This story is part of a larger project on book challenges in Missouri and the U.S. Find the full project here.
COLUMBIA — Getting a book removed from a public school in Missouri is a long shot, but the odds haven’t stopped residents from trying. Since 2008, parents, students and others have tried to toss or restrict more than 50 books from libraries or classrooms in school districts across the state.
Number of Sunshine requests filed: 566
Number of responses: 495
Number of non-responses: 71
Average number of contacts before responses were received: Two
Number of districts with challenges: 32, or 6.5 percent of those that responded
Total number of challenges: 53
District with the most challenges: North Kansas City (7)
Number of challenges resulting in book’s removal: 12, or 22.6 percent
Number of challenges resulting in book being kept: 29, or 54.7 percent
Number of challenges resulting in book restrictions: 11, or 18.9 percent
Sept. 30-Oct. 6 marks the 30th annual observance of Banned Books Week, during which the American Library Association encourages students to read books that have been censored.
- In Columbia, it was “The Face on the Milk Carton,” by Caroline B. Cooney. A parent challenged the book at Paxton Keeley Elementary School because it contains sexual situations and because “livid descriptions (of the main character’s) emotional and physical distress are the main crux of this work.”
- In Republic, it was Kurt Vonnegut’s classic “Slaughterhouse-Five” and two other books labeled “soft porn” by the challenger. The school district garnered national attention when it banned Vonnegut’s book. The decision was later reversed.
- In Camdenton, it was “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini. A rape scene drew challenges from at least eight parents who felt it shouldn’t be required reading in an honors English class. The book was removed from the curriculum but remained on library shelves.
- In Jackson, it was “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. A mother said the novel was too violent for her 11-year-old in 2009. She and her daughter have since become fans of the book and the movie. The district kept the book without restrictions.
- In Wentzville, it was “Baby Animals – Puppies” by Kate Petty. A parent objected because the book referred to a female dog as a “bitch.” “Although the word is used in context, this type of language is absolutely inappropriate for an elementary school library,” the parent wrote. The school district retained the book.
Those are just a few examples of the 51 titles challenged in 32 Missouri school districts since 2008. Two titles, “Yankee Girl” by Mary Ann Rodman and “Fallout” by Ellen Hopkins, were challenged twice.
Of all the books challenged, 12 were banned by the school districts. Another 11 were removed from required reading lists, labeled with “young adult” stickers or restricted in some other way. Twenty-nine of the 53 challenges were rejected and the books stayed. The result of one challenge was unreported.
Collecting comprehensive records on book challenges isn’t easy. Students in a course taught by Professor Charles Davis at the Missouri School of Journalism sent Sunshine requests for public records of challenges to all 566 school districts in the state. The letters asked the districts to provide all correspondence regarding book challenges since Jan. 1, 2008. Some districts responded immediately; others needed to be contacted two or three times before following through.
During several months of reporting, 495 Missouri school districts, or 87.5 percent of them, responded. As the records came in, some themes emerged. Many of the challenges had less to do with the overall content of a book but more to do with whether it was appropriate for certain age groups. Others argued that the books they were challenging were inconsistent with community values or that they contained language and references to behavior that conflicted with school conduct rules.
Missouri doesn’t seem out of pace with the rest of the country in regard to book challenges. The American Library Association lists 1,647 challenges in the United States from 2008 through 2011. The vast majority involved K-12 schools, but there were other challenges to books in prisons, theaters, museums and university libraries. The association estimates only one of every four or five challenges is reported.
The reasons for book challenges in Missouri run the gamut. Those seeking to ban or restrict books cited sexual themes and situations in 21 cases; language was cited 18 times. Challengers also objected to violent content, racial slurs and references to religion, the paranormal, self-injury, drugs and alcohol.
To respond to challenges, schools evaluate complaints by looking at the entire book, not just particular passages. When they retain books, many schools cite important themes that spawn constructive classroom discussions or intellectual exploration on the part of the reader.
For example, the Camdenton School District – which restricted “The Kite Runner” in 2009 — a year earlier decided to retain the classic “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck without restriction, despite a complaint about foul language in the novel.
Brian Henry, then principal of Camdenton High School, responded to the challenge after a committee appointed to review the book decided it should be kept.
"In the opinion of the committee, the relevance and value of the curricular themes outweigh the author's use of objectionable language to convey the characteristics of the individuals in the novel," he wrote.
Similarly, a committee in the Pattonville R-3 School District, decided to retain “Yankee Girl” in 2009, but restricted it to students in the fourth grade and up.
"The book, taken as a whole, is important as it can lead to conversation about racism and sexism,” Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Tim Pecoraro wrote in a letter to the challenger. “In addition, the title has significant merit due to the historical context, sense of realism, and emotional depth of the story."
So what does it take to get a book banned? School districts generally set the bar very high, but some books don’t make the cut when parents or others call attention to them.
