ST. LOUIS – The 97 books banned from schools across St. Louis this fall cover subjects like anatomy, photography and the Holocaust. There are books that are also popular TV series, including Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Walking Dead, and Watchmen.
And since life imitates art, the Kirkwood School District banned a comic book adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984,” the cautionary tale about government mind control.
A new state law banning “explicit sexual material” — defined as any visual depiction of sexual activity or genitalia, except of artistic or scientific significance — went into effect in late August and applies to both public and private schools.
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Teachers and librarians, on instructions from lawyers, have combed through their book lists for relevant content. However, interpretation of the law varies by region, according to a post-dispatch analysis of public records:
• Ten school districts in the city of St. Louis and most of the inner suburbs plan to ignore the law and leave their library holdings unchanged. University City this week posted a photo of banned books on display in the middle school library, along with a sign that reads “We Read Banned Books.”
• Four suburbs – Francis Howell in St. Charles County and Kirkwood, Lindbergh and Rockwood in St. Louis County – each removed more than 12 books from their schools.
• The Wentzville School District banned one book and withdrew 223 others “for further review,” including dozens of art history books and “Bible Stories for Children.”
• Two Jefferson County counties, Fox and Festus, did not ban books. A Festus spokesman clarified that materials covered by the law “were never in school libraries.”
The number of statewide book bans this school year is on track to surpass last year’s record total, according to the American Library Association. The tip comes amid a culture clash over how educators should teach about race, gender and sexuality.
“If you dictate what people can read, what people can vote for, that’s the hallmark of an authoritarian society, not a democratic society,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the association’s Office of Freedom of Thought. “We really need to question what we’re trying to do for our young people’s education.”
The local banned books map tends to align with political leanings, with districts in conservative areas removing more titles. Suburban school boards in St. Charles County and West St. Louis County have also faced repeated book challenges from residents over the past two years.
The three books most targeted were the graphic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which was banned in 10 local school districts; “Gender Queer,” banned in seven counties; and “Watchmen,” banned in four counties. Half of the 10 books most commonly pulled from classrooms and school libraries contain LGBTQ characters and themes, and a few others involve racism.
Of the 97 books banned from schools in the St. Louis area, 86 were targeted by just one county. Known examples are:
• The Ritenour School District banned Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust that depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. When “Maus” was banned by a Tennessee school district earlier this year, the US Holocaust Museum said the book “played a crucial role in educating people about the Holocaust by sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors.”
• Lindbergh banned “A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman,” about the radical political activist and anarchist, along with several volumes in the “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead” series.
• In addition to 1984: The Graphic Novel, Kirkwood banned Crime and Punishment: A Graphic Novel, Annie Leibovitz at Work about the famous photographer, and The Human Body in Action, a 1999 textbook with a titled chapter “making babies”.
Missouri’s ACLU issued a statement last month saying school library books are not subject to the new state law because they “have already been screened against nationally-established standards for selecting material that consider the entire piece.”
However, some school leaders said the threat of prosecution required a conservative approach to book sorting.
“The unfortunate reality of Senate Bill 775 is that it is now in effect and includes criminal penalties for individual educators. We are not willing to risk these potential consequences and will play it safe on behalf of the individuals who serve our students,” said Kirkwood spokeswoman Steph Deidrick.
Table: Most banned books by school district
|A book||no. districts|
|The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel||10|
|Gender Queer: A Memoir||7|
|Home after dark||4|
|The sun and its flowers||4|
The Missouri Library Association condemned the book bans, saying schools must protect their students’ academic freedom and the autonomy of their educators.
“By electing to preemptively remove graphic novels from your collection, you are sending the message to your students that you support the intent (of the law) to shut down access to information, art and culturally relevant materials in your collection” , according to a Sept. 9 letter from the association to the administrators of Rockwood. “We ask that you, as leaders in your district, have courage in the face of this law, support your staff and your students, and stand with us against censorship.”
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, tweeted this month that he is “proud to have banned these books from school libraries. It’s sick that people think this is appropriate for school-age kids.”
Students respond to book bans
No private school has reported withdrawing books in response to the law. High school students in an AP literature class at Crossroads College Prep in St. Louis described the book bans as patronizing, offensive, and disturbing.
“The ban on these books weaves another layer onto this blanket of ignorance,” said Tré Humphries, 17.
Recently, Crossroads students in a class were discussing Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and other books that have been banned. English teacher and co-principal Sarah Pierson Wolff said a Crossroads attorney advised administrators on the new state law, but no books were removed.
“The idea of trying to limit people’s access is something we’re fighting against,” Wolff said. “When someone says a book is dangerous, it’s scary.”
Book bans are also known to backfire, inspiring students to seek out books that would otherwise sit untouched on library shelves.
“In fact, if you’re an enterprising teenager and you want a copy of Gender Queer, you’re going to get it,” said Linda Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library in New York. “Either the elected officials or the parents or the school administration are naïve or there is something else at play.”
In April, the library launched Books Unbanned, offering free online access to its entire collection for 13-21 year olds. Demand has skyrocketed from students living in school districts that have banned titles, Johnson said.
Families in Wentzville, where the school district is being sued over book bans, will work with the ACLU to hold a student rights strategy session Oct. 2 at the local library.
“It’s important for students to learn how to stand up for themselves,” said Zebrina Looney, whose four children attend schools in Wentzville. “They go to college and may not be equipped with the knowledge that their peers had.”
Graphic novels targeted
Jerry Craft hated reading as a child and believes this is because the African American protagonists were either enslaved, imprisoned, or fought for civil rights.
“Why couldn’t I have Harry Potter when I was 12?” said Handwerk. “I write the books I wished I had when I was a kid. Children just want to be seen.”
When Craft heard his book New Kid had been challenged by parents in Texas for “critical race theory,” he had to Google the term. The Newbery Award-winning graphic novel follows a black boy who experiences culture shock when he transfers to a private school.
“My goal was to tell a story loosely based on my life and the lives of my two sons and the lives of some of my friends,” said Craft, speaking about banned comics at the St. Louis Central Library on Thursday. “One of the things most people don’t do is actually read the book or ask a kid what they think of the book. That’s one of the biggest problems – the kids are often an afterthought.”
Teachers say graphic novels are valuable tools to engage reluctant readers, English learners and people with learning disabilities. The images combined with text can lead to a deeper understanding and analysis of a book.
But there’s a common misconception of the term graphic novel referring to the books’ illustrated comic strip format rather than the content, said Jeff Trexler, interim director of the New York-based Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
Federal lawmakers on Thursday marked Banned Books Week by introducing resolutions condemning school book bans and calling them unconstitutional.
“The general tragedy of banning books in schools is that they are protected classes from discrimination,” Trexler said. “You will have people thrown in jail for showing material protected by the First Amendment.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.