At a time that many high school students are out practicing sports or racing home for the weekend, these kids sat with rapt attention as Garnett showed slide after slide of U.S. Supreme Court cases that affirmed the First Amendment rights of students.

“I’m really excited to be here with you all today,” she said, with her “literacy and justice for all” shirt glinting in the projector light, and posters of Lady Justice dotting the wall behind her. “And I’m going to go vote later today! I’m really excited.”....

Shortly after a school library book was brought before the Sumner County School Board in late 2022 to be considered for removal from the school system, Garnett, a child of a Sumner County teacher, started considering what she could do as a student to fight what she saw as a violation of her rights as a student….

Garnett spoke before the school board, successfully advocating for the book to remain on shelves. And so began her public fight against book removals.

“I was terrified to speak (at the school board meeting) actually, but I realized it was more important to stand up for the book as a student, because book bans affect us the most,” she said….

“When I first spoke at my first school board meeting a little over a year ago, I didn't have really a community or support from other people fighting censorship,” she said. “And when I went to that meeting, I really found a local community of people who are also standing up and fighting — ones I didn't even know existed, especially not in the South.”....

[Activists at Hendersonville High School] have sat down and researched different book removals across the state, encouraged students to speak at school board meetings, discussed the effects of censorship on student media and the importance of student voices in journalism, and even successfully advocated for students to remain on the school book review committee after county commissioners removed them….

“I feel like sometimes we forget that, or maybe even sometimes the adults around us forget that that our voices really do matter,” she said. “And it's important that our expression absolutely be protected, and to remember as a student that you're not going to win every battle. You can't change everything overnight. It's really a process, which is a lot easier when you have a group of people around you to support you. Because I can't do it all myself, and you shouldn't have too.”



For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read? 
  2. What personal connections, thoughts, or feelings did you have about what you read?
  3. According to the reading, what are some examples of free speech organizations that have formed to resist book bans? What tactics have they used to achieve their goals? What do you think of these tactics? Why?
  4. In what ways have student activists in particular been involved in the effort to resist book bans? Do you think similar efforts could or should be carried out in your school or community? Why or why not?
  5. Those who oppose book bans in their schools contend that exposure to a wide range of topics and perspectives is important for students—even if some of the perspectives they encounter may be challenging. What do you make of this argument? 
  6. Activists resisting book bans often attend school board meetings where such restrictions are debated. Do school board meetings take place in your community? Have you attended one before? If so, what was your experience? If not, would you consider doing so in the future? Why or why not?


–Research assistance provided by Sean Welch.