Don’t Mess with Texas Librarians

Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship

Texas House Representative Matt Krause recently sent a letter to school districts in Texas with a list of 850 books which may cause “discomfort” in students. Not to be outdone, Governor Greg Abbott wrote soonafter to the Texas Association of School Boards, charging them to root out pornography in Texas school libraries. 

While Krause’s letter does not call for censorship per se, it intimidates educators and creates a chilling effect on school library collections. Indeed, almost every book in Krause’s exhaustive list deals with racial or LGBTQ themes. If these books are unsuitable to Mr. Krause, I wonder if he is aware that every Texas school district has a set policy for handling book challenges. I can’t speak for all districts, but I worked as a middle school librarian in Austin, Texas for fifteen years and am familiar with our district’s policy.

In order to challenge a book, there is a process. The challenger must fill out the form with the reason for the book’s recommended removal. Before the challenge can proceed to the next stage, of which there are several, the book objector must read it in its entirety. If Matt Krause wants to challenge 850 books at once, he’s made himself quite a winter reading list. 

Then again, at least Krause has the courage to name the questionable materials. Greg Abbott’s outraged letter expects an association of school boards to go beyond their official role and their own district policies to ban some vague notion of pornography that’s supposed to be present in school libraries. 

Beyond his list, Mr. Krause also objects to any books he missed that may cause “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex…whether consciously or unconsciously,” and charges schools with identifying them. I’d like to ask Matt Krause, is it even possible to learn something important if it doesn’t cause at least a bit of discomfort? Doesn’t education require us to consider different viewpoints and to place ourselves in other people’s skins? 

Jason Reynolds, multiple award-winning author and current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, is on the list for his novel All American Boys. While I recognized many authors and titles on the “list,” I can speak directly to the power of this one book and to the immense good Jason Reynolds has done to motivate dormant readers. 

Sara Stevenson with Jason Reynolds. September 2017
Sara Stevenson with Jason Reynolds. September 2017

Through the generosity of BookPeople, Jason Reynolds visited my school to talk to my students in 2017. I was fortunate to host many amazing authors for young adults, but never did one affect my students so forcefully. Jason has an amazing gift to speak directly to young people with humor and honesty, and his books for both middle grade and young adults are among the most popular in our school library, beloved by students, teachers, and parents. Long Way Down recently won the John Newbery Award, and Ghost, the first book in his middle grade Track series, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His “offending” book, written with Brendan Keily, All American Boys, through alternating black and white narrators, tells a story of police brutality against an innocent teen.

The failure to include these books in schools will not stop children from being gay or transgender or black or from learning about sex. It will only ensure that certain young people will not see themselves reflected in the books they read and that others will not be allowed to consider lives different from their own. 

We all know these letters are political stunts, invented, on Mr. Krause’s part, to challenge Ken Paxton for Attorney General by putting our public schools and libraries on the defensive. Greg Abbott apparently wants to stir up the GOP base and give ammunition to those who have long worked to tear down our Texas public schools, which educate five million children. 

But Matt Krause and Greg Abbott should have done their homework. Texas librarians are prepared and trained in the Library Bill of Rights. We have resources and policies in place to protect ourselves and our students from those who wish to challenge our collections. Yes, librarians at times make mistakes, mainly in terms of age appropriateness, but these letters imply some kind of stealth agenda to indoctrinate school children. Instead, librarians work hard to curate and shape library collections that serve all students and their families.  As Michael Moore once said: “Librarians are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them.” 

Guest Post by Sara Stevenson, former Austin ISD middle school librarian and contributor to Knowledge Quest.

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