Texas lawmakers debate which books belong in school libraries
Becky Calzada, who grew up in South Texas, knows how important it is for students to see themselves in the books they read.
“The first book that I saw as a reader that reflected me as a Hispanic girl was the book Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto,” she said. “I was 29 when I read that book.”
Calzada, now in her 50s, is a library coordinator for an Austin-area school district. She said she's worried that a growing effort to ban books in Texas is going to make it harder for kids to find stories they can relate to. She doesn’t want them to miss out on that experience.
“To see myself and my family reflected in that book, I mean it caused me to pause, and obviously it did, because I'm still talking about it today, you know?" she said. "I hate to take that away from a reader."
Librarians under pressure
More than 20 Texas school districts banned 801 books during the 2021-2022 school year, according to PEN America, which advocates for free expression in literature. The group analyzed which books were banned throughout the U.S. during the last school year. Forty-one percent included LGBTQ+ themes or protagonists, and 40% had key characters who were people of color.
“The environment that we're in right now is like nothing that we've ever seen,” Texas Library Association Executive Director Shirley Robinson said.
She said librarians used to face a couple of challenges to books in their collection each year, but now the number of challenges has grown exponentially. She also said there used to be a collaborative relationship between school librarians and families. For example, if a parent was worried about a book, they would talk to the librarian directly.
“But now individuals are going beyond the library and sometimes even going beyond a principal or even a superintendent straight to a school board,” Robinson said.
Priority bills target school library materials
Local efforts to remove books from school libraries are now moving to a statewide stage during Texas’ 88th legislative session. Lawmakers have filed bills to create uniform standards for which books should be available in public school libraries. One is from State Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, who filed House Bill 900. His legislation is a priority bill for Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, which means it has a better chance of passing.
Patterson said the goal of the bill is to remove sexually explicit material from school libraries. His involvement in this issue began over a year ago in Frisco.
“HB 900 is the result of 18 months worth of work on this issue, where I worked with grassroots moms, predominantly in my district, to try to remove sexually explicit materials in schools,” he told KUT.
Patterson, who is a Frisco ISD parent, challenged more than two dozen books in that district’s school libraries including Damsel, All Boys Aren't Blue, and The Handmaid's Tale: A Graphic Novel. He described the local process for challenging books as cumbersome and said the district did not take the issue seriously enough. (That is a claim the FISD superintendent has pushed back on.) So, Patterson decided to file legislation to create statewide standards for libraries in K-12 public schools.
“We have to step up now to protect our kids," he said. "And, we're going to pass a statewide standard for the first time in the state of Texas.”
But what exactly constitutes sexually explicit material? Patterson said just mentioning sex does not make the content explicit, but if there are graphic depictions of sex, that’s another story. During an hours-long Texas House Public Education Committee hearing on the bill on March 21, Patterson highlighted several books he thinks should be removed from school libraries, both of which he fought to remove remove from Frisco ISD libraries. One is a graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe, Gender Queer, which examines gender identity.
“This book has become the most well-known example of the extremely explicit material that has been made available to children in public school libraries as it graphically illustrates sexual acts between two boys, including close-up, full-page illustrations of oral sex,” he told the committee.
Another book Patterson considers sexually explicit is The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. He said that’s because it is about a high school freshman who experiments with drugs “and covers the topics of date rape, heterosexual sex scenes, molestation and masturbation.”
But during the hearing, two Austin-area Democrats raised concerns that the language in HB 900 is too broad and could have unintended consequences. State Rep. Gina Hinojosa pointed out that language in the bill that seeks to exclude books considered “pervasively vulgar” from school libraries could mean some of her son’s favorite book series would no longer be available, such as Captain Underpants and Fart Quest.
“It’s books like these that are lacking in sophistication and talk about bodily function that inspires him to read,” she said.
