When an illustrated edition of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” was released in 2019, educators in Clayton, Missouri needed little debate before deciding to keep copies in high school libraries. The book is widely regarded as a classic work of dystopian literature about the oppression of women, and a graphic novel would help it reach teens who struggle with words alone.

But after Missouri legislators passed a law in 2022 subjecting librarians to fines and possible imprisonment for allowing sexually explicit materials on bookshelves, the suburban St. Louis district reconsidered the new Atwood edition, and withdrew it.

“There’s a depiction of a rape scene, a handmaid being forced into a sexual act,” says Tom Bober, Clayton district’s library coordinator and president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians. “It’s literally one panel of the graphic novel, but we felt it was in violation of the law in Missouri.”

Across the country, book challenges and bans have soared to the highest levels in decades. Public and school-based libraries have been inundated with complaints from community members and conservative organizations such as as Moms for Liberty. Increasingly, lawmakers are considering new punishments — crippling lawsuits, hefty fines, and even imprisonment — for distributing books some regard as inappropriate.

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