The Mehlville School District in 2008, for example, banned the "Pretty Little Liars" series by author Sara Shepard for explicit sexual content. A parent had complained about the books, saying one of the titles described a sexual encounter between a drunken underage girl and her adult teacher in a bathroom. She described numerous references to sexual situations that she argued were unacceptable for a middle school library.
“As a parent, I am upset and disgusted,” the challenger wrote. “As a student, my daughter felt uneasy and disturbed.”
Last year, the Norborne School District took "Gemini Bites" by Patrick Ryan out of its library and donated it to the city library. A ninth-grade student complained of an explicit description of two boys having sex. The school librarian noted in public records that the book was a Junior Library Guild “selection of the month.” The guild, however, had recommended it for grades 11 and up.
Decisions to ban books, however, also generate challenges. When the Stockton school board banned the award-winning "The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie from its middle school in April 2010, it by no means ended the controversy. The school received hundreds of pages worth of letters; some supported the ban while others opposed it.
Glen Cox, a parent of Stockton students, was among scores who applauded the board’s decision.
“A lot of people try to twist this to say that the school is taking the students’ rights away from them by not allowing this book on campus,” Cox wrote. “They ignore the fact that the board is not against the good story of this book of a young man making something out of himself. It is the language and terminology that make this book inappropriate for the school setting.”
Several national organizations opposed the ban, including the Writers Hall of Fame, the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Association of American Publishers and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri.
In a letter signed by 20 members of the English faculty at Missouri State University, professor Jane Hoogestraat argued that Alexie’s book contains a redeeming message.
“In such cases as this one, what often happens is that a relatively small list of passages (supplied either by an individual or an external political group) are distributed as representative of the overall novel,” Hoogestraat wrote. “I wish to assure the board that Alexie’s primary purpose in the novel is not to engage in vulgarity for its own sake, to present prurient or pornographic material, or in any way to foster discrimination.
“Instead, Alexie’s novel stands as a literary representation with a strong anti-bullying message, and the strongest anti-alcohol message I have ever encountered in literature.”
The intensity of the feedback prompted the board to reconvene the committee that initially recommended the ban. During a special meeting in September 2010, the board unanimously upheld its earlier decision and chose not to allow the book in the high school library either.
The United States has seen 6,364 individual challenges to books in the past two decades, according to data from the American Library Association. Most of the challenges arose from concerns about sexually explicit content.
Linda Esser, professor at the MU Department of Information and Technology, opposes banning books. It’s impossible, she said, to destroy the ideas a book expresses. She cited an ancient attempt to ban the writings of Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, who wrote around 450 B.C. that the sun was a mass of red hot metal. He was banished from Athens.
“The Catholic Church tried to burn all of the books (written by Anaxagoras), but three or four books escaped,” Esser said. “… Because you don’t like something about the book does not mean that you are going to stop the ideas.”
Esser used Laurie Halse Anderson's “Speak” as an example. It was among three books that Wesley Scroggins, an associate professor of management at Missouri State University, challenged in the Republic school district. The others were Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and Sarah Ockler's “Twenty Boy Summer." Scroggins described them all as “soft porn.”
The Republic district banned “Slaugterhouse-Five” and “Twenty Boy Summer,” but it retained “Speak.”
Two sentences in “Speak” that describe rape have prompted years of attacks, Esser said.
“Rape is a reality for kids today. No female is immune from that happening to her,” Esser said. “Instead of providing a platform to say ‘if something like this ever happened to you, don’t be afraid, call us, we will pick you up, don’t ever hide anything like this from us,’ it’s all about ‘Oh, there are two lines talking about rape, and we don’t talk about this.’ It makes no sense.”
Esser believes people bring different experiences and interpretations to books. Some who find a book that contradicts their belief systems try to prevent anyone from reading it.
“There is a very delicate balance between a parent’s right and actual responsibility to monitor what a child reads and then imposing that more broadly on an entire population of kids,” Esser said. “One individual has the right to say, ‘I don’t want my child to read this book.’ But that one individual does not have the right to say, ‘I don’t want anybody’s children to read this book.’”
Esser said the reading system in a school library is complicated.
“If you are talking about a book that is assigned to all the kids in the class, that comes under curriculum,” Esser said. “What a lot of schools do is, when a book is assigned, they also have an alternate book parents and kids can choose to read. It is proactive rather than reactive. The school is prepared for it.”
Esser said most schools have a selection policy that serves as a guideline for librarians. Such policies call for books to be positively reviewed by at least three standard journals such as the School Library Journal or Booklist.
In school libraries, books are shelved based on readers’ emotional and intellectual levels. But in some smaller districts, it can be easier for younger readers to gain access to books not intended for them.
“It is a very complex world,” Esser said.
“But I don’t want somebody else saying what I can or cannot read.”