(NEW YORK)— PEN America organized an open letter today to an Iowa school district calling on district leaders to reverse an order to remove nearly 400 book titles if they are found in district classrooms. The list includes classic novels like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, along with new prize-winning books.

Urbandale Community School District has released a list of the nearly 400 titles deemed to be in potential violation of newly enacted state legislation, Senate File 496. The “astonishing” list includes works by a diverse range of celebrated authors — among them Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Judy Blume, Albert Camus, James Joyce, and Toni Morrison — as well as children’s books like Mayor Pete, an illustrated biography of Pete Buttigieg by Rob Sanders, and several YA novels including The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Looking for Alaska by John Green.

The law states that school libraries must develop “age-appropriate” collections – which, by the law’s definition, would prohibit any book that contains any “sexual acts” as defined by Iowa criminal code for all grade levels. The law also includes a prohibition on classroom instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation for grades K-6. READ PEN America’s explainer on the topic. 

In the absence of state guidance, the Urbandale Community School took the broadest possible interpretation of the law in order to protect educators from disciplinary action.

“Our letter to Urbandale Community School District signals to district leaders and others across the state that ‘broad interpretations’ of vague laws threaten the freedom to read for students and infringe upon their constitutionally protected rights,” said Kasey Meehan, Freedom to Read program director at PEN America. “This letter also illuminates the alarming effects of Governor Kim Reynolds’ legislative mandate to review books for “age appropriateness,” which is resulting  in the misguided removals of hundreds of books from access, including numerous timeless classics, books about LGBTQ+ identities, and stories that feature characters of color. Rather than supporting educators, librarians, and school districts as they start another school year, the governor’s mandate has added an excessive burden on educators to review their classroom libraries and start the school year in a climate of censorship. PEN America encourages parents, educators, authors, and other allies to sign the letter in support of the freedom to read for all Iowa students.”

PEN America has been at the forefront of documenting and defending against the unprecedented rise of school book bans nationwide, which robs students of exemplary literary works and undermines basic constitutional freedoms. PEN America is suing Escambia County, Florida, over its book bans. Black and LGBTQ+ authors and books about race, racism, and LGBTQ identities have been disproportionately affected in the book bans documented by PEN America in the last year and a half. The wave of book banning is worse than anything seen since the 1950s McCarthy Red Scare era, with PEN America counting more than 4,000 book bans since the fall of 2021. 

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057