Who’s Banning
What Now?

PEN America recorded 3,362 instances of book banning in the U.S. for the 2022-2023 school year. Here are more findings from their latest Banned in the USA report:


Book bans in public K–12 schools continue to intensify. In the 2022–23 school year, PEN America recorded 3,362 instances of books banned, an increase of 33 percent from the 2021–22 school year.

Over 40 percent of all book bans occurred in school districts in Florida. Across 33 school districts, PEN America recorded 1,406 book ban cases in Florida, followed by 625 bans in Texas, 333 bans in Missouri, 281 bans in Utah, and 186 bans in Pennsylvania.

My 17-month-old toddler has just reached a new phase all parents are familiar with — he now regularly repeats much of what he hears me say. At my wife’s behest, I try to populate my speech with minimal invective, but the occasional expletive slips out, and — to my lovely bride’s eternal chagrin — I fear the day is fast approaching when four-letter words will stream out of my little guy’s mouth like well-water from a garden hose. 

Never before have I had to be so intentional about what goes into my heart and mind, for it is sure to come back out. And if my son hears it, it will come from him too. This new phase already has me thinking about what he might be exposed to when he enters the harrowing halls of the Texas public school system. 

Further still, what iniquitous books might he find on the shelves of his school library, spoiling him of his innocence, perhaps turning him against whatever spiritual and moral code my wife and I have tried to instill in him? We are, or at least we want to be, people of thoughtful faith in Jesus who are joyful, active citizens of the world. We hope to be creating and embracing beauty, suffering, love, hardship, and all the myriad experiences life may throw at us. But I also don’t want my kid to be exposed too early to images or ideologies that he may not be ready for. 

All this considered, I’ve been asking myself questions. Should I push for the banning of books I disagree with in public school libraries. Is there a more nuanced approach? Is it a school board’s job to dictate what my son should be exposed to, or is that our responsibility as his parents? Further still, while I understand the risks involved, isn’t it better for my son to learn to think critically about the ethical issues facing our society today rather than being sheltered from anything that has the slightest chance of leading him astray? After all, the Bible is chock full of incest, sexual assault, gratuitous violence, manifest cruelty, and all manner of subjects I have yet to hear a teaching about in Sunday school. Should my son avoid the Old Testament too?

According to data drawn from PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans, the public-school systems of Florida and Texas comprise almost 60 percent of the total instances of book banning in the United States. By contrast, California and Vermont each have a single instance of book banning. Multiple sources confirm that the most banned book in Texas is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a searingly honest portrait of anti-Black racism in small-town America. In an attempt to understand my fellow Texans, many of whom likely share a religious and socioeconomic background with me, I checked out a copy of Morrison’s book from the Waco Central Public Library (yes, I see the irony) and sat down to be filled with righteous indignation.

Instead, I experienced profound confusion. Not because of incomprehensible plot points or bewildering verbiage, but because while the central story of the novel is devastatingly heartbreaking, the average brand-new Netflix series is equally as rife with depravity. In fact, The Bluest Eye speaks of what happens to the central character despairingly, pointing out the futile inevitability of human suffering and brokenness (much like the Old Testament speaks of multiple marriages), whereas the standard television series tends to celebrate depravity, evil, and selfishness. Call me simplistic, but my paternal preference would be for my son to read The Bluest Eye, even if he is too young to handle it, and to avoid Grey’s Anatomy altogether. 

Banning a book can be a disservice — to all parties. William Schweiker, professor of theological ethics at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, writes: “When you decide to ban books what, at root, one is doing is banning brains.” 

I fear he is correct. What if, as followers of Jesus and as parents, we focused less on how to avoid certain content and more on how to consider the kind of content we will inevitably receive? What if I can help teach my son to have a heart and mind bigger and brighter than the ever-evolving morass of philosophical ambiguity he is likely to be bombarded with throughout his life? What if, instead of instilling fear, I give him tools? 

In other words, what if the invitation is to reason together rather than to cower in fear?

Let me say this — I get it. I’ve got questions about critical race theory and Trumpism, about gender identity and toxic masculinity, about racial trauma and the rampant overuse of therapy talk. In my more cynical moments, I too begin to doubt if anybody reporting the news, posting on social media, or writing books these days even knows what they are talking about. 

Still, the mechanism by which we can teach our children — and, frankly, ourselves — to artfully consider the various truth claims we are confronted with is not by denying that some of them exist, but by learning to approach them with careful and critical thought. If the truth really is true, who says it needs my help? Can’t whatever is true take care of itself and reveal itself in whatever way it wants to? Since when are the Christian faith and the imaginations of the faithful so fragile? 

We insult ourselves by banning that which we do not fully understand, as if we are too brittle to withstand the swirling winds of cultural mores that may differ from a christocentric worldview. Read. Read widely and read deeply. Let’s learn, and teach our children, to approach all of life with full hearts and strong minds.

As Mark Twain, himself a regular fixture of banned books lists, reminded us: In this life there is considerable trouble. But there is also considerable joy.