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After 'The Bluest Eye' banned by Wentzville schools, nonprofit accepting donations to give copies away

The Wentzville School Board made the decision to ban "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison in January.

ST. LOUIS — A school district in our area is getting national attention after its school board voted to remove a book from its libraries.

The Wentzville School Board made the decision to ban "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison in January. 

Left Bank Books in the Central West End doesn't have it either, not because it's banned, but because they've sold out. 

"The best way to get people to read a book is to ban it," Owner Kris Kleindienst said, "We see an uptick in sales. It’s not the way we want to have our sales, but it definitely spurs sales."

St. Louis County Library also said all of the copies of the book are checked out, which includes print and electronic.

There are a total of 130 holds on its print copies of "The Bluest Eye", which means there are nearly six people waiting per copy. The library also has 25 copies of the eBook, and there are 154 people with holds on the eBooks

This comes after the Wentzville School District voted 4-3 to remove "The Bluest Eye".

Concerned parents say the 1970 novel is not suitable for kids and contains "graphic sexual violence."

In the board meeting, board member Sandy Garber said the book "had no academic value." 

She suggested it shouldn't be in schools because minors could have access to it, but if parents want to go buy it for them, they should. 

"Any tax dollars shouldn’t be supporting these types of books. It could be harmful. I won’t vote for this ever," Garber said to the rest of the board.

Superintendent Curtis Cain didn't dive deep about his thoughts on the ban Tuesday morning, but he said he understands the importance of what's going on.

"The district's definitely receiving some feedback in terms of that particular decision," he said. "I do believe that it is important that if we have families that have questions about any title on any of our shelves, there are processes that can be utilized. We will continue to piece together and put together plans as we're moving forward. I can't say that there's a change of policy on the horizon, but it's definitely been a source of conversation I can promise you, the district's very much aware of that fact."

As far as what comes next, the ACLU of Missouri has delivered a Preservation Demand Letter to "put the Wentzville School District on notice that they must protect and preserve all electronic and other discoverable items concerning the review and removal of any book or other written material from any school library," and that the district should anticipate legal action.

Kleindienst is also taking action.

Starting Tuesday, the Left Bank Books Foundation is accepting donations in order to give away "The Bluest Eye" for free. They are doing the same thing for the Pulitzer prize-winning "Maus: A Survivor's Tale", which was recently banned in Tennessee.

"If you can’t buy them, we want to make them available. It’s that important. We will make those available on our website as long as we can continue to raise money," she said. "We’re joining in a large response from a lot of booksellers over the country and enough is enough."

Kleindienst said this particular book is an important work by a Nobel Prize winner in Literature and thoughtfully addresses racism and sexual abuse.

"You don’t help anyone come to terms with those issues if you sweep them under the rug and don’t talk about them. To think that kids aren’t exposed to or haven’t experienced these things themselves and protecting them by denying their access is just foolish," she said.

Beyond that, Kleindienst said that no one has become a better person by reading less. 

"Making books available is what we do," she said. "It’s important to have access to all the ideas, what’s happening right now is not healthy. I am sure they have their children’s best interest at heart. But the effect of what they are doing is chiseling away democracy, chiseling away the diverse voices of our country."

The Missouri Library Association also sent a letter to the Wentzville School District. It was written by Joe Kohlburn, the Chair of the Missouri Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee:

We, the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Missouri Library Association (MLA-IFC), would like to formally express our concern as Missouri librarians and intellectual freedom advocates regarding your recent decision to remove Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye in spite of the recommendations of your review committee. Linked below you will find the MLA’s recent statement in support of intellectual freedom that generally outlines our stance on banning, labeling, and otherwise censoring books in libraries and schools. To be clear: We are against all practices that infringe on the student’s right to read.

Tony Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is over fifty years old. It is critically acclaimed, and is the thirty-fourth most challenged book of the twentieth century. In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, it has climbed to be the 10th most challenged book. Challenges such as those to Toni Morrison’s work are on the rise nationally, and part of an organized effort to undermine the civil and intellectual rights of students, particularly those from historically marginalized groups (e.g., BIPOC and LGBTQ+ students).  Whereas we recognize the right of parents to choose what their own children read, we reject the notion that one parent or group of parents should be able to choose what all students in a district read by having items removed or censored. Libraries and schools are contexts in which students should be able to see works of literature and art that reflect their identities and perspectives represented in collections. Toni Morrison is among the most decorated and important of contemporary American authors. She was a woman of color who wrote from a perspective that speaks to many audiences, but importantly centers the perspectives of Black characters and readers. Removing the book robs readers of the opportunity to engage in this appreciation and to develop empathy for the perspectives of others. We believe that the goal of the proposed removal is to do just that: undermine the intellectual and emotional well-being of students by alienating them from the perspectives of Black authors.  As you probably already know, Francis Howell School District has recently dealt with a similar challenge to Morrison’s work, and has chosen to reject the attempt to ban the book. We support their decision. Additionally, removing books as your district has done exposes you to lawsuits on behalf of those very same students who are being denied the opportunity to see their experiences reflected in curricula and library collections.

We encourage you to reexamine the depth of your commitment to education in the truest sense, and to find your courage in the face of baseless political grandstanding at the expense of educators and students in your district. As always, we support those working toward maintaining and promoting inclusive library collections, and the educators, librarians, library workers, and staff who strive to create spaces for free inquiry and curiosity to flourish. Please support your students by reconsidering your recent decision, and putting The Bluest Eye back on the shelf.

Sincerely,

Joe Kohlburn, Intellectual Freedom Committee 2022 Chair Missouri Library Association on Behalf of the Missouri Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee

A full statement from the ACLU is as follows:

Thank you for your inquiry. Action today is detailed on the ACLU of Missouri website. 

https://www.aclu-mo.org/en/news/wentzville-school-district-book-ban-aclu-missouri-issues-formal-demand-preservation-tangible  

  • Public school boards cannot remove books from a library simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.
  • We’re gathering the information that we need to successfully intervene in what appears to be a serious First Amendment violation by the Wentzville school board.
  • Today (February 2, 2022) we delivered a Preservation Demand Letter to put the Wentzville School District on notice that they must protect and preserve all electronic and other discoverable items concerning the review and removal of any book or other written material from any school library.
  • The letter is intended to formally make clear that the District should anticipate legal action.

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