Banned Books Week: The Most Controversial Books in Kansas and Missouri

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Despite the debate over the future of the printed book, the written word will never lose its power to enflame – a term that takes on new meaning when you consider cases like that of Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who made headlines when he called upon Americans to burn copies of the Quran on September 11 (and then subsequently backed down).

Whether it’s a religious text, a political treatise or a provocative novel, books are often in the crosshairs of people seeking to protect the interests of the groups they represent. According to the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom, around 500 books are challenged each year for having content that is deemed sexually explicit, not appropriate for children, graphically violent, or for a multitude of other reasons.

Books Challenged by Reason, All-Time (ALA)

ALA

First Amendment advocates by trade, our librarians at the Kansas City Public Library are dedicated to providing patrons with access to all forms of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Right now, this cause is at the front of our minds. The last week of September is ALA’s annual Banned Books Week, when libraries everywhere celebrate the freedom to read by drawing attention to attempted and actual bannings of books around the country.

As the list of Books Challenged or Banned 2009-10 shows, some titles are always under attack. (By the way, “challenged” refers to the act of attempting to ban a book – most books that are challenged at a library or school don’t actually get banned.) Even well-known classics such as The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird aren't safe from would-be censors.

But we wondered: What books have our fellow Kansans and Missourians objected to the most over the years?

To answer this question, we began by searching our own catalog via the web portal at www.kclibrary.org. Not surprisingly, quite a few books on banned books showed up (147, to be exact).

We also took advantage of that great source of local news of the past 20 years, The Kansas City Star’s Newsbank archive, which is completely free to access from home with a Library card. (For Star articles prior to 1991, you must come to the Central Library and search on microfilm.)

We found dozens of cases of books getting challenged and occasionally banned in schools from western Kansas all the way St. Louis. In narrowing down the list to our 10 favorites, we focused on a combination of the uniqueness of the relationship between the content of the book and the complaints about it. Sure, parents are going to get upset if a book like The Joy of Sex is within their kids’ reach (as it was in a recent case involving the Topeka-Shawnee County Library) -- that’s not surprising. But the American Heritage Dictionary? Who would have a problem with that book, right?

Read on to find out – you’ll be surprised. And let us know in the comments if you’ve ever witnessed, protested, or even participated in a book banning.

The 10 Most Controversial Books in Missouri and Kansas – A Sampling of Our Favorites

10. Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)

Banned in: Gardner, Kansas, 1978

Parents in the Gardner-Edgerton-Antioch School District complained that this shark tale contained an “explicit sex act.” The school board voted unanimously to take the book out of circulation.

Source: Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds by Dawn B. Sova (Rev. ed., 2006)

Alexie

9. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007)

Banned in: Stockton, Missouri, 2010

Sexual language, dirty jokes and themes of alcoholism, violence, and racism crop up in this story of a student from an Indian reservation who decides to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the mascot. But was it objectionable enough to ban? The Stockton School Board thought so, voting 7-0 to remove all copies of Sherman Alexie’s book from the school library and classrooms. This followed an intense public debate with many speaking out in favor of this National Book Award winner.

Source: “Stockton book ban upheld 7-0 in packed public forum,” The Springfield News-Leader, September 9, 2010

8. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (1970)

Censored in: Springfield, Mo., 1977

In this Caledecott Medal-winning dream fantasy, legendary author and illustrator Maurice Sendak paints the tale of Mickey, who fashions an airplane out of cake batter and flies it to the Milky Way. One catch: Mickey’s naked. Elementary education director Wanda Gray brandished her black pen and drew shorts on the fictional boy in copies of the book that were sent to 40 kindergarten classes.

Source: Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds by Dawn B. Sova (Rev. ed., 2006)

7. The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)

Challenged in: Blue Springs, Mo., 2005

In this well-publicized case from five years ago, a 20-member parent group took on Lois Lowry’s Newbery-winning book about a 12-year-old boy’s adventures in a future dystopia where society has eradicated emotional depth in people. Arguing that the book was “lewd,” “twisted,” and “extremely violent,” the parents pressured the Blue Springs School District to remove it from the eighth-grade curriculum, where it had been required reading for eight years. In a victory for free speech, the board voted 6-0 to retain the book.

