As Wentzville students sue district over banned books, local bookstores help highlight diverse literature

Published: Mar. 1, 2022 at 1:48 PM CST
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - Wentzville students are now taking legal action against their school district, for banning certain works of literature from school libraries.

“Books that are about queer kids, you’re looking at books that are about mental health, sizeism and strong female characters,” said Grace Hagen, Director of Operations and Inclusion at The Novel Neighbor, a bookstore near Webster Groves.

In the wake of controversy surrounding the Wentzville School District’s decision to ban access to “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison back in January, bookstores across the St. Louis region have working harder than ever before to promote the book.

“The book banning, the anti-critical race theory movement,” said Hagen, “these are all really well-organized national movements that are used for political gain.”

A display of discounted books that have been previously banned by school districts across the country is located on a corner of library at the Novel Neighbor, which Hagen says has received a lot of attention.

“We’ve sold 120 of the banned books in the last couple of weeks and have orders on hold for more as they come in because we keep running out of them,” said Hagen. “It is getting a lot louder right now.”

At The Book House in Maplewood, Owner Michelle Barron says demand for these books has also gone up in response to the controversy over “The Bluest Eye” in the Wentzville School District.

“Really the best literature…strikes controversy...helps you work through different issues. that’s what literature is for,” said Barron.

This week, two students represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, filed a lawsuit against the district for banning access to the “The Bluest Eye” and other books within their schools. The names of the students were not listed in the suit because they are minors.

This is a list of banned books mentioned in the lawsuit:
  • “The Bluest Eye” - by Toni Morrison
  • “All Boys Aren’t Blue” - by George Matthew Johnson
  • “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” - by Alison Bechdel
  • “Invisible Girl: A Novel” - by Lisa Jewell
  • “Gabi, a Girl in Pieces” - by Isabel Quintero
  • “Heavy: An American Memoir” - by Kiese Laymon
  • “Lawn Boy” - by Jonathan Evison
  • “Modern Romance: An Investigation” - by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg

The lawsuit claims that banning these works of literature violate students’ First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and threatens their ability to “learn and engage with a diversity of ideas and information, including seeing their own experiences reflected in the books and developing greater understanding of the experiences of others.”

Hagen says to have students taking on the fight against districts banning books is critical.

“I think that this activism that the students are participating in is what will make it change,” said Hagen, “along with other school districts seeing the response that this has gotten and hopefully that’s a positive peer pressure to not follow in that path.”

On Tuesday, the district did vote unanimously to keep one of the books listed in the lawsuit, “Gabi, a Girl in Pieces.” The vote came in the evening after the lawsuit was filed.

The district tells News 4 they are aware of the lawsuit, but they will not comment.

News 4 also reached out to the ACLU to discuss the lawsuit but are still waiting to hear back.

“I taught these books, I used to be an English language arts teacher,” said Heather Fleming. “One of the things that we know is students really connect with the stories that show them both a mirror and a window.”

Fleming is the Founder and Director of In Purpose Educational Services (IPES), a nonprofit that does equity work in the St. Louis area. As students fight to keep banned books on school shelves, Fleming has been working on an initiative to raise money to distribute these books to communities for free.

“When the book bans came around, we realized that many of the books that were being banned were by black and brown people, or people from historically excluded groups, and so we wanted to make sure we made those books available to people who wanted to hear the stories of people from historically excluded groups,” said Fleming.

The IPES/EyeSeeMe Banned Book Program started at the beginning of February and has since raised around $20,000 dollars.

“That allows us the ability to provide about 1,000 books,” said Fleming. “We did not anticipate, honestly, that it would be this hugely popular, but we are very happy that it is.”

Fleming says they have already received over 2,000 requests for “The Bluest Eye” and she hope to make other banned books available each month for every grade level.

“We’ve had requests from people who have free little libraries in their yards and in their communities,” she said. “We’ve received requests from people who are in rural areas and maybe don’t have as much access to libraries and to bookstores.”