Missouri teenagers are on the front lines of the war on books
On June 20, school officials in Nixa, Missouri gathered to discuss the fate of seven books taking on a range of contemporary and historical issues, from police violence to abortion to generational trauma.
Three of the books, including the critically acclaimed graphic novel “Maus,” were flagged for review by the Nixa school board for potentially violating a new Missouri law that makes it illegal for school officials to provide minors with sexually explicit material. Librarians and educators who run afoul of the rule, which applies primarily to materials with strong visual components, like graphic novels and illustrated books, can face up to a year in prison and up to $2,000 in fines. The law did not apply to the other four books under consideration, which were flagged by community members for review by the board.
As I reported in April, Missouri’s law is part of a growing national movement, led by conservative parents’ rights groups, aimed at restricting access to books about gender, sexuality and race in public schools. In the first six months of the 2022-23 school year, state and local policymakers banned 874 books from classrooms and school libraries across the U.S., according to the nonprofit PEN America, which ranks Missouri as one of the nation’s top book-banning states. Since Missouri’s sexually explicit material law was enacted in August 2022, librarians fearful of criminal prosecution have removed nearly 300 titles from school library shelves.
In Nixa, a conservative town in southwest Missouri, a group of high schoolers decided to fight back against local efforts to ban books. Over the last 18 months, this student movement has led a campaign to defend books under siege by reading challenged titles, surveying students about their support for book bans and speaking up in support of contested books at school board meetings. Two of these students — Meghana Nakkanti and Glennis Woosley — attended the Nixa board’s June 20 meeting, where school officials voted on whether the Missouri law applied to three graphic novels: Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust memoir “Maus,” an illustrated adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Blankets,” a coming-of-age autobiography by Craig Thompson. The board ultimately voted to retain “Maus” but decided to ban the other two books as well as four text-only novels that parents and community members challenged.
What is it like to be at the frontlines of one of the nation’s most divisive culture war battles? I spoke to Nakkanti and Woosley to find out and to ask what they have learned from the rage of the book banners.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Both of you attended the June 20 meeting. The board decided not to ban “Maus,” but they did choose to ban “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Blankets.” The board also banned the young adult novel “Unpregnant,” which is about pregnancy and abortion, and the children’s book “Something Happened in Our Town,” which is about police brutality. Which of these books generated the most conversation?
Woosley: The conversation on “Unpregnant” was long. It’s the story of a girl, coming from a Christian conservative family, finding out that she is pregnant, and she’s a teenager. And so she and her friend try to get an abortion for her, and it takes place in Missouri in a very similar town as Nixa. So that’s why this book is so big and important around here. And she has to go to New Mexico to get an abortion. It’s a comedic book. And a lot of school board members were saying that they were taking the subject of abortion and making it light-hearted and normalized in ways they didn’t agree with. That was the main thing they talked about. Some of them also said that it was encouraging abortion, and they didn’t want students to be encouraged to have abortions.
Did any students speak up? Was there space for that?
Nakkanti: During their deliberation process, we were just flies on the wall. We weren’t allowed to say anything. But it was a very random conversation. One of the school board members took issue with the fact that Planned Parenthood is mentioned throughout the book and proceeded to describe how Planned Parenthood was created by a eugenicist. This was a fictional book, and it was like, that point has little to no pertinence to the subject matter at hand. And the same school board member took issue with the fact that there were no books about teenage girls who were pregnant and went to pregnancy centers. It was very bizarre.
Woosley: She specifically had this mindset of, ‘there are books that are anti-police.’ So she was saying, ‘Why don’t we have books that are pro-police in our library if we have a book like that?’
Proponents say that the whole point of this law is to protect students from explicit sexual material. You are students. What’s your take?
Woosley: I don’t like the law because it’s extremely vague. And because of that, what I don’t like is that some of these books that I am actually interested in reading I’m being restricted from reading. Thankfully, I come from a family that can provide me with those books. But I know a lot of my friends can’t do that. That’s why I don’t like the law, and I don’t think it’s benefiting us. It’s restricting people who want to read books from reading them.
Nakkanti: I think the student body acknowledges that most of us don’t read. As high schoolers, we’re so busy with life and homework that we often don’t find the time to read. We say this all the time: Why do these people care so much? There are all these adults who probably have never even set foot in the high school or who have kids that are eight, who won’t be in the high school for six years, worried about this book that they think these kids are reading. It’s really not that serious.
Glennis, you will be a sophomore next year. You’re on break, you didn’t have to go to a long school board meeting over the summer. What’s motivating you to become involved in this?
Woosley: My dad is a member of U-Turn in Education, which is one of the parent groups around here that is pro-books. And when I got into my freshman year in high school, I knew all about what was already happening. I heard about how all these students were going to meetings and speaking and keeping up with what has been happening. So I thought, I want to go and I want to try to help. Even if more books get banned, at least students are speaking out against what is happening. I think there’s real value in student voices being heard.
Meghana, you’re going to go to college next year in another state. If you want to leave all of this behind, you probably could. I’m curious what you’re taking from this situation with you.
I think the biggest thing that I’ve walked away with is the fact that speaking out isn’t always easy. And I know that a lot of people who live in environments where student advocacy is very welcome can’t necessarily relate to that reality. But here, some of us have to see if we’re being followed on the way home from board meetings. That’s not a reality for so many of the other school districts that we’ve been hearing about. Because they are in these urban centers that are primarily filled with groups that agree with them.
I don’t think we’ve had a single win. We go to these meetings and we speak, and we lose every single time. But we show up anyway because we show up on principle. The school knows that there’s attention on them. Not only do we pay attention, but the country is paying attention as well.
You say you haven’t had any wins, but the board could have banned all the books.
Nakkanti: I guess they could have, but I think they’re trying to make everybody happy. Now it’s become very much like a two-party system in the worst way, where the individuals that need to be heard in my opinion — the students — are being completely disregarded because the board wants to appease these two pro- and anti-book-banning adult groups. Two groups that can vote and use their dollars to support their reelection campaigns. So it just becomes this game of politics with our library. It’s frustrating, but I guess it’s a microcosm of Washington.
At the same time, this spotlight on students can be sort of a double-edged sword. Meghana, you said some students have to worry about being followed home from school board meetings. Can you talk more about the pressures students have faced from adults because of their advocacy?
During the board’s May 2022 meeting, an adult came up to a person who was 16 at the time and told her that he could easily find her address and that she should ‘watch out.’ At this meeting, there was booing, jeering and clapping. Some of my friends weren’t sitting with students, and that’s where we heard all of this horrible commentary that these adults were making about kids who were minors at the time. I don’t think we took it too personally because they’re like 50 years old, and they’re making fun of children. So ultimately, we’re still winning. These adults can’t figure out how to process their frustration in a manner that doesn’t degrade the existence of other people.
I think that meeting really damaged the credibility of the pro-book-banning folks because they were yelling at and threatening children. While there are some voices on the book-banning side that are loud, angry and even violent, I think there are a lot of good people who are pro-book ban but might be misguided. I think it’s made me more empathetic in many ways. I believe that the vast majority of these people are just fighting for something they believe but don’t acknowledge the harm of their actions.
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