For months now, a handful of books dealing with LGBTQ themes have been targeted by Kansas City area conservative parent groups and politicians. But facing a new Missouri law, some schools have now removed a much wider array of books from library shelves, including “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Watchmen” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The law, which bans sexually explicit material from schools and went into effect in late August, is tucked into a larger bill addressing sexual assault survivors’ rights. Librarians or other school employees who violate the law could be charged with a misdemeanor, risking up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine.
In response, several school libraries have pulled at least 20 book titles in districts on the Missouri side of the Kansas City metro, according to reports provided to The Star through open records requests.
The legislation specifically prohibits images in school materials that could be considered sexually explicit, such as depictions of genitals or sex acts. As a result, most of the banned books are graphic novels. The law does provide some exceptions, such as for works of art or science textbooks.
Proponents argue the legislation will protect children from inappropriate content and indoctrination.
“In schools all across the country, we’ve seen this disgusting and inappropriate content making its way into our classrooms,” state Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, said in a statement after the legislation passed. “Instead of recognizing this as the threat it is, some schools are actually fighting parents to protect this filth. The last place our children should be seeing pornography is in our schools.”
But others warn that such bans violate students’ First Amendment rights and mainly target books that feature LGBTQ relationships, people of color and diverse viewpoints.
“You don’t see people trying to ban any books that are on the far conservative end. So I think at this point, what we’re seeing is a kind of protracted political strategy,” said Joe Kohlburn, chair of the Missouri Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. “It feels very targeted to folks who identify as LGBTQ, or (people of color) or women. If you see your library is removing ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ that tells you something very specific. And I don’t think that’s an accident.”
Before the bill’s passage, conservative politicians, action committees and parent groups in the Kansas City metro spearheaded challenges to school library books, mostly featuring racially diverse or LGBTQ characters. It’s a trend seen across the country, with the American Library Association reporting that the number of attempts to ban or restrict books this year is on track to exceed last year’s total, which was the highest in decades.
Librarians have raised concerns over harassment, with some questioning whether to stay in their jobs. Tom Bastian, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, called the book challenges an attempt to “whitewash viewpoints and perspectives of historically marginalized communities.”
“Book banners are now mistakenly pointing to the recently passed (Senate Bill) 775 to ramp up the number of book challenges and to intimidate school districts into censorship, even going so far as providing specific guidance for how and which books to challenge and filing police reports,” Bastian said.
“The law’s intent is to stoke fear.”
Books pulled from shelves
In Independence, district administrators instructed staff to remove a dozen graphic novels from library shelves that they determined had sexually explicit content.
They included Kurt Vonnegut’s American classic “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Watchmen” by Alan Moore, “Blankets” by Craig Thompson and “Home After Dark” by David Small, according to a presentation to staff obtained by The Star.
The graphic novel version of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” a science fiction novel exploring the horrors of war, for example, includes some depictions of nudity and sex, with characters largely covered up, a review of the book by The Star found. DC Comics’ “Watchmen” features the character Dr. Manhattan, who is mostly naked throughout the story, and occasionally shown from the front fully nude.
The district also banned “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel. Both comic book-style novels feature LGBTQ themes and have been targeted by conservative groups, who across the country have been pleading with schools to remove them for content they deem inappropriate for high schoolers. On the Kansas side of the metro, the Blue Valley school board in March voted to keep both books after a parent challenged them.
“This is not about sexual orientation or identity,” Blue Valley parent Todd Farnsworth, who challenged the books, told the board. “If books about sexual orientation and identity are important to you to have in the libraries, find them that meet your policies. Replace these with books that make sense, that are age appropriate and not sexually explicit.”
Before the new Missouri law took effect, the Independence district faced the ire of parents and LGBTQ advocates upset that the school board voted 6-1 to ban “Cats vs. Robots #1: This Is War” from elementary school library shelves because it features a nonbinary character.
The book’s discussion of gender identity “is a very heavy subject,” said Bruce Gibbs, who served on a committee that recommended the book’s removal. “This is a heavy subject that is not appropriate for kids in elementary school.”
A spokeswoman with the Independence district did not return The Star’s request for comment.
The Raytown district has removed six titles from libraries, including “Flamer” by Mike Curato, “Lighter Than My Shadow” by Katie Green and “The Sun and Her Flowers” by Rupi Kaur.
“Flamer,” a graphic novel that’s been challenged across the country, is a story based on the author’s childhood experiences growing up, dealing with bullies and accepting that he is gay.
