Update on Aug. 4, 2023:

Earlier this week, the Urbandale, Iowa, school district ordered its educators to remove a list of nearly 400 titles if found in district schools and classrooms. After public pressure including an open letter from PEN America, the district dropped its objections to many of the titles and released a new list of 65 books it identified in its libraries that it said violate state law, according to documents obtained by the Iowa anti-censorship group Annie’s Foundation

Those books include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, James Joyce’s Ulysses and dozens of others. This is still a jaw-dropping number of titles to be ordered removed from schools, with serious questions about how these titles were chosen and evaluated.

See the list of 65 books from the Urbandale, Iowa, school district.

The original PEN America article:

PEN America has sent an open letter to an Iowa school district calling on district leaders to reverse an order to remove a list of nearly 400 titles if found in district schools and classrooms. 

Urbandale Community School District released a list of nearly 400 titles deemed to be in potential violation of newly enacted state legislation, Senate File 496. The list includes classics like The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; children’s books like Mayor Pete, an illustrated biography of Pete Buttigieg by Rob Sanders; several YA novels like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Looking for Alaska by John Green; and other texts from authors as celebrated and as far-ranging as James Baldwin, James Joyce, and Albert Camus. 

While not every book on the list is necessarily currently available in Urbandale schools, those that are must be removed, and, seemingly, cannot be assigned or purchased. 

Which books were banNED from schools in Urbandale, Iowa?

According to a report in the Des Moines Register, nearly 400 books have been identified for removal from Urbandale schools. The list includes:

  • Literary classics like The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Ulysses by James Joyce, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Are You There God?, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller. 
  • Children’s picture books like Mayor Pete, about the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Sharice’s Big Voice, about U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, The Adventures of Honey & Leon, about actor Alan Cumming’s two dogs and books about families like Everywhere Babies by Susan Meyers, The Family Book by Todd Parr, and Old MacDonald Had A Baby by Emily Snape.

  • Contemporary young adult books by award-winning authors such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez, The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur, Looking for Alaska, The Fault in Our Stars, and Paper Towns by John Green, Last Night at The Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Johnson, and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. 
  • Works by renowned authors James Baldwin, Charles Baudelaire, Albert Camus, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, Henry Miller, Robert Cormier, Neil Gaiman, Roxane Gay, Zora Neale Hurston, Khaled Hosseini, Alice Walker, and Tony Kushner. 

See the full list of books flagged for removal from Urbandale, Iowa, school libraries under the new law.

What is Iowa’s Senate File 496?

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed Senate File 496 into law in May 2023. The law has numerous provisions, based on a requirement that schools adopt what it calls an “age appropriate, multicultural and gender-fair approach” by schools and school districts.

The law includes:

  • A “Don’t Say Gay” provision, modeled on legislation passed in Florida in 2022, that applies to Kindergarten to 6th grade: “A school district shall not provide any program, curriculum, test, survey, questionnaire, promotion, or instruction relating to gender identity or sexual orientation to students in kindergarten through grade six.”
  • A directive to include “age appropriate” materials in classrooms and libraries. The law defines “age-appropriate” as “topics, messages, and teaching methods suitable to particular ages or age groups of children and adolescents, based on developing cognitive, emotional, and behavioral capacity typical for the age or age group.” The law also states that “’Age-appropriate’ does not include any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act as defined in section 702.17.” This is a reference to Iowa criminal code, including a definition of sex acts and sexual activity that was not originally written to apply to written or visual materials.
  • A mandate for districts to develop policies for parents/guardians to to review all instructional materials, to file objections to challenge these materials, and a public listing of all books in school district libraries
  • A prohibition on students from serving on review committees that “determine, or provide recommendations related to, whether a material in a school library should be removed” after it has been challenged. Additionally, parents and guardians who challenge a book or library material are guaranteed confidentiality.
  • The potential for disciplinary action against educators found in violation of its provisions, particularly concerning “age appropriate” materials in school libraries, including the possibility of losing their licenses. 

Why Were Books BanNed from schools in Urbandale, Iowa?

In the absence of state guidance on how to implement the new law, the Urbandale Community School has taken what it calls the broadest possible interpretation of the law, in order to protect educators from disciplinary action. But in doing so, they have threatened the freedom to read for the district’s 4,000+ students. 

Per the district’s statement, the list of books was curated from “a review of quarantined books from other states who had passed similar laws.” The district noted that the list is not “all-inclusive” nor represents books available in the district’s schools and classrooms. 

One senior at Urbandale High School described to a local NBC affiliate  that the bans would impact her ability to complete her coursework.  “I’m involved in a lot of AP and college-level courses and so for me, I was in AP Lit[erature] last year and so I read some amazing books…going forward [I’m] taking Advanced Comp[osition] this year. And so I won’t be able to study 1984 or The Color Purple and a lot of those books that are so important and so critical for those curriculums.”

The list, and the law that prompted it, comes amid a national wave of book bans and educational gag orders that limit what can be said in the classroom, especially about race and LGBTQ+ topics. 

What can be done?

PEN America invites the public to send its  letter to school district officials, calling on them to reverse the policy, and to retain all reading materials so students can begin the school year with full access to literature in their classrooms.

The letter is also intended to signal to other school districts, parents, educators, librarians, and students that the government overreach stemming from Gov. Reynolds’ legislation is an affront to students’ bedrock rights.

Send the PEN America letter to Urbandale school officials