The State of Missouri may have to change its nickname from “Show-Me-State” to “It’s against the law to show me!”
According to a report from PEN America, in response to a new state law, this fall Missouri schools removed almost 300 books from library shelves. They include Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus about the Holocaust, graphic novels based on George Orwell’s 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Bible, and the Gettysburg Address, art history books with naked subjects, and comic books about Batman and X-Men. Leviticus in the Old Testament has a lot of rules about sex and apparently the New Testament starts with too many “begats.” The new law establishes criminal penalties for exposing students to “explicit sexual material.” More than half of the books are about or written by LGBTQ+ people or people of color.
PEN America calls the Missouri book banning a “grave threat to the freedom to read.” It is the latest in a wave of “mass removals of books, new legislative proposals targeting publishers, and the passage of restrictive school district policies.” Nearly 100 books were recently pulled from Beaufort, South Carolina school libraries, a proposed Texas law would require publishers to create a rating system for school library books, and a number of states and school districts are afraid of any reference to gender fluidity.
Senate Bill 775, which went into effect in August 2022 was supposed to address the rights of survivors of sexual assault. However an amendment pasted into the bill classified “providing explicit sexual material to a student” as a class A misdemeanor and subjects “any person affiliated with a school in an official capacity” to arrest. In response, at least 11 school districts starting purging books from the school library.
A spokesperson for a district that banned fourteen books was quoted in the St. Louis Dispatch. “The unfortunate reality of Senate Bill 775 is that, now in effect, it includes criminal penalties for individual educators. We are not willing to risk those potential consequences and will err on the side of caution on behalf of the individuals who serve our students.”
PEN America has posted an online petition addressed to Missouri School Boards and Districts. You can add your name at this link. A number of prominent authors have signed the letter. They include Laurie Halse Anderson, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Roxane Gay, Lois Lowry, and Art Spiegelman.
We, the undersigned, join authors, illustrators, and the literary and free expression organization PEN America, to protest the alarming book bans that have been enacted in Missouri schools this fall. These bans represent a grave threat to the freedom to read, much to the detriment of students across the state.
These bans have been enacted largely in reaction to a provision in Senate Bill 775, which makes the distribution of material deemed “harmful to minors” to students in Missouri by any school official (educators, librarians, student teachers, coaches) or by any visitor to a school, a misdemeanor punishable by fines or jail time.
What is the definition of "harmful"? Who decides? The new law focuses on “visual depictions” and “sexual material,” and some school boards and officials have interpreted it broadly, removing an astonishing range of material: dozens of graphic novels and comics, books with photography, memoirs, and books about art history. In the ten weeks since the provision went into effect, at least 11 school districts have banned over 300 books. Several districts banned books from their libraries permanently. In one district, over 200 books came off library shelves for an indeterminate period of “review.”
Provisions in the law that exempt materials of artistic or anthropological significance are clearly being ignored. Students have been barred from checking out works on Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, graphic novel adaptations of classics by Shakespeare and Mark Twain as well as The Gettysburg Address, the Pulitzer-prize winning Maus, and other books about the Holocaust. Districts have banned comics about Batman, X-Men, and Watchmen; The Complete Guide to Drawing & Painting by Reader’s Digest; Women (a book of photographs by Annie Leibovitz); and The Children’s Bible.
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. 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.
Students in Missouri are having these educational opportunities denied. They are bearing the brunt of a hasty and poorly considered reaction to a broadly worded provision that has spurred censorious acts across the state. They are having their right to access a diversity of ideas, information, art, and literature in school libraries diminished.
We urge school district officials in these 11 districts to reverse these dangerous bans, and to put materials back on shelves where students can regain access to them.