‘Questionable’ content, ‘graphic’ imagery lead to book bans at Indiana school libraries

By Casey Smith, Indiana Capital Chronicle, and Arnolt Center staff Marissa Meador, Sarita Smith, Haley Ryan, Ryan Murphy, Caroline Geib, Lizzie Wright and Lily Marks

From addiction and apathy to fantasy and poverty, a handful of books have been banned or moved to other schools following complaints.

An investigation by the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism and the Indiana Capital Chronicle found that found books challenges are rare and removal even rarer.

The Arnolt Center and the Indiana Capital Chronicle contacted around 440 school districts and charter schools in Indiana — 249 responded to the requests and 191 are still processing the requests.

Since 2020, at least six districts banned books, two moved books to other libraries and 17 received complaints about material taught in classrooms or available in libraries.

Documents reviewed by the Arnolt Center detailed some of the districts’ decisions:

Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation removed “Exit Here” by Jason Meyers from the school library because, “During the review of this title it was found that it is recommended for more advanced age groups and not appropriate for high school aged students,” according to documents.

The Jay School Corporation removed “Fade” by Lisa McMann in March 2022, but documents provided by the district did not specify a reason.

The Clark Pleasant School Corporation received a complaint in February 2022 to remove “l8r, g8r” by Lauren Myracle, the third book in Myracle’s “Internet Girls” series that follows three girls through the complexities of high school.

After consideration, the book was deemed “to be of poor quality, lacked the interest of students and had some questionable context for middle school students,” Clark Pleasant’s Legal and Policy Coordinator, Karen Robertson, wrote in an email.

Superintendent of Tri-Creek School District Andy Anderson said in an email he has only received a verbal complaint from a parent at a school board meeting on May 12, 2022 regarding “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. The complaint was resolved informally and high school staff no longer use the book in their instruction.

At Lewis Cass School Corporation, parents of a kindergartner, emailed Assistant Principal Heidi Wilson concerned about a picture book their child brought home in December 2022.

The parents claimed the book, “Last Laughs: Animal Epitaphs” by J. Patrick Lewis and Jane Yolen is disturbing and bloody, and they attached images from the book that illustrate animals holding cross bows and axes. The corporation’s most recent library catalog shows the book is no longer in circulation.

A committee at Western School Corporation reviewed Laini Taylor’s fantasy novel “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” as well as two other books in the same series — “Days of Blood and Starlight” and “Dreams of Gods and Monsters.” All three books were moved from the middle school library to the high school library.

How titles are reviewed

A new law — House Enrolled Act 1447 — opens the door to more public scrutiny of school library catalogs and has districts anticipating more challenges to what books students can read.

Effective Jan. 1, the new law requires Indiana school districts to establish procedures for responding to complaints about library material alleged to be “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” Districts must review requests at public meetings and hear appeals if necessary. Schools must also maintain public catalogs of library materials.

The new law states complaints can only be made by a parent or guardian of a student who is enrolled in the school, or by a community member within the district.

Language in the law also specifies that school districts must hear requests to remove materials during “the next public meeting.” Membership of those boards varies by district.

Before, many schools’ book review committees consisted of a mix of parents, community members, administrators and teachers, said Diane Rogers, a librarian at Ben Davis Ninth Grade Center in Indianapolis and president of the Indiana Library Federation.

Rogers noted it was already best practice within the “library world” to have a catalog publicly available, in addition to a collection development policy and challenge procedure.

“The federation is in favor of local control for collection development, because what is appropriate or best for one community is not always appropriate for another,” she said. “It’s their local choice, what they want to have on the shelf, and it’s up to the librarian, how they make their choices.”

What happens now?

But Rogers emphasized that trained, certified school librarians have long followed standards set by the American Library Association when it comes to selecting books for their collection. Sometimes, that means reading the book in its entirety before making a purchase. Often, professional review sources are also used to gauge a book’s content and appropriateness.

Book lists and other literary review sources published by conservative groups like Moms for Liberty and Purple for Parents “would not, however, be considered professional resources.”

“You have to sort of use your professional judgment when you’re looking at whether you purchase something. We look at age of the characters within the story, for example. Is it going to fit into our community? Perhaps it’s more mature for high schoolers than those in middle school,” Rogers said. “These are important topics that you have to make decisions on, but that’s another reason why it’s so important to have a certified, professionally trained, qualified librarian on staff.”

She added that contested materials should be evaluated “as a whole” — a standard that might not be met statewide, in every challenge.

“Ethically speaking, how are you supposed to understand the meaning of the books, the message that the author is trying to convey, unless you’re taking it as a whole?” Rogers asked.

While the new law prohibits schools from providing students with material deemed “obscene” or “harmful to minors” — standards that have long been defined in Indiana law and have high bars to meet — it also requires that the material in question lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. In addition, the material must be considered as a whole by reviewers.

Rogers said it’s rare for such illegal materials to be found on school library shelves in Indiana, but sometimes, additional review warrants titles being relocated for older age groups.

Still, it’s not yet clear whether Indiana’s new law will result in more library book challenges — or if school boards will respond by removing more titles altogether.

“You’re asking me to look into the crystal ball — I don’t know if it’s going to cause more complaints to happen,” she said. “It’s my opinion that we don’t have these materials on our library shelves. So, even the books that some schools are getting complaints about, they aren’t going to meet the standard of obscenity.”

Casey Smith is a reporter with the Indiana Capital Chronicle. Ryan Murphy, Lizzie Wright, Haley Ryan, Caroline Geib, Sarita Smith, Marissa Meador and Lily Marks are students with the Arnolt Center.

This story was written by journalists at the Arnolt Center for Investigative Journalism at Indiana University in partnership with the Indiana Capital Chronicle.