February 22, 2024

A secret shelf of banned books thrives in a Texas school, under the nose of censors


The secret bookshelf began in late 2021, when then-state Rep. Matt Krause sent public schools a list of 850 books he wanted banned from schools. They might, he said, “make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.”

That made this teacher furious. “The books that make you uncomfortable are the books that make you think,” she told NPR. “Isn’t that what school is supposed to do? It’s supposed to make you think?”

She swung into action, calling friends to support a bookshelf that would include all of the books Krause wanted banned. Then she enlisted a student to put it together.

“I went through the list and found the ones that I thought were cool,” he recalled to NPR over a London Fog latte. “And then she gave me her [credit] card and I bought them. It was a lot of gay books, I remember that.”

That same student came out as trans to his family while in high school. “I wouldn’t call them supportive, so I had to do a lot of sneaking around,” he said quietly. Now 19, he’s graduated and works as a host in a restaurant while deciding on his next move.

“Having these books, having these stories out there meant a lot to me, because I felt seen,” he said. Especially meaningful, he added, during a fraught time when Texas lawmakers banned transition-related care for teenagers. “Because of the way the laws are going for trans people especially,” he said, “it could be assumed that [my teacher is] grooming kids. And that would be terrible because that’s not what she’s doing at all.”

NPR repeatedly reached out to former Texas lawmaker Matt Krause for comment and got no response. He is currently running for county commissioner in the Fort Worth area. The chief of communications for the public school district thanked NPR for “highlighting this very important topic,” but said, “we’re going to pass on this opportunity,” when asked to comment on how administrators are implementing policies around books that have been challenged.

“We’ve been seeing a climate of fear — and a variety of self-censorship — going on by school leaders or librarians who do not understand the implications of the law or are fearful for their jobs,” said Carolyn Foote. She’s a retired English teacher and librarian who co-created the activist group Texas FReadom Fighters.

Kasey Meehan of the free speech advocacy group PEN America says she’s watched things in Texas escalate. She points to a teacher fired last year for sharing a graphic novel with her students that showed Anne Frank having a romantic daydream about another girl. Another teacher featured on an NBC podcast left her job under pressure after making literature available to students featuring a positive transgender character.

“Parents are taking books from schools and bringing them to police or sheriff offices and accusing librarians and educators of providing sexually explicit material to students,” Meehan says.

“It does make me nervous,” admitted the Houston teacher with the secret bookshelf. “I mean, this is absolutely silly that I am not free to talk about books without giving my name and worrying about repercussions.”

At some point, she hopes, it will no longer have to be a secret. Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals blocked part of a recently passed state bill, known as HB 900, that would have required booksellers and publishers to rate any books sold to schools for sexual content. This was seen as a victory for freedom-to-read activists, but some of them noted to NPR that HB 900 still contains dangerously vague language about material prohibited in school and no clear guidelines about enforcement.

“I do believe that book banning is going to go away,” the teacher says, firmly. But for now she adds, “I intend for this library to just keep growing.”

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



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