Enrichment Arts & Culture

Nearly 300 books banned in Missouri since August, PEN America says

Books have been taken off school library shelves for allegedly having some visual image that could be interpreted as harmful to kids.
Banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. The books are banned in several public schools and libraries in the U.S., but young people can read digital versions from anywhere through the library. The Brooklyn Public Library offers free membership to anyone in the U.S. aged 13 to 21 who wants to check out and read books digitally in response to the nationwide wave of book censorship and restrictions. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Story at a glance

  • A new report from PEN America, a nonprofit that works to protect freedom of expression, found that close to 300 books have been banned across 11 Missouri school districts since August.

  • The bans are in response to a newly enacted state law that makes distributing “explicit sexual material” to minors a class A misdemeanor.

  • And while there are exceptions in the law for material used in sexual education courses or that have artistic significance, educational and historical books are still being ripped from shelves.

This fall, close to 300 books have been banned across at least 11 school districts, according to free-speech nonprofit PEN America.  

The bans come in response to a new Missouri law passed in August that makes distributing “explicit sexual material” to students a crime punishable by up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine.  

While the law does have an exception for books that are used for sexual education classes or that have anthropological or artistic significance, dozens of books have been swept off school book shelves.  

Some of the books that have been pulled from school library shelves include The Children’s Bible, “Maus,” graphic novel adaptations of classics by Shakespeare and Mark Twain, and Margaret Atwood’s work, as well as numerous historical books on the Holocaust.  

In one Missouri district — the Wentzville School District — 220 books have been removed from shelves for an unspecified “review” period, according to PEN America.  

“The books that have been swept up in what I can only call a dragnet in schools is truly astonishing,” Johnathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said during press conference on Wednesday.  

Out of the roughly 300 removed books, 76 are about art history touching on “just about” every major painter from the last 400 years. One district pulled six educational books on the Holocaust and many school districts are targeting 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 taken out of many school libraries in the state.  

All of the books being ripped from school libraries allegedly have some visual image that could be construed as sexual material that could be harmful to children.  

Friedman explained during the press conference that administrators in Wentzville told librarians to remove any book they thought might “run afoul of the new law.” 

Friedman looked through dozens of the subsequently removed books to check the material inside.  

“I was like, ‘what could be in here that is sexual?’” he said in reference to a graphic novel adaptation of the Gettysburg Address, one of the books removed in Wentzville. “I haven’t figured it out yet.” 

Another book was a graphic novel of Lois Lowry’s beloved classic “The Giver,” which appears to have been removed from the district’s libraries because of a scene where the protagonist is helping a senior citizen take a bath, according to Friedman, even though there was nothing explicit in the imagery.  

“What’s going on in Missouri is emblematic of this moment because similar trends are now on the horizon,” Friedman said, adding that both Utah and Florida have similar laws against sensitive materials in schools.  

“So, while Missouri is out in front right now, other places are quickly coming behind.”  

Dozens of authors including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman and Lois Lowry penned an open letter on Wednesday in light of the PEN America’s report asking Missouri school boards to reverse the districts’ “overzealous” book bans.  

“Such overzealous book banning is going to do more harm than good. Book bans limit opportunities for students to see themselves in literature and to build empathy for experiences different from their own,” the letter reads.  

“They deprive 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 means of reflecting the human condition, a tool for helping reluctant readers engage with literature.”