“The Raytown C-2 School District will continue to follow board policy regarding library materials,” district spokeswoman Marissa Cleaver Wamble said. “RQS is proud to have a highly qualified and professional team of certified library media specialists. They take their roles very seriously in selecting an age appropriate collection which represents a diverse world community. In compliance with the new state law, books with graphic visuals pertaining to the law were removed.”
In the North Kansas City district, nine books were removed, including the graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood’s bestselling book “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “This Book Is Gay” by Juno Dawson and the queer comic anthology “Be Gay, Do Comics.” All of the books were previously available in high school libraries, district spokeswoman Susan Hiland said.
The graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a story of a dystopian, totalitarian society where fertile women are forced into sexual servitude, includes some depictions of sexual violence against women.
“A review committee consisting of a cross section of administrators and staff was formed to ensure input and perspectives were considered from a variety of backgrounds,” she said. “This committee has reviewed several books using criteria set forth in the new law.”
Last year, the North Kansas City district temporarily removed “Fun Home” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a coming-of-age essay collection by George M. Johnson with LGBTQ themes, from its high schools after a parent objected. Dozens of students pushed back, and the district eventually returned the books to library shelves. But “Fun Home” was officially removed this school year in response to the new law.
The Northland Parent Association, which has helped lead efforts to ban books in the district, declined to comment.
Other Kansas City districts, though, have refused to ban any books this school year. Kansas City Public Schools and the Park Hill district, for example, said they have evaluated their book collections but have not removed any titles.
“Not every book is for every reader. But books can make such a huge difference in our lives. Sometimes we have questions about ourselves that we’re not ready to discuss with other people, but we can read about it in a book and feel OK,” KCPS school librarian Rebecca Marcum Parker said at a panel discussion hosted by the Kansas City Public Library last week. “And I worry about my students or other patrons missing out on that opportunity, and maybe not feeling OK about themselves because they don’t see themselves represented in the books they have access to.”
‘Arrested for doing our jobs’
Opponents of the new law have called it an “intimidation tactic,” threatening librarians with jail time for refusing to ban books that district staff previously deemed appropriate for students.
“Librarians are no shrinking violets, don’t let our cardigans and thick-rimmed glasses fool you. None of us want to be arrested for doing our jobs, but we will not sacrifice our ethical and moral principles simply because we are threatened,” leaders with the Missouri Library Association said in a statement.
“This seems, from our careful observation, to be the political strategy of those who oppose intellectual freedom: Undermine public education, limit access to diverse viewpoints through libraries and curricula, and encourage the most negative elements of public sentiment toward ignorance and bigotry.”
A police officer responded to a high school in the Wentzville School District twice last school year after receiving complaints about a school librarian, accusing her of giving pornography to kids, St. Louis Public Radio reported. The outlet said that the visits did not lead to any action against the librarian or cause any books to be banned.
At a librarians conference this past week, Kohlburn said that many have told him, “they’ve been experiencing anxiety and are worried about their jobs and what it means to be a librarian.”
“It’s very similar to how public school teachers feel. Unfortunately, you are getting folks reconsidering their life choices in terms of what job to do.”
Across the region, parents have packed school board meetings over the past year to challenge library books, mostly with LGBTQ characters, arguing that they feature explicit content and are not appropriate for schoolchildren.
“There’s no question that in some places this content is not only celebrated but actively being pushed on our children,” Brattin said in a news release. “We have to put our foot down and say ‘no, our children are too important to us and our future to allow this to happen.’ Our children are a precious gift from God, and it’s our job to raise them to respect themselves and the opposite sex the way God intended.”
But other parents and students have warned that banning such books will only harm their districts’ most vulnerable students, who they say should be able to see themselves reflected in the books available at schools.
“Access is Equity. Not all students have the resources to access books outside of school or the guarantee of safety in their own homes,” Bastian said. “Removing books from school libraries and classrooms impacts all students by silencing speech but it also greatly reduces equity in education by making it more difficult or impossible for students of marginalized communities to access the same information as students who come from privileged backgrounds.”
Across Kansas City last month, libraries created displays of books that have been the subject of controversies and removed from shelves, to recognize Banned Books Week.
Kansas City Public Library officials said in response to the new Missouri law that, “The subjective restriction of reading material is counter to the diversity necessary to serve the needs of all readers. Equitable access is a hallmark of intellectual freedom and should be valued, not compromised.”