A recent donation specifically to combat book bans will allow PEN America, a free-speech advocacy organization, to ramp up its efforts to fight the recent surge in district and state-level restrictions in schools.
Markus Dohle, the chief executive of Penguin Random House, will donate at least $500,000 to the nonprofit over the next five years in increments of $100,000 each year.
“Having this infusion of resources allows us to wage this battle forcefully to work with communities across the country,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. The group will use the money “to augment the staffing and expertise that we can put against this, and so it’s extremely important.”
PEN America has heard from students and educators across the country asking for help to fight challenges to students’ access to books, most of them written by and about people of color and LGBTQ people. It will be used to bolster staffing necessary to help these communities address the surge in bans, Nossel said.
More than 1,300 books have been banned over the last six months according to evidence PEN America has collected, Nossel said. That’s several times more than any book challenges or bans the organization has encountered so far.
Book bans are the most recent iteration of the backlash against equity and diversity efforts in schools, often mischaracterized as “critical race theory.” Nossel said book bans are a version of what she called “educational gag orders,” which are bans through state or local policy on curriculum dealing with topics such as race and racial justice and the history of slavery. Conservative lawmakers across the country are using book bans as a political tool, she said.
“I think it plays on the genuine concerns that parents have about what’s been happening in schools and the disruption to education during the pandemic,” Nossel said.
PEN America is fighting book bans by working with students, teachers and librarians in school districts where books are being challenged and helping them figure out how to fight the bans. Tipsheets the organization put together for students walk them through how to speak out against the bans, put pressure on local decisionmakers and report the bans to national groups such as the American Library Association. The organization also works with local districts on a case-by-case basis depending on the book ban situation in their school.
“The voices of students are incredibly effective,” she said. “Students speaking up for their own right to read—that’s a powerful demand when they make it on their own behalf, and so we try to elevate those voices.”
PEN America identifies key strategies in pushing back. One is pointing out that book bans can be a violation of free speech rights especially if a specific viewpoint is being censored. Another is informing the school community what the book being challenged is actually about. Often, people calling for the removal of a book from a library or curriculum object to a specific scene or character portrayal, which can be misrepresented, Nossel said.
“Very often, the book bans are based on a single image, a few lines without a contextualized understanding of what the book is even about,” she said.