St. Louis-area suburban school districts more likely to ban books under new law
ST. LOUIS — The 97 books banned from St. Louis schools this fall cover topics including 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 has banned a comic book adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984,” the cautionary tale of government mind control.
A new state law banning “explicit sexual material” — defined as any visual depiction of sexual acts or genitalia, with exceptions for artistic or scientific significance — went into effect in late August and applies to public and private schools.
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Teachers and librarians scoured their book lists for any applicable content under the guidance of attorneys. But the interpretation of the law varies by geography, according to a post-expedition analysis of public records:
• Ten school districts in the city of St. Louis and mostly near suburbs plan to ignore the law and not alter their library collections. University City this week released a photo of banned books displayed in the college library with a sign reading “We read banned books.”
• Four suburban districts—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 removed 223 others “for further review,” including dozens of art history books and “children’s Bible stories.”
• Two Jefferson County districts, Fox and Festus, have not banned any books. A Festus spokesperson clarified that the documents falling under the law “have never been in school libraries in the first place”.
According to the American Library Association, the number of nationwide book bans this school year is on track to surpass last year’s record total. The spike comes amid a culture war over how educators should teach about race, gender and sexuality.
“When you dictate what people can read, what people can choose, that’s the mark of an authoritarian society, not a democratic society,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the office of the association for intellectual freedom. “We really have to ask ourselves what we mean for the education of our young people.”
The local banned books map tends to align with political trends, with districts in conservative areas removing more titles. Suburban school boards in St. Charles County and western St. Louis County have also faced repeated book challenges from residents over the past two years.
The three most frequently targeted books were the graphic novel “The Handmaid’s Tale,” banned in 10 local school districts; “Gender Queer”, banned in seven districts and “Watchmen”, banned in four districts. Half of the 10 most frequently pulled books from classrooms and school libraries feature LGBTQ characters and themes, and several more involve racism.
Of the 97 books that have been banned by schools in the St. Louis area, 86 have been targeted by a single district. High profile examples include:
• The Ritenour School District has banned Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel that depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. When “Maus” was banned earlier this year by a Tennessee school district, the US Holocaust Museum said the book “played a vital role in Holocaust education by sharing the detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors”.
• Lindbergh banned ‘A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman’, about the radical and anarchist political activist, as well as several volumes of ‘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 manual with a chapter titled “Making Babies”.
The ACLU of Missouri issued a statement last month saying that books in school libraries are not subject to the state’s new law because they have “already been reviewed against well-established national standards for selecting materials that take into account the whole piece”.
But some headteachers have said the threat of lawsuits necessitates a conservative approach to disposing of the books.
“The sad reality of Senate Bill 775 is that, now in effect, it includes criminal penalties for individual educators. We are unwilling to risk these potential consequences and will err on the side of caution on behalf of those who serve our students,” Kirkwood spokeswoman Steph Deidrick said.
Table: Most banned books by area school districts
|The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel||ten|
|Gender Queer: A Memoir||seven|
|Home after dark||4|
|The sun and its flowers||4|
The Missouri Library Association has denounced the book bans, saying schools must protect the academic freedom of their students and the autonomy of their educators.
“By choosing to preemptively remove graphic novels from your collection, you are sending the message to your students that you support the intent (of the law), which is to restrict access to information, art and culturally relevant materials in your collection,” reads a Sept. 9 letter from the association to Rockwood trustees. “We ask you as leaders in your district to be courageous in the face of this law, to support your staff and students, and to stand with us against censorship.”
The state sponsor of the bill, senator. Rick Bratin, R-Harrisonville, tweeted this month that he is “proud to have banned these books from school libraries. It’s crazy that people think it’s appropriate for school-aged kids.
Students react to book bans
No private schools reported removing books in response to the law. High school students taking an AP literature course at Crossroads College Prep in St. Louis described the book bans as condescending, insulting and disturbing.
“Banning these books weaves another layer over this blanket of ignorance,” said Tré Humphries, 17.
In a recent class, Crossroads students discussed Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” and other books that have been banned. Sarah Pierson Wolff, an English teacher and co-director of the school, said a Crossroads attorney briefed administrators on the new state law, but no books were taken down.
“The idea of trying to limit what people have access to is something we fight against,” Wolff said. “For someone to say a book is dangerous is scary.”
Book bans have also been known to backfire, prompting students to seek out books that would otherwise sit untouched on the library shelf.
“The fact is, if you’re an enterprising teenager and you want a copy of ‘Gender Queer,’ you’ll get it,” said Linda Johnson, president and CEO of Brooklyn Public Library in New York. “Either the elected officials or the parents or the school administrators are naive, or there is something else at stake.”
In April, the library launched Books Unbanned, providing free online access to its entire collection for ages 13 to 21. There have been spikes in demand from students living in school districts that have banned titles, Johnson said.
Families in Wentzville, where the school district is being sued for book bans, will partner with the ACLU to host a strategy session on “student rights” Oct. 2 at the local library.
“It’s important for students to learn how to defend themselves,” said Zebrina Looney, whose four children attended schools in Wentzville. “They’re the ones going off to college and potentially not being equipped with the knowledge that their counterparts had.”
Targeted graphic novels
Jerry Craft hated reading as a kid and thinks it’s because the African American protagonists were enslaved, imprisoned, or fought for civil rights.
“At 12, why can’t I have a Harry Potter? said Craft. “I write the books I wish I had as a kid. Kids just want to be seen.
When Craft learned that his book “New Kid” had been challenged by parents in Texas because of “critical race theory,” he had to Google the term. The Newbery Award-winning graphic novel is about a black boy who experiences culture shock when he transfers to a private school.
“My goal was to tell a story that was loosely based on my life and the lives of my two sons and the lives of a group of my friends,” said Craft, who spoke about the banned comics Thursday at the Central Library. of St. Louis. “One of the things most people don’t do is read the book or ask a kid what they think about it. This is one of the biggest problems – kids are often an afterthought.
Teachers say graphic novels are valuable tools for engaging reluctant readers, English learners and people with learning disabilities. Visuals combined with text can lead to deeper understanding and analysis of a book.
But there’s a general misunderstanding of the term graphic novel, which refers to the illustrated comic book format of the books, not the content, said Jeff Trexler, acting director of the New York-based Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
Federal lawmakers marked Banned Books Week on Thursday by introducing resolutions condemning school book bans, calling them unconstitutional.
“The overall tragedy of banning books in schools is that they are classes protected from discrimination,” Trexler said. “You’re going to get people thrown in jail for showing First Amendment protected material.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.