AUSTIN, Texas — Outraged at the parents and politicians who are trying to rid school libraries of books they denounce as inappropriate or even pornographic, a band of Texas school librarians is fighting back.
Shortly after Texas state Rep. Matt Krause called for the state’s school libraries to review a list of 850 books for possible removal, four librarians formed “#FReadom Fighters” to resist what they call “a war on books.”
“We became this little freedom-fighting team,” said Carolyn Foote, a former school librarian in an Austin suburb who is now a library consultant. “We just wanted the voices of librarians and students and authors to be heard.”
The Texas librarians created a website, using it to peddle T-shirts, hoodies and tote bags emblazoned with “I support #FReadom.” They also deluged Texas lawmakers with tweets and emails.
The #FReadom Fighters are part of a larger movement of teachers, students, authors and parents who are resisting efforts in Texas and elsewhere to purge certain books from schools.
School districts in at least 30 other states are embroiled in book debates like the one in Texas. At least two groups that have been at the forefront of attacks on targeted books—Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education—have grown explosively since their creation in the past two years and are poised to play a formidable role for conservatives in this year’s midterm elections.
Two governors seeking reelection this year—Republicans Greg Abbott of Texas and Henry McMaster of South Carolina—have called for investigations into school library books, often involving Black or LGBTQ characters, they describe as pornographic. Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin of Virginia made the books issue and parental involvement in education a central pillar of his successful campaign this fall after airing an ad in which a parent was upset about her high school son’s assignment to read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in a college-level English class.
Free-speech organizations, including state and national library associations, describe the GOP’s book-removal push as the biggest such assault in decades.
“We haven’t seen or heard of challenges like these probably in the last 40 years,” said Shirley Robinson, executive director of the 5,000-member Texas Library Association. “It’s definitely become politicized.”
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the Chicago-based American Library Association, said the nationwide organization received 156 book challenges—a report of an attempt to remove or restrict reading materials—in 2020. “I’m expecting to maybe even double or triple that [in 2021],” she said, though the final count won’t be complete until April.
The National Coalition Against Censorship denounced the attacks on the books in a December statement signed by hundreds of authors and groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, the National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Black Justice Coalition. According to the statement, most of the books being challenged are about "the lived experiences of racism or of growing up LGBTQIA and experiencing bias, discrimination, hate and even violence."
“Out of Darkness,” for example, is a young adult novel about a love affair between two teenagers, a Mexican American girl and Black boy, set against the backdrop of the 1937 natural gas explosion at a New London, Texas, school. The disaster claimed nearly 300 lives.
The 2015 book attracted little or no controversy for several years after it was published. But beginning last fall, its presence in school libraries has been challenged in at least 16 school districts across a half-dozen states. Author Ashley Hope Pérez acknowledged in a phone interview that the novel explicitly deals with subjects such as sexual abuse and racism but pointed out that it has received favorable reviews and literary awards.
“It belongs in any high school library, just like [William] Faulkner belongs in any high school library, and the Bible belongs in any high school library,” said Pérez, who has defended her work online and in personal appearances.
“These are complex narratives that ask a lot of their readers and offer a lot to their readers.”
At heated school board meetings, parents have read aloud steamy passages from challenged books, occasionally prompting news outlets to post viewer or reader warnings on their coverage.
At a school board meeting in the Austin suburb of Leander, a mother brandished a sex toy as she vented her anger at Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House,” a memoir that includes explicit details of the author’s experiences in an abusive lesbian relationship.
Many of the parents calling for the purging of certain books from schools deny that they are engaged in censorship. Instead, they say, they simply want to shield schoolchildren from intense language and sexual detail that may not be appropriate for them.
“Parents need to be the ones who determine when their children are exposed to obscenity," Mary Lowe, who chairs the Tarrant County chapter of Moms for Liberty in North Texas, said in a phone interview.
Nearly all communities already have policies allowing parents to influence their own child’s reading as well as procedures for handling book challenges, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship.
Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice, a former Florida school board member, said the group doesn’t have a list of books it considers problematic, but the issue is at the top of the agenda for many of the groups’ chapters, which number more than 150 in 33 states. The group’s mission, according to its website, includes “empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”
“A lot of these chapters are concerned about the books," Justice said in a phone interview. “And what they are finding is that these books with pedophilia and all kinds of things in them—rape, incest, just horrible—are in the school libraries. And parents are concerned about it. They want the books out.
“They’re being called awful names,” she added. “I’ve heard them called ‘racists’ and ‘bigots’ and ‘book burners,’ and none of that is the case. These are just moms who want to know why their children are being sexualized at such an early age.”
No Left Turn in Education, which also has surged in growth, features more than 60 books on its website it deems inappropriate, including books used to spread what it calls, “radical and racist ideologies to students.” Nearly every book on the list, from children’s picture books to history tomes, features either Black or LGBTQ characters.
The list is designed to spotlight “books of potential concern to make parents aware of what to look into,” said Yael Levin, who heads the group’s Virginia chapter.
“We’re not trying to ban or burn books,” she said. “They should be available in the county library. They should be available in the bookstores. There are a few that do not belong in school libraries that cater to children that are minors.”
Abbott, who is seeking a third four-year term as Texas governor, in November ordered the Texas Education Agency to launch an investigation into “highly inappropriate books,” including “In the Dream House” and Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” the latter of which is a graphic novel featuring illustrations of sexual interactions that Abbott described as “pornographic drawings.”
Krause, the Texas state lawmaker, is running for district attorney in Fort Worth-based Tarrant County. He declined to discuss the details of his inquiry or why he listed specific books, but said he chose to act after school boards began reviewing books of “an inappropriate nature.”
“None of us wants grossly inappropriately material in our schools,” he said in an interview.
But those on the other side, included targeted authors, say the attacks are part of an orchestrated campaign intended for Republican political gain. They say critics fail to look beyond sexually explicit passages to recognize a book’s overall merit for adolescent and young adult readers.
“It’s really sad to see so many people missing the point entirely,” Machado, who has been a finalist for the National Book Award, said of her 2019 memoir, in which she described the abuses she suffered in a same-sex relationship.
“There is something really horrifying about someone saying … ‘Your book is pornography,’ a book about one the hardest things that ever happened to you, a book that took many years to write and a book that has meant a lot to a lot of people.
“I’ve heard from students all the time,” she said in a phone interview, “… that the book has given them some kind of insight into existing relationships or has spoken to them in some other way.”
Book defenders have employed a variety of strategies, including petition drives, protests, newspaper opinion pieces and direct pressure on school board members.
In many places, students have played an active role. “We must not lose sight of what we’re here to do at the end of the day: teach kids,” high school senior Charles Moloney told members of the North Kansas City School District’s board as he and other students spoke out against a parent group’s efforts to remove books.
PEN America, a New York City-based nonprofit promoting free expression, has issued a book-ban tip sheet for students, with pointers to help them “mobilize and respond” against organized political attempts to censor “what you can and can’t read.”
Among the guidelines: participating in non-disruptive protests, posting social media messages, testifying at board meetings, writing letters and alerting nationwide advocacy organizations to efforts to remove books from libraries.
“Remind your school leadership that you, as a student, should be the focal point of the school,” the online guide advises. “Talk to them about why a challenged book is important to you.”
PEN America also sponsored a mid-December “Teach-In for Students,” a virtual forum that featured three authors, including George M. Johnson, a Black journalist and activist who wrote “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a coming-of-age memoir that has landed on library removal lists for its sexually explicit descriptions.
“I wrote the book that I wish that I could have read when I was a young adult, struggling with my identity, struggling with trying to figure out why I was feeling the way I was feeling,” Johnson said during the forum.
Johnson said critics are “taking our work completely out of context” by consistently focusing on objectionable passages instead of the work as a whole, ignoring the fact that “these books have helped so many students.”