Banners complement the Kansas City Public Library’s Community Bookshelf, noting that a third of its 42 titles have been banned or challenged. (Kansas City Public Library photo)
The Kansas City Public Library’s downtown parking garage — a parking garage! — has been a popular landmark for the better part of two decades, its nearly 26-foot-high rendition of a bookshelf captivating visitors and regularly drawing inquiries from internet wanderers around the world. Twenty-two mylar book spines feature 42 titles ranging from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Fahrenheit 451” to “The Lord of the Rings” and “Charlotte’s Web.”
Imagine removing those four classics. Then 10 more, stripping away a third of the bigger-than-life titles in all.
Imagine, more painfully, the banishment of the books themselves — by Mark Twain and Laura Ingalls Wilder, by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and Dr. Seuss — from real-life library shelves.
Each has been banned or challenged at some point, branded as unsuitable because of sexual explicitness, violence, offensive language, ideology or other objectionable content. It’s a practice that dates in America to colonial times and has become an increasingly modern concern amid our current cultural and political warring, the focus shifted to works on sexual and racial identity. Children’s literature is a principal target as parents and lawmakers seek more oversight of books and other materials in school libraries.
“I’ve been a children’s librarian since 1987, and I would say this is one of the most overwhelming times for true book banning — not just challenges but banning,” says Crystal Faris, the Kansas City Public Library’s deputy director for youth and family engagement.
PEN America, the New York-based nonprofit devoted to promoting and defending free expression, took a nine-month snapshot. It counted 1,586 instances of book banning by school districts across the U.S. from July 2021 through March 2022. Thirty of them were in Kansas, all but one in the Wichita suburb of Goddard. Fifteen came in Missouri, including two in North Kansas City targeting George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and the graphic memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.”
Missouri legislators stepped in this past June, approving SB 775. Originally drawn up to expand protections for survivors of sexual assault and abuse, the bill took on an amendment that subjects educators to jail time and fines for providing books deemed to include sexually explicit images to students. It went into effect in August.
One of the amendment’s authors, state Sen. Rick Brattin of Harrisonville, said he and others will next target written descriptions of sexual acts.
The Kansas City Public Library raised its voice soon afterward, saying it “objects when well-intentioned protections become censorship.”
Its statement continued, “The subjective restriction of reading material is counter to the diversity needed to serve the needs of all readers. Equitable access is a hallmark of intellectual freedom and should be valued, not compromised.”
Faris, who joined KCPL as a branch manager in 2005, lauds the original intent of SB 775. “The updates they were trying to make were necessary for the protection of sexual assault victims,” she says. “But nowhere is there a connection between a picture book that teaches a child about their body and sex trafficking.
“I’ve always found it fascinating,” she says, “that people are so much more afraid of a book in a child’s hands than they are of a computer or being in front of a television screen.”
PEN America, the American Library Association-affiliated Freedom to Read Foundation and other organizations have long worked against literary censorship. Faris says school librarians are now especially engaged, supported by their colleagues in public community libraries.
Awareness is key, she says.
In September, in conjunction with the national observance of Banned Books Week, one of KCPL’s signature programming events featured a panel of veteran librarians from Kansas City-area library systems who examined the issue and walked through a range of targeted books. The Missouri Association of School Librarians was booked for a session, Navigating Book Challenges, at the Missouri School Board Association’s annual conference in Kansas City in November.
Concerns extend to librarians’ safety amid a rise in violence, threats and other acts of intimidation around the country. The library director in Boundary County, Idaho, resigned in August after receiving threats over LGBTQ books that her libraries actually didn’t carry. Leaked audio from a meeting in central Arkansas in June caught a member of Moms for Liberty, an organization advocating for parental rights in schools, saying in reference to librarians, “I’m telling you, if I had any mental issues, they would all be plowed down by a freaking gun right now.”
The president of Louisiana Association of School Librarians, a middle school librarian in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, near Baton Rouge, pushed back. She sued, claiming verbal and online abuse, when activists labeled her a pedophile after she’d spoken out against censorship in July.
At the Kansas City Public Library, Faris says complaints about books and other materials such as DVDs have been rare — only a couple in her memory. No items have been removed.
Like other libraries, KCPL spells out a procedure for challenges. A committee evaluates the material, weighing context and other considerations.
On top of that, “every library has a collection development policy . . . and that is how you determine what kinds of materials you’re going to accept,” Faris says. “The goal is that they meet community needs and community standards.
“I hope that communities would believe wholeheartedly in their public libraries following their own policies, voicing opinions but also holding that the whole community has a right to information and access.”