The story in brief
- A new report from PEN America, a nonprofit organization that works to protect free speech, found that nearly 300 books have been banned in 11 Missouri school districts since August.
- The bans are in response to a recent state law that makes distributing “sexually explicit material” to minors a Class A misdemeanor.
- And while there are exceptions to the law for materials used in sex education courses or that have artistic significance, educational and historical books are still being pulled from the shelves.
Nearly 300 books have been banned in at least 11 school districts this fall, according to the nonprofit PEN America.
The bans come in response to a new Missouri law passed in August that makes distributing “sexually explicit material” to students a felony punishable by up to a year in prison or a $2,000 fine.
Although the law exempts books that are used in sex education classes or have an anthropological or artistic significance, dozens of books have been swept from school bookshelves.
Some of the books pulled from school library shelves include the Children’s Bible, Maus, classic graphic novels by Shakespeare and Mark Twain, and the works of Margaret Atwood, as well as many historical books on the Holocaust.
According to PEN America, one Missouri district, the Wentzville School District, has pulled 220 books from its shelves for an indefinite “review” period.
“The books that have been captured in schools on what I can only call the web are truly amazing,” Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free speech and education programs, said at a news conference Wednesday.
Of the approximately 300 books removed, 76 are about art history, covering “almost” every major painter of the last 400 years. One district produced six educational books about the Holocaust, and many school districts have targeted popular comics like Batman, X Men and The Walking Dead.
Many graphic novels by LGBTQ authors, especially those that tell autobiographical stories about their teenage years, have been removed from many state school libraries.
All the books that are pulled from school libraries have some visual image that could be considered sexual material that could harm children.
Friedman explained during the press conference that Wentzville administrators told librarians to remove any books they felt might “contradict the new law.”
Friedman examined the dozens of books subsequently seized to examine the materials they contained.
“I mean, what could possibly be sexual here?” he said, referring to the graphic novel adaptation of the Gettysburg Address, one of the books seized in Wentzville. “I haven’t figured it out yet.”
Another book was a graphic novel of Lois Laurie’s beloved classic, “The Giver,” which appears to have been pulled from area libraries because of a scene in which the main character helps a senior citizen in a bath, according to Friedman, even though there was nothing clear about the images.
“What’s happening in Missouri is emblematic of the moment, because we’re seeing similar trends now,” Friedman said, adding that both Utah and Florida have similar laws against sensitive material in schools.
“So while Missouri is ahead right now, other places are quickly coming up behind.”
Dozens of authors, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman and Lois Lowry, sent an open letter Wednesday in the wake of a PEN America report asking Missouri school boards to lift districts’ “excessive” book bans.
“Such excessive banning of books will do more harm than good. Book bans limit students’ opportunities to see themselves in literature and to empathize with experiences different from their own,” the letter said.
“They rob students of the freedom to read—to think, to imagine, to grow. And photographs and illustrations can be vital to storytelling: a window into the past, a vehicle for reflecting on the human condition, a tool to help reluctant readers engage with literature.