Missouri School District May Reconsider Vonnegut Book Ban

After Protests After objections from anti-censorship forces, officials at a Missouri school district say they will reconsider a plan to remove two books from the curriculum.

In July, members of the Republic School Board voted 4-0 to omit Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and a second volume, Twenty Boy Summer by Sarah Ockler, after a local resident argued that the tomes are contrary to the Bible. The story gained national attention, and the board’s action was widely criticized.

On Aug. 18, Americans United for Separation of Church and State joined the National Coalition Against Censorship and seven other organizations in a joint letter urging the school superintendent and school board members to reconsider their decision.

“We urge you to provide students with an education that exposes them to challenging materials and diverse ideas and beliefs, that prepares them to make their own judgments, and that teaches them to respect the opinions of others,” the letter asserted. “That is at the core of our system.”

The letter pointed out that only one of the four voting board members had even read Slaughterhouse-Five, noting that one complaint should not provide the basis for censorship. (The resident who raised the issue, Wesley Scroggins, does not send his children to the local public schools.)

The coalition letter urged the board to consider the fact that Vonnegut’s book has been recognized for its significant literary and artistic merit, ranking No. 18 on the Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels.

“Focusing on the literary and pedagogical value of library and curricular materials is the best way to serve your students, resolve disputes over values and preferences, and protect the district from legal liability,” the letter asserted. “Please return the books to the classrooms and library shelves where they belong.”

Signers of the letter include: Joan Bertin, executive director, National Coalition Against Censorship; Judith Platt, director, Free Expression Advocacy Association of American Publishers; Lin Oliver, executive director, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators; Chris Finan, president, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; Larry Siems, director, Freedom to Write & International Programs, PEN American Center; Millie Davis, division director, National Council of Teachers of English; Doug Bonney, chief counsel and legal director, ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri; and Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director, National Youth Rights Association.

The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis also weighed in. Officials at the library announced that an anonymous donor had put up funds so that it could provide free copies of Slaughterhouse-Five to 150 students in the Republic School District.

Vonnegut’s unconventional novel deals with the fire-bombing of Dresden during World War II. Its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is “unstuck in time” and moves between the war and more recent times. At one point, he even has an encounter with space aliens.

“All of these students will be eligible to vote and some may be protecting our country through military service in the next year or two,” Julia Whitehead, the executive director of the Vonnegut library, said in a statement. “It is shocking and unfortunate that those young adults and citizens would not be considered mature enough to handle the important topics raised by Kurt Vonnegut, a decorated war veteran. Everyone can learn something from his book.”

In late August, board members said they are willing to take another look at the matter. The issue was scheduled to be discussed during the board’s Sept. 19 meeting, which took place after the deadline of this issue of Church & State.