"Irresponsible calls to censor books because they don’t align with certain individuals’ personal views is a misguided use of political power."Carisa Lopez, Texas Freedom Network political director
Patterson responded that he would work with Hinojosa on the bill’s language. Patterson also faced extensive questions over the bill’s terminology from State Rep. James Talarico, who worried classic books, such as Lonesome Dove, could be deemed sexually explicit material. Talarico also offered to collaborate on making the bill's language more narrow.
Critics of HB 900 at the hearing also raised concerns that it would have a disproportionate impact on books featuring LGBTQ+ characters. Patterson told KUT that is not his intent.
“There is one common denominator in every single book that I've challenged, and it is sexually explicit material,” he said.
The Texas Freedom Network, a progressive group, has criticized Patterson's bill.
"Irresponsible calls to censor books because they don’t align with certain individuals’ personal views is a misguided use of political power," TFN Political Director Carisa Lopez said in a press release.
She said her group trusts local schools and families to make the best decisions for their kids, without politicians interfering.
PEN America has condemned efforts nationwide to remove books deemed obscene, arguing the term is used inaccurately. The group's report, "Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in School," describes a renewed effort to remove books with sexual content.
"In these cases, the term 'obscenity' is being stretched in unrecognizable ways because the concept itself is widely accepted as grounds for limiting access to content," the report says. "But many of the materials now being removed under the guise of obscenity bear no relation to the sexually explicit, deliberately evocative content that the term has historically connoted."
How would HB 900 work
Patterson’s measure would require the Texas State Library and Archives Commission to develop school library standards that would need approval from the State Board of Education. It would then mandate library book vendors rate books as either “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant” based on those new standards.
Sexually explicit material wouldn’t be allowed in school libraries at all. Students would need the permission of a parent or guardian to access sexually relevant materials. Patterson said if someone is concerned that a vendor did not rate a book properly, they could ask the Texas Education Agency to take action. And, if a vendor does not rate books appropriately, they could be banned from selling materials to school districts.
“So ultimately, this is a parental controls bill,” Patterson said. "This is a bill to stop this radical sexualization of our kids. And I'm proud that so many of these groups are coming together to support the bill.”
Patterson worked with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is a conservative think tank, on the legislation. Another group that supports the measure is the Texas Association of School Boards, which is nonpartisan. Dax Gonzalez, the division director of governmental relations at TASB, said the bill would take school boards out of the middle of the fight over library books.
“There are really no clear standards around what people find obscene or sexually explicit and so what we’re hoping is that through some kind of legislation, like HB 900, there can be some kind of standards created that schools can refer back to as they’re making their decisions regarding the books that they have in their libraries,” he said.
Patterson expects the bill to have bipartisan support. On Monday, State Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, signed on as a joint author.
Impact on librarians
Patterson said his book has legal protections for librarians as well as schools, because he said often they may not be aware of sexually explicit materials in their collections.
“I want to be very, very clear. This falls on the book vendors,” he said. “That's why we are forcing them to rate the books. That's why they are the ones that are going to be held responsible financially if they do provide this material to our public schools.”
But Robinson and Calzada are still worried that this type of legislation could negatively impact librarians.
“There are already processes in place as librarians curate their collection and they make the decision to place books for their student groups within specific sections of the library,” Robinson said.
She said one of the biggest challenges librarians' are facing right now is that their professionalism is being called into question. Calzada said that librarians have extensive training that prepares them to choose books that are appropriate for their local communities.
“They're certified teachers. They also go to have a master's degree,” she said. “And so when I think about how librarians are being treated — it’s definitely having its impacts.”
One of those impacts, according to Calzada, is that people are leaving the field and others may be reluctant to become librarians.
Robinson said the scrutiny librarians are under is leading some to pull books off the shelves preemptively to protect themselves and their staffs. She added that taking just a paragraph or a few pages of a book out of context, does not reflect an author’s intent.
“It's about an overall story and creating empathy or sharing an experience,” she said. "And that's why librarians are so skilled and trained at placing the right books in the right sections for the right audiences, and then just allowing readers the opportunity for discovery of the information that they need.”