© 2021 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Education

Schools across St. Louis face more attempts to remove books from library shelves

Books which have been challenged by parents at several regional schools are pictured in this photo illustration on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Some of the books that have been challenged by parents at several regional schools are shown in this photo illustration at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood.

A handful of school districts across the St. Louis region are facing formal attempts to remove more than 20 books from public school libraries. It’s part of a growing national effort to try to ban books in schools.

This school year in Texas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia and Kansas, there have been calls for books to be removed from shelves. In most cases, the books being targeted in the St. Louis region have also been the subject of other challenges across the country.

At least four school districts are facing formal book challenges this school year: Wentzville, Rockwood, Lindbergh and Francis Howell. It’s part of a national trend that has resulted in a 60% increase in attempts to remove books compared to this time last year, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. In the St. Louis region, the challenges are being organized by parents in private Facebook groups and encouraged by the Missouri chapter of a national organization called No Left Turn in Education.

At the Rockwood School District’s October School Board meeting, multiple parents used the time for public comment to read passages of books that they said were examples of pornography in school libraries.

“These books are loaded with graphic descriptions of sex acts,” said Janet Diedrick, parent of a student in the district. “Why are these books here?”

In the Rockwood district, like many across St. Louis, a committee is formed to read the books facing formal challenges and to decide whether they should stay on shelves.

The school district is facing formal challenges to remove both “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “Where I End And You Begin” by Preston Norton.

“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas was challenged in Rockwood earlier this year, but the committee voted to keep the book in the library. In its report, the committee wrote: “Yes, there is inappropriate language, however, it is an exceptional book. It should be available for those that want it in the library.” The district’s board of education voted to accept the committee’s recommendation.

“There is good in getting together and having these conversations,” said Dr. Shelley Willott, Rockwood's assistant superintendent of learning and support services. “Sometimes it's really tough, and sometimes they're very emotional because people do have very personal perspectives that they share. But that is the power of the committee is that all those things come out.”

Parents have also spoken out against books at school board meetings in Kirkwood, Lindbergh and Francis Howell.

Missouri parents are identifying passages and books they would like to challenge in private Facebook groups, said Andy Wells, president of the Missouri chapter of No Left Turn in Education.

“There's parents organizations in a lot of these school districts across the state, and they were individually trying to challenge these books themselves, seeing it as a local problem,” Wells said. “Why are we fighting this locally when it's a state law? This should be a state fight. This should be a state standing together.”

The books

The books being challenged include “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “Crank” by Ellen Hopkins and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson.

A St. Louis Public Radio analysis of the books being challenged in the St. Louis area found two-thirds of them were written by authors of color or authors who identify as LGBTQ.

No Left Turn in Education is a 501(c)(3) that was formed to oppose the teaching of the 1619 Project, critical race theory and comprehensive sexuality education in schools, according to its website. The organization maintains its own lists of books it wants out of schools.

Several books which have been challenged by parents based on their content are pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
Several books that have been challenged by parents based on their content are shown in a photo illustration at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood.

As head of the Missouri chapter, Wells said he is focused on pornography, not identity.

“It is being so misunderstood or misconstrued by a lot of people that this is about LGBTQ or this is about race or color or anything like that,” Wells said. “I don't care about any of that. My sole focus is are these, do these meet the legal definition of pornography or not? And if they do, then they should not be available to a minor.”

St. Louis Public Radio obtained a Google spreadsheet that Wells is maintaining with 25 titles he says should not be in schools. He and other parents then search for those books and others in school library catalogues to try to remove them. Among his list of 25 books are 11 that were written by authors of color or authors who identify as LGBTQ.

The increase in attempts to remove books compared to this time last year seems to represent an organized campaign targeting books that address both racism and LGBTQ themes, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“We're just really stunned by the fact that there seems to be this campaign to erase certain books, certain topics from school libraries and public libraries across the country,” said Caldwell-Stone.

These types of challenges could violate the First Amendment, she said.

“The Supreme Court has held in the past that efforts to restrict books in school libraries can rise to a First Amendment violation when the decision is made to remove books simply because the school board or members of the community don't like the ideas in the book, the topics addressed by the books or the viewpoint expressed by the books,” Caldwell-Stone said.

Who decides?

Districts say that they prefer to address parents’ issues with books on an individual level and that they can do things like put a hold on a child’s account to make sure they are not reading books their parents do not approve of.

If parents or other stakeholders are not satisfied with that approach, they can file a formal request to remove a book. Then, a committee is formed that includes parents, teachers, students and administrators. The committee reads the book, discusses it and makes a recommendation on whether or not it should stay on library shelves. In most districts, the final decision comes down to the board of education.

In most of the districts where books are being challenged, the books remain on the shelves while they are being reviewed. That’s not the case in the Wentzville School District. Wentzville has temporarily removed “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison.

Books written by authors who identify as people of color are pictured in this photo illustration on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood. The books have been been challenged by parents at several regional schools based around their content.
Brian Munoz
Books written by authors who identify as people of color are shown in this photo illustration at Left Bank Books in St. Louis. The books have been been challenged by parents at several regional schools.

The Lindbergh School District has 16 books being challenged — more than three times the number of titles being challenged in the other districts.

After seeing that list in Lindbergh, Felia Davenport set out to read each title. Davenport is a multiracial Black woman whose daughter is a second grader in the district. She said she has now read or listened to all but two of the books and thought they were “beautiful.”

“They're all about identity, about how you identify, how you identify as Black and queer, how you identify as a biracial girl,” Davenport said. “You know, these are stories that our children need to know. … How to know that they're not alone in their identity.”

A committee in the Francis Howell School District voted 11-1 to keep the book “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, a memoir about Johnson’s experience growing up Black and queer.

“The committee really thought that in a high school library, that title really needs to be available because it could meet the needs of a marginalized, underrepresented part of our student body,” said David Brothers, director of curriculum and assessment and chairman of the committees that review books. “Some of the committee members could think in the past and know of, ‘Here is a student that this book, had they had it, it could have really helped the student.’”

Now, Brothers is working to get copies of the next four books that are being challenged so committees can read them and go through the process again.

Books facing challenges in the St. Louis region

  • All Boys Aren't Blue, George M. Johnson
  • Anger Is a Gift, Mark Oshiro
  • Black Girl Unlimited, Echo Brown
  • Crank, Ellen Hopkins
  • Fences, August Wilson
  • Flamer, Mike Curato
  • Gender Queer, Maia Kobabe
  • Melissa (formerly entitled “George”), Alex Gino
  • Heavy, Kiese Laymon
  • Lawn Boy, Jonathan Evison
  • Living Dead Girl, Elizabeth Scott
  • Monday's Not Coming, Tiffany D. Jackson
  • Out of Darkness, Ashley Hope Pérez
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi W. Durrow
  • The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • The Handmaid's Tale (graphic novel), Renee Nault
  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
  • The Testaments, Margaret Atwood
  • This Book is Gay, Juno Dawson
  • Where I End and You Begin, Preston Norton

Follow Kate on Twitter: @Kate Grumke

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.