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The national battle to restrict and remove controversial books from public schools spiked sharply during the 2022-23 year and Missouri was, once again, in the thick of the action.
A report released Thursday by PEN America documented a 33% increase in public school book bans and Missouri — where 333 were banned last year — was ranked No. 3 nationally, just behind Florida and Texas.
In this part of the state, Nixa Public Schools has been a hotspot for book challenges.
“The toll of the book banning movement is getting worse," said Suzanne Nossel, Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, in a release. "More kids are losing access to books, more libraries are taking authors off the shelves, and opponents of free expression are pushing harder than ever to exert their power over students as a whole."
PEN America, a left-leaning nonprofit based in New York City, is adamantly opposed to curtailing students’ freedom to explore words, ideas, and books. It started tracking public school book bans in July 2021 and defines a "ban" as any action taken against a previously accessible book as a result of a parent challenge, administrative decision or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or government officials.
Since tracking started, it has recorded nearly 6,000 instances of banned books. During the 2022-23 year, there were 3,362 book bans involving more than 1,500 different book titles.
In the release, Nossell said: "Those who are bent on the suppression of stories and ideas are turning our schools into battlegrounds, compounding post-pandemic learning loss, driving teachers out of the classroom and denying the joy of reading to our kids. By depriving a rising generation of the freedom to read, these bans are eating away at the foundations of our democracy.”
This year, Florida logged 1,406 book ban cases, making it No. 1 on the list, followed by Texas with 625, Missouri with 333, Utah with 281 and Pennsylvania with 186, according to the report.
Missouri had the second-highest number of districts with at least one banned book, trailing Florida. The report did not list the 14 districts in the state. Florida had 33 districts and Texas and Michigan each had 12.
The report showed book bans have not happened in states and counties dominated by just one political party. Of the 33 states, 19 were Republican-leaning and 14 were Democrat-leaning based on voting patterns from the 2020 presidential election.
PEN America argued in the report that the uptick nationally and in specific states is part of an "ed scare" campaign to leverage anxiety and anger to suppress free expression in public schools.
The nonprofit contends it is fueled, in part, by legislative efforts to restrict teaching about a range of topics such as race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities as well as "educational intimidation" mandates to encourage the public to closely monitor and report any teacher or librarian who may cross the line.
In Missouri, a relatively new law makes it illegal to provide "explicit sexual material" to students and those convicted of the misdemeanor face up to one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
A lawsuit filed by the Missouri ACLU, on behalf of librarians, alleges the law is a violation of First Amendment rights and overly broad in scope and definition.
Young adult books a focus of bans, students push back
Other major findings of the PEN America report include:
Of the 3,362 books banned this year, 1,263 were banned from classrooms and school libraries, compared to only 333 books in this category last year, an increase of nearly 400% compared to the prior year.
At least 75% of the banned are young adult books, middle grade books, chapter books, or picture books. They are written for a younger audience.
Last year, 48% of the books banned last year dealt with violence or physical abuse, including sexual assault; 30% include characters of color and themes of race and racism; 30% represent LGBTQ+ identities; and 6% include a transgender character.
The report found that of the 153 districts that banned a book last year, 80% had a chapter or local affiliate nearby of one of the most prominent national groups pushing for the removals. The groups include Moms for Liberty, Citizens Defending Freedom, and Parents’ Rights in Education.
Another trend highlighted in the report is the growing student-initiated pushback against the book bans. They have held protests and spoken at school board meetings.
“Hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric continues to ignite fear over the types of books in schools. And yet, 75% of all banned books are specifically written and selected for young audiences. Florida isn’t an anomaly — it's providing a playbook for other states to follow suit," said Kasey Meehan, lead author of the report.
"Students have been using their voices for months in resisting coordinated efforts to suppress teaching and learning about certain stories, identities, and histories; it’s time we follow their lead.”
Last year, 52 districts removed 19 book titles by verse novelist Ellen Hopkins. Her works, which addressed topics such as drug use and human trafficking, were banned a total of 225 times, according to the report.
Other heavily targeted authors included Sarah J. Maas, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Elana K. Arnold.
Banned Book Week
This year, Banned Book Week will be Oct. 1-7. The goal is to draw attention to attempts to remove books and other materials from libraries, schools and bookstores.
The Springfield-Greene County Library District noted a Banned Book Club that meets off-site. The next meeting is 5:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at Bookmarx. The discussion will be Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved."
The GLO Center also has a Banned Book Club that meets the first week of each month. The next meeting is Oct. 1. The discussion will be Khaled Hosseini's novel "The Kite Runner."
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Missouri schools banned 333 books last year, 3rd highest in US: Report