As a new Texas law further restricting what books students can check out of school libraries takes effect, local bans are gaining steam in districts across the state — in some cases going in startling directions.
In Katy, a growing Houston suburb, school officials recently bought $93,000 worth of new library books and promptly put them in storage so an internal committee could review them. The district then banned 14 titles (bringing its total since 2021 to 30), including popular books by Dr. Seuss and Judy Blume, as well as “No, David!” an award-winning children’s book featuring a mischievous cartoon character who at one point jumps out of a bathtub, exposing a cartoon backside. (This wasn’t the district’s first foray into regulating cartoon nudity; over the summer, a book about a crayon that lost its wrapper, becoming “naked” in the process, was flagged for review but ultimately retained.)
Following the latest removals, the Katy school board decided that cartoon butts would be exempted from a district policy that called for removing books showing nudity. “Explicit frontal nudity,” on the other hand, would not be allowed.
“The board’s intent was never to remove well-known cartoon-like children’s books just because they showed a little drawing of a little boy’s rear-end,” its president, Victor Perez, said, according to the Houston Chronicle.
One hundred miles to the east, a school district near Beaumont made headlines last month after removing a substitute middle school teacher who had read students portions of an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary, which detailed her hiding from the Nazis and was published after her death in the Holocaust.
The graphic novel version includes descriptions of Frank’s attraction to other girls as well as her clinical descriptions of her private parts.
The book, which had not been approved as part of the district’s curriculum, had been included on a reading list sent to parents at the start of the school year, according to television station KFDM.
The district is investigating whether administrators knew the book was being used in the class, according to news reports.
And just south of Houston, the private Friendswood Christian School announced it was canceling its Scholastic Book Fair, barring the nation’s largest children’s book publisher, which has put on book fairs at schools around the country for decades.
In a letter to parents, obtained by ABC13 in Houston, the school made clear the decision 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. “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. We want to provide an environment where children can hang on to their innocence as long as possible.”
Kasey Meehan, the Freedom to Read program director for the New York-based free speech organization PEN America, said that as Texas enters what is essentially its third consecutive school year of book banning activity, efforts have taken some troubling directions.
“Even after that first removal of books, what we see is a continued chilling effect that happens across schools,” she said in an interview. “There are these ripples that are going to extend beyond simply removing a book to just read, erring on the side of caution and bringing a bit more scrutiny to any availability of books and any opportunities that students can have to access books.”
The local censorship efforts come as courts wrestle with a new Texas law that requires booksellers to rate public school library books based on their depictions of or references to sex. Books in which such references are deemed “patently offensive” by the vendors will be issued a “sexually explicit” rating and can’t be sold to schools and must be removed from shelves of school libraries. Books that reference or depict sex generally will be rated “sexually relevant” and require parental permission to read.
Texas schools would be barred from buying books from vendors who don’t use the ratings.
On Sept. 18, a U.S. district judge in Austin issued a written order blocking the law, which was passed this spring, from taking effect. Judge Alan D. Albright, a Trump appointee, ruled the law would impose “unconstitutionally vague requirements” on booksellers and “misses the mark on obscenity.”
“And the state,” he wrote, “in abdicating its responsibility to protect children, forces private individuals and corporations into compliance with an unconstitutional law that violates the First Amendment.”
A week later, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the judge’s ruling, temporarily allowing the law to go into effect while the court considers the case, which it is expected to take up this month.
Book bannings have increased precipitously in the state since ProPublica and The Texas Tribune started reporting on the issue in rural Hood County two years ago, where a fight over library books foreshadowed the intense partisanship that has come to mark many Texas school board races. The U.S. Department of Education launched an investigation into the Granbury Independent School District after the superintendent was secretly recorded ordering librarians to remove library books with LGBTQ+ themes.
The federal probe, which followed a ProPublica-Tribune investigation with NBC News, remains open, according to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Last year, in response to the outlets’ investigation, the district said it was committed to supporting students of all backgrounds.
The issue continues to roil Granbury, as some community members and trustees don’t believe the district has gone far enough to remove books. Last month, the school board censured a trustee who wants additional titles removed after she was accused of sneaking into a school library to examine books with a cellphone flashlight.
According to a report from the American Library Association, Texas was home to the most attempts to ban or restrict books in 2022.
Of the 1,269 documented attempts to remove books from school or public libraries across the nation in 2022, 93 took place in Texas, affecting over 2,300 titles, the association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom found. The ALA said book challenges nearly doubled nationally in 2022 and are “evidence of a growing, well-organized, conservative political movement, the goals of which include removing books about race, history, gender identity, sexuality, and reproductive health from America’s public and school libraries that do not meet their approval.”
The American Library Association itself has come under fire among conservative circles in Texas. In August, Midland County commissioners voted to withdraw from the association. Days later, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission pulled out.
A similar report by PEN America found 3,362 instances of book banning at K-12 schools during the 2022-23 school year, up 33% from the previous year. According to the organization, Florida schools accounted for the most removals, 1,406, followed by Texas with 625.