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Missouri schools are taking books off shelves due to 'sexually explicit' content ban


National battle over what types of books should be allowed in schools has intensified in Missouri. A new state law, which applies to both public and private schools, makes it a crime to give students books that contain sexually explicit material. School librarians in Missouri are pulling books off shelves before the law takes effect Sunday. St. Louis Public Radio's Kate Grumke reports.

KATE GRUMKE, BYLINE: Missouri's new book law has a list of things that are considered sexually explicit - pictures of sex acts or genitals, for example. And it's narrowly focused on visual media, like illustrated or graphic novels. Teachers, librarians or other school officials could face up to a year in jail or a fine if they give a student the book or other material. Republican State Senator Rick Brattin, who represents a district on the western border of Missouri south of Kansas City, proposed the legislation. He says he's trying to combat widespread, inappropriate content in public schools.

RICK BRATTIN: To stop sexualizing little kids and putting forth before them, you know, materials that are extremely graphic.

GRUMKE: In response to the new law, some librarians across Missouri are going page by page through books, looking for anything that could get them in legal trouble. They worry this is a slippery slope. Librarian Melissa Corey is president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and says she and her colleagues go through a careful review process to make sure their books are age-appropriate, relevant and represent diverse viewpoints.

MELISSA COREY: Reading is the most important way to develop empathy for others. We have books being published by individuals that even 20 to 30 years ago would not have been published. And so looking at those diverse voices, they really have an important place in our school library collections.

GRUMKE: Still, there's some confusion over how exactly the law will be applied. Emily Omohundro is an education lawyer for EdCounsel, which works with school districts in Missouri. She spent the last couple weeks holding back-to-school talks to answer educators' legal questions.

EMILY OMOHUNDRO: Inevitably, when I get to this particular topic, I see a little bit of panic arise in our librarians and our media specialists.

GRUMKE: Omohundro points out the law has exceptions for art, science and anthropology. But there's still the question of how that will be defined. And she's worried that while the statute narrowly defines the crime...

OMOHUNDRO: That the outcome of parental complaints is going to be focused more on material that does have an LGBTQIA author maybe or themes.

GRUMKE: That's been the case with this trend so far. Last year, the American Library Association says across the country there was an increase in efforts to remove books from schools, especially books about LGBTQ people or people of color.

ANDY WELLS: I don't care about sexual identity or sexual orientation. For me, that is not a factor.

GRUMKE: That's Andy Wells, president of the Missouri chapter of No Left Turn in Education. The national group has a rating system for books it considers inappropriate.

WELLS: This is the first, I hope, of more legislations that will get graphic information out of children's hands.

GRUMKE: Librarian Corey says the Missouri Association of School Librarians is trying to support its members in this difficult time.

COREY: So this is a calling. It is a passion for us. We really do believe in our mission of growing lifelong readers.

GRUMKE: She's encouraging librarians to talk to their school boards and administrators about their response to Missouri's new law. For NPR News, I'm Kate Grumke in St. Louis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Grumke