Urbandale ‘First Shoe To Drop’ In Iowa School Book Bans

A banned book display at the Reading in Public book store in West Des Moines. Some of the books in the display were recently pulled from shelves in the Urbandale School District. Photo by Ty Rushing/Starting Line

Board member Daniel Gutmann didn’t learn about the Urbandale School District’s list of books to be removed from K-12 buildings until he heard about it from a reporter.

“This was a complete shock to all of the board members,” he said. “This was done without any knowledge or the ability to provide any input.”

Gutmann has been a member of the school board since he won a special election last year. He was also surprised by some of the titles and authors on the list.

“There are so many books on that list by so many well-known and respected authors that have nothing to do with the intended bias written into the law,” he said, calling the list an overreach.

The district sent emails out to staff last week advising educators and librarians to remove books from their classrooms and libraries. The district also provided a list of more than 350 books to be removed.

Books on the List

They include classics such as “1984” by George Orwell, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou and “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume.

It also includes books that have been targeted by Moms For Liberty and other right-wing activists including “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George Johnson.

Several works by individual authors such as John Green, Toni Morrison, and others by Blume also made the list.

And those are only for books for eighth grade and higher. Hundreds more picture books have been flagged for elementary students.

The notice says the list of books was sourced from other states with similar laws, but it didn’t name the states.

“As a District, we believe that student access to high-quality books is vital to personal and academic success, and we must also comply with the law,” the notice reads. “If a student brings a title from home to read that would violate elements of SF496 this is allowable so long as it is not shown to other students.”

Jason Menke, another member of the Urbandale school board, said he was concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the list.

He also said Urbandale is just the first school making these decisions, because of the way the school’s calendar is laid out. But this same conversation will happen soon in every other district across the state.

“The [Iowa] Department of Education needs to step up and provide guidance,” he said. “This is not leadership. This is not governing. This is intimidation and fear.”

The books have to be removed because Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa Republicans passed legislation this year redefining the term “age appropriate” for books allowed in schools and banned instruction about LGBTQ identities for kindergarten through sixth grade. “Age appropriate” is vaguely defined as any book that does not “include any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act” that is listed under Iowa Code Section 702.17. The bill carves out an exception for all religious books

Districts have until Jan. 1, 2024, to have removed the books. Failure to comply would result in a warning from the Iowa Department of Education for a first offense and a hearing conducted by the board of educational examiners for second or subsequent offenses.


Gutmann and Menke both took issue with the fact that most of the books on the list target classes—LGBTQ people and people of color—that are protected under Iowa law.

“The list is just absurdly exhaustive,” Gutmann said, pointing out that books with graphic sex scenes like “50 Shades of Grey” by E.L. James—which is on the list—wouldn’t be in any school library.

But another book on the list is a picture book called “Families, Families, Families” by Suzanne Lane.

“Where, in passing among 50 other different family structures, it’s mentioned that a child has two moms or two dads. That’s not sex,” Gutmann, who used to teach elementary in Des Moines Public Schools said. “If talking about different kinds of families is talking about sex, then do we need to remove all the books that have a mom and a dad?”

He said one of his colleagues has a book in her room about an animal character learning how to bake and, in passing, mentions having two moms, one spelled with a “U” and one with an “O.”

“Simply for that reason, the book is no longer legal in Urbandale and Urbandale schools,” Gutmann said.

So is a biography of US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who is gay and married to a man.

“It’s hateful. It’s mean-spirited. And that’s not what I want my town to represent,” Gutmann, who is also gay, said. “There’s nothing inappropriate about families like mine.”

Removing Curriculum

Many of the books on the list are also classics, which Gutmann and Menke said are included in Urbandale’s AP courses.

“You’re basically taking away entire curriculum with this list or lists like it,” Menke said.

Gutmann said he isn’t confident Urbandale can claim to be educating their students to a high standard and said parents should think hard about that.

“A child who goes through the Urbandale school system today and moving forward, as long as this policy stands, will not have as rigorous an education as those that have already walked through our halls. They will not they will not be as prepared as students coming from other districts to function in the world as an adult,” he said.

For children who can’t buy books or have a hard time getting to the public library, this policy removes their only real resource for books reflecting who they are or the world around them.

“There are going to be kids who live in environments where their family is probably not supportive and they’re not going to have access to those materials,” Menke said. “And those are the kids that I am the most concerned about.”

Gutmann encouraged people to get in touch with their school board members, even if they aren’t talking about removing books yet. If people want to have their voices heard, he said, they need to start now.

“Urbandale is kind of the first shoe to drop. Urbandale today but everywhere else in Iowa tomorrow,” he said.

Urbandale’s next regular school board meeting is on Aug. 28, and the next work session is Aug. 14. Gutmann said he doesn’t know yet if the board will be addressing the list publicly, but he’s already heard from current and former members of the district.

“The citizens of Urbandale should be able to at least hear how their administration is handling issues like this,” he said.


Nikoel Hytrek


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