Conservative parents are trying to ban books in Kansas City schools. Students won’t let them.
Many of the recent objections are to books that deal with race or LGBTQ issues — driven by parents who are appealing directly to school boards.
This fall, there have been a number of attempts to remove certain books from school libraries, in the Kansas City area and beyond.
In Shawnee Mission, Goddard, Liberty, and North Kansas City, parents have shown up at school board meetings to request the removal of books they deem inappropriate for children. Schools in Texas, Iowa, Virginia and across the U.S. have faced similar challenges.
And the same titles show up over and over: LGBTQ memoirs like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue.” Books about racial injustice like Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give.” Novels by people of color, like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
It’s not a coincidence. Activism against these these books has been spurred by conservative organizations, both national and local, that publish lists of books that they consider pornographic and unfit for inclusion in school curricula or libraries.
“That’s not their lane to teach my children about sexuality,” said Andy Wells, president of the Missouri chapter of conservative nonprofit No Left Turn in Education. “That’s my job. That is a parent’s job.”
But Kansas City students and national library experts say books on controversial topics can be educational — and even essential — for teens’ understanding of themselves, their bodies and their nation.
“We need to be making sure that we protect our education,”said 17-year-old North Kansas City High School student Holland Duggan. “Unfortunately, in the time we live in, part of truth is discrimination, part of truth is sexual assault, part of truth is the experiences that minorities have.”
Students fighting back
Duggan and 16-year-old classmate Aurora Nicol put together a petition against the banning of books in the North Kansas City district, after the district pulled “Fun Home” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” from high school libraries.
The district decided to reconsider the books following a request from Jay Richmond, president of conservative nonprofit the Northland Parent Association, at an Oct. 26 school board meeting. At the meeting, Richmond read out loud scenes from books found in school libraries depicting sex and sexual abuse of children. District parent Ryan Utterback stood behind him, holding enlarged comic panels from “Fun Home” showing two adult women having consensual sex.
“Why are you guys promoting this stuff? Why are you allowing it in our schools? These deal with LGBTQ, sexual, explict scenarios with minors,” Richmond said. “It deals with incest, pedophilia. That is called grooming. That is something that you guys are pushing in our schools.”
Nicol and Duggan organized the petition to defend the books, gathering hundreds of signatures.
Duggan said “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” in particular, helped him come to terms with his identity as a transgender boy. And that the book’s depiction of sexual assault helped him feel less alone as an assault survivor.
“These books that talk about sexual abuse or sexual assault, unfortunately, we can’t avoid that. Those are situations that teenagers may face,” Duggan said. “Giving us the education and the tools to deal with those situations properly is really important, and that’s what the books are doing.”
Depictions of sexual assault and abuse in literature are not endorsements, Nicol said.
“Why are you looking at that as a sexual thing? Because it’s a traumatic thing for the characters in the books,” Nicol said. “That’s what it’s telling you. It’s telling the story that it needs to be heard.”
Nicol and Duggan noted that many classic works of literature taught in high schools, including “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Great Gatsby,” “The Odyssey” and the works of Edgar Allan Poe include sexual and violent content.
“Within my English classes, we have recently read books that have assault in them… it’s always a very respectful conversation,” Nicol said. “It’s definitely a conversation that needs to be had.”
Parents push to ‘take back their kids’ education’
Andy Wells, of the Missouri chapter of No Left Turn in Education, said he doesn’t think anyone under the age of 18 should have access to such content in school, and that explicit scenes negate any artistic or educational value a book may have.
“I don’t care if it is an award-winning book,” he said about “The Bluest Eye,” a book by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison that contains depictions of child sexual abuse. “In a public school system, that book should not be available.”
Wells believes “The Bluest Eye,” “Fun Home” and other challenged titles fall under Missouri’s legal definition of pornography, and said he didn’t want minors to be sexually titillated by such content.
“Why else would you have those pictures in there? Why would you have those scenes in the books?” he said.
Wells said he works for No Left Turn in Education as a volunteer. The group was established in Pennsylvania and has ties to the Heritage Foundation and other conservative groups. It’s also been behind pushes against “critical race theory” in schools across the country.
