Districts in Missouri have removed—either temporarily or permanently—almost 300 books from school libraries because of a state law that bans sexually explicit content.
The banned books include graphic novels such as Batman and X-Men, a copy of Reader’s Digest, works about artists including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, graphic novel adaptations of classics by William Shakespeare and Mark Twain, the Pulitzer-prize winning graphic novel Maus and other books about the Holocaust, and The Children’s Bible.
While Missouri is far from the only state attempting to remove books—mostly books about LGBTQ people and people of color—from classrooms and libraries, the scope of the interpretation of Missouri’s bill is what makes this law draconian, according to Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education programs from PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization that has been documenting book bans.
“Of all the book bans I have seen for a year, this one is really astonishing, considering the range of materials that were swept up in it,” Friedman said.
“It just is emblematic of the moment that we’re innationally with book bans. It’s a climate of fear that is sitting around schools and libraries, and the danger when you set up what are ultimately arbitrary directives to remove books.”
The book removals are a result of Missouri’s SB 775, passed this year. A provision in that law specifically bans any depiction or description of sexually explicit material, which include sexual intercourse, genitalia, or “sadomasochistic abuse.”
The provision provides an exception for works with serious artistic, anthropologic, or scientific significance. But this exemption has not been employed by some districts, Friedman said.
Administrators, teachers, librarians,or any other school employees that violate the law could face up to a year in jail or up to $2,000 in fines.
One Missouri district is responsible for most of the book removals
In all, 11 Missouri districts were responsible for 297 book bans, but 220 of them came from one district, the Wentzville School District, just west of St. Louis, which temporarily removed those titles from school library shelves for review. Friedman said an administrator directed all the school librarians to comb through their libraries and remove anything that they thought could get them in trouble.
A district spokesperson, however, took issue with that characterization.
“The majority of the books that are circulating online and noted as ‘banned pending investigation’ are being returned to our shelves,” said Brynne Cramer, the spokesperson for Wentzville, in an email to Education Week. “They were not ‘banned’ during the review process. The review process was to ensure our library collections are in compliance with SB775.”
But the district has removed books before, and been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Wentzville students for it. The lawsuit asks the district to put the eight banned titles at the center of that case back on the shelves and rescind the policy that allows them to let parents and students issue challenges to books.
In August, a district judge rejected the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, arguing that the district removing books from shelves does not constitute book bans, even though three of the eight challenged titles were permanently removed.
During the 2021-22 school year, police showed up at a high school in the district to question a librarian accused of giving pornography to kids, according to St. Louis Public Radio.
The Wentzville removals are significant because the same books are often challenged in multiple districts. For example, Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, has has become the single most frequently banned title in the country, with 41 districts restricting students’ access to it or completely removing it from shelves. The second most-banned book, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, has been prohibited in 29 districts.
“Once a book gets on one list, sometimes you see it kind of spread and be picked up in other places as something to be concerned about and ultimately removed,” Friedman said.
Missouri is not the only state trying to ban books
Over the summer, the attorney general of Utah issued guidance in accordance with a law called “Sensitive Material in Schools,” which directed schools to remove library books if they were considered “pornographic under state statute,” according to the memo.
In August, the Alpine School District—the state’s largest—pulled more than 50 books for review and flagged more than 30 more for later scrutiny because of the state law and the attorney general’s guidance.
However, the district later decided to temporarily restrict the books in school libraries instead of banning them altogether after intervention from PEN America, Friedman said.
Missouri’s directive is not as direct as the Utah memo, but it includes a criminal punishment for violating it.
“They’re not telling people to remove books,” Friedman said about Missouri’s law. “They’re sort of just insinuating that if certain things are in schools, that will get people in trouble.”
Legislation in Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and other states, while not explicitly banning books, has made it more difficult for students to have unrestricted access to titles about LGBTQ characters and people of color.
Twenty authors signed open letter against book bans
This week, several notable American authors joined PEN America’s plea to Missouri districts to protest the book bans, which they called “a grave threat to the freedom to read.”
The authors include Margaret Atwood, the author of the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale; Kobabe, who wrote Gender Queer: A Memoir; and Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, which chronicles Holocaust survivors’ stories. All three books were among those removed in Missouri.
“Students in Missouri are having these educational opportunities denied,” the open letter says. “They are bearing the brunt of a hasty and poorly considered reaction to a broadly worded provision that has spurred censorious acts across the state.”