By Andrew Lapin
Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” along with six books about the Holocaust geared toward young readers, are among the hundreds of books that a handful of school districts in Missouri have reportedly removed from their shelves since the start of this school year.
The list of books pulled from shelves was published Wednesday by the literary free-expression advocacy group PEN America, along with a letter of protest signed by Spiegelman and other authors.
“This is what happens when we are operating in a climate of fear,” Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education programs, told reporters in a virtual press conference Wednesday sharing the findings.
The books were pulled owing to an amendment to a new Missouri state law, largely dealing with child trafficking and sexual abuse, that also establishes a criminal penalty for providing “explicit sexual material” to students. The law orders possible jail time for any educators found to be in violation.
Politically motivated school book bans are on the rise nationally, often prompted by right-wing parent groups and school board members, with the majority of such bans targeting books with racial and LGBTQ themes. They have attracted increased attention from Jewish groups as books about Judaism and the Holocaust have been caught up in the purges. A Tennessee school district’s removal of “Maus” from its Holocaust curriculum and a Texas school district’s brief removal of a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary were both heavily opposed by Jewish groups earlier this year.
This time, Spiegelman’s “Maus” was banned from two different school districts: Wentzville School District and Ritenour School District, both in the St. Louis area. The Wentzville ban is categorized by PEN America as “banned pending investigation,” while Ritenour’s is categorized as “banned from libraries.”
The vast majority of the affected books originated from one school district: Wentzville, a St. Louis exurb that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported had ordered its librarians to pull more than 200 books off its shelves at the start of the semester and place them under review.
Included in the Wentzville purge was “Maus” and several Holocaust history books published for young readers by ReferencePoint Press: “Holocaust Camps and Killing Centers,” “Holocaust Rescue and Liberation” and “Holocaust Resistance” by Craig Blohm; “Hitler’s Final Solution” by John Allen; and “LIfe in a Nazi Concentration Camp” by Don Nardo. A Time-Life history book on the Holocaust, “Apparatus of Death — The Third Reich” by Thomas Flaherty, was also banned.
Further books banned by Wentzville included “Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations” by Mira Jacob, which relays discussions with the author’s Jewish husband and biracial son about Jews and politics, and several books about photographers and artists with Jewish heritage, including André Kertész, Alfred Stieglitz, Man Ray, Irving Penn, Marc Chagall and Amedeo Modigliani.
In addition, Lindbergh Schools in St. Louis banned “A Dangerous Woman,” a graphic biography of Jewish socialist radical Emma Goldman by Jewish writer and artist Sharon Rudahl. And Kirkwood School District in a St. Louis suburb banned “Women,” a photography book by Jewish photographer Annie Leibovitz with text by famed Jewish writer Susan Sontag, as well as another book by Leibovitz; and “Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation,” an essay collection edited by LGBTQ Jewish writers Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman.
The text of the noteworthy amendment to Missouri S.B. 775 reads: “A person commits the offense of providing explicit sexual material to a student if such person is affiliated with a public or private elementary or secondary school in an official capacity and, knowing of its content and character, such person provides, assigns, supplies, distributes, loans, or coerces acceptance of or the approval of the providing of explicit sexual material to a student or possesses with the purpose of providing, assigning, supplying, distributing, loaning, or coercing acceptance of or the approval of the providing of explicit sexual material to a student.”
Because of the law’s wording, Friedman said, Missouri school districts — particularly Wentzville — were on guard for graphic novels and illustrated books that might contain objectionable images. The Holocaust books were earmarked by either parents or educators as “sexually explicit” for containing disturbing historical images, according to PEN America’s analysis.
“It’s those pictures, essentially, that we’re being told here are the reasons for these books not being on the shelves,” Friedman said.
The Wentzville, Ritenour and Kirkwood school districts did not return requests for comment from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. A Kirkwood representative previously told the Post-Dispatch, “The unfortunate reality of Senate Bill 775 is that, now in effect, it includes criminal penalties for individual educators. We are not willing to risk those potential consequences and will err on the side of caution on behalf of the individuals who serve our students.”
A spokesperson for Lindbergh Schools told JTA in a statement, “Lindbergh has taken necessary steps to ensure compliance with state law by carefully reviewing library and classroom resources, and removing items from student access if they contain visual images that meet the requirements set forth in SB 775.”
A group of students and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Wentzville district this past spring over a different group of book bans, including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”; some of those books were restored to shelves after the lawsuit was filed.
If the books were indeed removed for pictures that were classified as sexually explicit, the Missouri bans would follow a similar pattern to that of the Tennessee and Texas school districts that removed “Maus” and the Anne Frank adaptation earlier this year. Parties in both districts had also objected to illustrated images in the books they said were sexually explicit.
The bans of the Jewish and Holocaust-themed books occurred alongside scores of other books that were not Jewish-themed, including a graphic novel adaptation of “1984”; Alan Moore’s “Watchmen”; the Children’s Bible; graphic novel adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Lois Lowry’s “The Giver”; and how-to books about oil painting and watercolors.
Missouri’s governor signed a statewide Holocaust education mandate into law earlier this year.
“We’re grateful that Missouri as a state has made clear that it prioritizes Holocaust education,” Rori Picker Neiss, executive director at the Jewish Community Relations Council of St. Louis, told JTA. But, she added, “it does feel like banning these books does go against, while not the letter of the law, the spirit of the law.”
“Such overzealous book banning is going to do more harm than good. Book bans limit opportunities for students to see themselves in literature and to build empathy for experiences different from their own,” reads an open letter opposing the bans signed by Spiegelman and other authors including Lowry and Laurie Halse Anderson.
“Students in Missouri are having these educational opportunities denied.”