Columbia Missourian Project Reveals the Breadth of Book Challenges in Public Schools

Why are books challenged in public schools and, even more importantly, why are some challenges successful in getting books banned while others fail? A new comprehensive study by the Columbia Missourian is attempting to find out. The periodical is currently in the midst of a “public records project that looks at book challenges in schools in Missouri and across the country.” The newspaper’s findings (which are primarily about Missouri) demonstrate a breadth of reasons why books are challenged, as well as a breadth of books themselves.

The Missourian‘s project relied on college students at the Missouri School of Journalism. The students sent public record requests to all of the state’s 556 school districts, seeking all book challenge correspondence going back to January 1, 2008. A total of 495 (87.5%) districts provided information. The study found that “since 2008, 53 challenges were discovered at 32 districts across the state. In just over four years, 12 books were removed from circulation.”

In terms of the specific nature of the challenges, the Missourian describes:

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.

Yet, while there was a large breadth of books and types of challenges, the Missourian notes that several themes did emerge:

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.

Each individual school is in charge of responding to the challenges and determining if the books will continue to be shelved, meaning that what one school decides has no bearing on any other school. In responding to challenges, schools look at an entire book and not just a particular passage, attempting to balance the challenged material in the context of the entire book. The Missourian notes that when a school decides to retain a book, they often “cite important themes that spawn constructive classroom discussions or intellectual exploration on the part of the reader.”

Such was the case in the Camdenton district in 2008, when they chose to deny a challenge to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and not place any restrictions on the book. (Schools will sometimes deny books for certain age levels.) In denying the challenge, Camdenton High School principal Brian Henry wrote that the review committee had decided that “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.”

Promisingly, the Missourian argues that schools generally set a high standard for banning or restricting books, but some challenges are still successful. The Mehlville school district banned Sara Shephard’s Pretty Little Liars series after a parent complained about a sexual encounter between a teacher and an underage student that took place in one of the books. The parent argued the book was unsuitable for a middle school library and the school agreed.

Sometimes, when a challenge results in a book being banned or restricted, a second round of challenges is forthcoming, such as when Sherman Alexies’s The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was banned by the Stockton school board from its middle school in April 2010. Challenges to the ban came not only from inside the district, but from state and national organizations:

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 school board reconsidered their ban of the National Book Award-winning novel, but they ultimately upheld their previous decision. Yet this case demonstrates the fluidity of book challenges: Just because a book passes one challenge, that does not mean it can’t later be banned or restricted, and just because access has been limited after a challenge, that does not mean the book can’t be reinstated.

The home for the Missorian‘s project can be found here. A complete case-by-case report of Missouri challenges can be found here. A report on the tracking of national book challenges by the American Library Association can be found here.

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Mark Bousquet is the Assistant Director of Core Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and reviews movies and television programs at Atomic Anxiety.