Expert sounds alarm as Texas book bans grow: These efforts are “well-organized and well-funded”

“When white supremacy wins these fights, all of our children lose,” professor warns

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published October 14, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Stack of books on table at library (Getty images/Kenishirotie)
Stack of books on table at library (Getty images/Kenishirotie)

Local book bans in Texas are gaining momentum after a new law started restricting student library book choices in the state, according to a new report by The Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

In one district, at least 19 titles were banned, which included popular books by Dr. Seuss and Judy Blume. Katy ISD implemented broader criteria for books to be pulled for review this school year, now including "nudity" in the definition of inappropriate material.

School officials in Katy recently bought $93,000 worth of new library books and immediately placed them in storage for assessment by an internal committee, The Tribune reported. The district then banned 14 titles. 

In the Hamshire-Fannett independent school district, an eighth-grade teacher was fired after assigning an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary to her middle school class. 

The graphic novel adapts the diary of 13-year-old Anne Frank, in which she recounts her experiences hiding from the Nazis. This version also includes descriptions of “Frank’s attraction to other girls as well as her clinical descriptions of her private parts,” The Tribune reported.

The book, although not approved as part of the district’s curriculum, was incorporated into a reading list that was sent to parents at the beginning of the school year.

Then, Friendswood Christian School canceled its popular Scholastic Book Fair fundraiser, informing parents that it was aimed at books featuring LGBTQ+ themes and characters.

“The book fair is one of our biggest fundraisers, but unfortunately, we have seen more and more books that promote and support LBGTQ+ views,” the school wrote in a letter to parents obtained by ABC13 in Houston.“We’re at a crossroads where we share different values and beliefs, especially when it comes to exposing young children to adult topics. Friendswood Christian School is a private institution devoted to creating a complete learning environment for children by incorporating Christian principles into the academic framework.”

In recent years, the movement to ban books has been accelerating throughout the United States, notably in states led by Republican administrations. It has become a prominent focus of religious-political activism. 

“The majority of the books being censored right now are books focused on diversity/BIPOC and LGBTQ+ books—in other words, books about those who are already marginalized, vulnerable and whose stories have been silenced for far too long,” Michelle Martin, a youth and children’s services professor at the University of Washington, told Salon. “When white supremacy wins these fights, all of our children lose.”

Martin pointed to teacher turnover being “exceedingly high right now,” and noted that the pandemic has played a significant role in contributing to this issue. However, when teachers are being fired because of content in a book, “it sows fear in other teachers that makes it harder to teach,” she added.

“Those states that are exacting retribution on teachers and librarians for book content will soon find homeschooling necessary because no one will dare to go into a teacher education program, knowing that on the other end of that degree will be hostility,” Martin said. “Teachers are hired for the expertise they bring to classrooms; parents should let them do their jobs.”

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In 2021, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation that significantly restricts how educators can address topics concerning race and gender. Texas has taken the lead in book bans, surpassing all other states, having banned 438 books in its schools last year. 

The American Library’s Association Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, marking the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than two decades ago. 

Among these titles, the overwhelming majority were works authored by or related to LGBTQ+ community or by and about Black people, Indigenous people and people of color, ALA found.

“Limiting access to books that give children both mirrors that reflect their own background and windows that help them understand the lives of people who don’t look or live like them narrows their thinking and stunts their ability to empathize with other people,” Martin said. “Also, the literacy statistics across the country show that too many American children are not learning to read efficiently; taking books out of libraries or off of classroom reading lists that could appeal to particular readers (as graphic novels often do) also means that some children won’t learn the content of important histories, as Anne Frank’s story is.”

These efforts are making American children “dumber”, she added, suggesting that education should teach children critical thinking skills and also expose them to people, histories and cultures that are different from their own. 

“Given where we are educationally in comparison to other developed nations, that is a backward direction we cannot afford,” Martin said.

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Local censorship initiatives are growing amid ongoing legal battles regarding a Texas law mandating that booksellers rate public school library books based on appropriateness before selling them to schools.

A library material vendor cannot sell library materials to a school district or open-enrollment charter school unless the vendor has “issued appropriate ratings regarding sexually explicit material and sexually relevant material previously sold to a district or school,” according to the legislation.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Alan Albright issued a written order temporarily blocking the law, saying it "misses the mark on obscenity with a web of unconstitutionally vague requirements."

One week later, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted the judge's decision, temporarily enabling the law to be enforced as the court reviews the case, with proceedings scheduled for later this month, The Tribune reported. 

​​During the 2022-2023 school year (from July 1, 2022, to June 31, 2023), PEN America documented 3,362 instances of book bans in U.S. public schools and libraries. These bans led to the removal of 1,557 unique book titles, impacting over 1,480 authors, illustrators, and translators. 

These bans are proliferating through organized campaigns by a vocal minority and increasingly, due to pressure from state legislation, reflecting a growing trend of censorship. The authors targeted in these bans were predominantly female, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals, PEN America found. 

“These efforts to ban books are well organized and well funded,” Martin said. “Community members who value intellectual freedom and want students to be able to read widely need to organize, learn all they can about what intellectual freedom means in a democratic society, such as understanding the Library Bill of Rights and fight with the same fervor that the censors are fighting.”

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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Book Bans Greg Abbott Politics Reporting Texas