Source: “Effort to ban book rejected,” The Kansas City Star, March 15, 2005. (Link goes to database; Library card required to view.)

6. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (2005)

Challenged in: North Kansas City, Mo., 2009

Based on a true story, Richardson and Parnell’s story tells of two male penguins raising an orphaned chick in Central Park Zoo. A North Kansas City parent objected to the book on grounds that it was not age appropriate and that it attempted to indoctrinate children about homosexuality. The school board voted 3-2 to keep the book on shelves but announced plans to allow parents to place individual restrictions on books in the online library catalog.

Source: “NKC board votes to keep book in school libraries,” The Kansas City Star, December 23, 2009.

Paterson

5. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (1977)

Challenged in: Oskaloosa, Kan., 1993

Alleged obscenities in this Newbery Medal-winning story of a 10-year-old boy in rural Virgina led to a school board ruling that required teachers in the Oskaloosa School District to review all required texts, list all instances of profanity, and then send the list home to parents, who may then approve or disapprove of the books. (A spokesperson for the Oskaloosa School District tells us that no such policy is currently in place.)

Source: Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds by Dawn B. Sova (Rev. ed., 2006)

4. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

Banned in: Kansas City, Kan., 1939

In the first year of its publication, Steinbeck’s classic so offended the sensibilities of the Kansas City, Kansas, school board that its members voted 4-2 to pull the book from libraries. Their charges: “indecency, obscenity, abhorrence of the portrayal of women, and for ‘portray[ing] life in such a bestial way.’”

Source: Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds by Nicholas J. Karolides (Rev. ed., 2006)

3. American Heritage Dictionary (1969)

Banned in: Eldon, Mo., 1977

Look up the word “banned” in the dictionary, and you’ll find … the definition of the word “banned,” which is what happened to the American Heritage Dictionary after 24 parents in Eldon, Missouri, listed 39 objectionable words found in the reference book. The school board removed it from the junior high school, and a parent was quoted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as saying, “If people learn words like that it ought to be where you and I learned it – in the street and in the gutter.”

Source: Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds by Dawn B. Sova (Rev. ed., 2006)

2. We All Fall Down by Robert Cormier (1991)

Challenged in: Baldwin City, Kan., 2003

A battle ensued over this young-adult tale of suburban unrest when the parent of a student at Baldwin High School sent a list of 50 objectionable paragraphs showing the book was not appropriate for a freshman orientation class. Superintendent James White pulled the book from shelves, launching a controversy that saw the school board creating, then dissolving, then reinstating a review committee. On October 30, 2003, four Baldwin High School students protested by passing out a large number of copies of the book to spectators at a football game. The next month, the school board voted 5-2 to return We All Fall Down to shelves, not as a required book but as “supplemental curricular material.”

Source: Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds by Dawn B. Sova (Rev. ed., 2006)

Garden

1. Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden (1982)

Banned in: Olathe, Kan., 1993-95

Our hottest conflict revolves around a young adult novel of lesbian love that was donated to several Olathe junior high and high schools in late 1993 by the gay activist group Project 21. It’s also the only book on this list that, to our knowledge, was burned. Backed by the school board, Superintendent Ron Wimmer pulled the book due to its homosexual content, while schools in Shawnee Mission and Lee’s Summit either removed the book or placed it under restricted access. Demonstrators in Kansas City, Missouri, burned a copy (or multiple copies, depending on which account you read) outside of a school district office. Several Olathe students and their parents filed a lawsuit, and in November of 1995, U.S. District Judge Thomas Van Bebber ruled that the Olathe School District had violated the First Amendment, and Annie was restored.

Sources: “Beware society’s moralists,” The Kansas City Star, December 17, 1993; “Board loses fight over book pulled at Olathe school,” The Kansas City Star, November 30, 1995; “Censorship on Their Minds,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 13, 1995;

Addendum:

In a recent turn of events, young adult author Laurie Halse Anderson has found herself in a battle with the Republic (Mo.) School District over her book Speak. In a column for the Springfield News-Leader, Missouri State University professor Wesley Scroggins called Anderson's book -- along with Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five and Sarah Ockler's Twenty Boy Summer -- "filthy" and "soft pornography." Anderson retaliated by defending her book on Twitter and with an ad in the New York Times.

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