Wells said he and concerned parents across Missouri put together a list of objectionable books. No Left Turn in Education’s national website features more lists of books about race and LGBTQ issues. The website also includes sample letters critiquing critical race theory for parents to send to officials, and information on school boards and filing public records requests.
His ultimate goal, Wells said, is for Missouri to pursue legal action to remove sexually explicit books from schools, and and to prosecute schools and teachers who do not do so.
The Northland Parent Association did not provide a statement or interview, despite multiple requests from KCUR. But in a segment on KCMO Talk Radio, Jay Richmond, the group’s president, said the group’s goal is to encourage more political involvement with school boards.
“Parents absolutely need to stand up and get involved and take back their kids’ education,” Richmond said. “That is the long-term play and that is what we will focus on for sure.”
The group was also behind a recent lawsuit against mask mandates in Kansas City public schools. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit, saying the Northland Parent Association didn’t demonstrate that masks actually harmed children.
Efforts to ban books come from across the political spectrum
Objections to books have come and gone throughout U.S. history. But challenges to school library books — defined as attempts to remove books from libraries — have risen recently, according to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which collects data on the issue. The office received 67% more reports of book challenges in September 2021 than they did in September 2020.
“Many of the books that are being challenged these days have been on library shelves for years without comment, and without causing any harm,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who leads the office.
She said recent challenges to books have been more organized and school boards have felt pressure to respond more quickly, with some schools reportedly ignoring their existing written policies and procedures. Schools typically have policies allowing parents to object to their children reading certain materials in class or in the library, and procedures around reassessing the content of books.
“Efforts to go to school board meetings and challenge school board members, to raise the moral panic that we're seeing, has created an extraordinary environment,” Caldwell-Stone said, “for responding very quickly to the controversy rather than taking a step back and evaluating whether there’s actually a controversy.”
Times of social turmoil tend to motivate people to get more involved with local institutions like school boards, said Emily Knox, a professor at the School of Information Science at the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign who studies book bans and challenges.
A nationwide movement for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd, the changing racial demographics of the U.S., increasing acceptance of drug use and the legalization of same-sex marriage have made people anxious, she said.
“What you see is people unsure if their values are being transmitted to the next generation,” she said. “And perhaps, ‘we can make sure that they are transmitted if we don't have students read these books.’”
Knox has interviewed people of varying political beliefs who want to ban books. People on the left side of the spectrum often want to ban books they think perpetuate offensive stereotypes or hateful language. People on the right often object to books about drugs, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity.
One thing they have in common: “They believe in the power of reading,” Knox said. “What they actually think is, ‘if you read this book, you will be a different person.’” And many, she said, believe that books can only be interpreted in one way.
Ultimately, books and libraries are not the arbiters of what is good or true, Knox said. Instead, they are places where people can find information, whether they agree with it or not.
A victory for students in North Kansas City
The North Kansas City School District eventually put “Fun Home” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” back on library shelves on Nov. 22. In a Nov. 19 email to families, the district said it returned the books to respect the First Amendment rights of both students and the books’ authors.
The district also said it would review its processes for selecting and reconsidering school library books, and encouraged parents who object to certain books to fill out a form requesting that their children not have access to them in the library.
“We recognize that what is objectionable to some may be considered appropriate to others,” the email said. “The following process was generated to both respect students’ rights and the rights of parents to help direct the education of their children.”
Despite this, at the following North Kansas City School Board meeting on Nov. 22, Duggan and Nicol were joined by eight other students, who took up the entire 30-minute public comment portion of the meeting to express their opposition against the books’ removal.
Students who identified as LGBTQ, straight, Asian, Native American, white and Latinx told school board members that the Northland Parent Association didn’t support their beliefs, and that they believed issues like racism, gender identity, sexual assault and abuse belong in school classrooms and libraries.
North Kansas City High School student Lily O’Brien told the school board that one controversial book, Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” reflected her experiences as a Native American teen.
“With these books, our youth can learn that it is okay to make mistakes,” O’Brien said. “And isn’t that what it’s all about, learning?”