Politicians May Be Politicking, But Texas Teens Say Book Bans Are Pointless at Best — Though a Little Guidance Might Be Nice
In the ongoing power struggle between conservative politicians, local school boards, teachers, and parents, library books have become, as the kids would say, iconic — and nowhere is the fight bigger than in Texas.
For politicians like Fort Worth Republican Rep. Matt Krause — who demanded school districts audit their bookshelves for more than 850 titles related to sex and race — books are the encroachment of liberal values into classrooms.
School boards do see challenges about particular books from time to time, but a drastic uptick this school year speaks to the contentiousness of the last two years as mask mandates and critical race theory have packed boardrooms and ballot boxes.
Some parents have said that the graphic or salacious nature of the sex and violence depicted in books is the problem, but Dallas ISD student Symerra Lincoln, 16, like other students her age, said it was nonsensical to try to “censor” the information in the internet age.
“We’re going to find the content they’re censoring from us either way, whether that will be from the school, or online on social media or Google,” she said.
But behind the iconography of a dangerous idea or a political fight, Texas students told The 74 the books — more so the ability to choose for themselves which they read — are a critical part of their development.
They contain stories and protagonists who help them see the world through another’s eyes, and ideas that challenge them. And whether or not they identify with the characters or accept the idea, students said, they feel more mature having formed their own opinion.
“It is very important to read about social issues,” said Lincoln, “We need to read different views and information to form our own opinions on the issues.”
Most of the students did recognize the need for guidance, especially for younger readers, and said librarians should be the one to decide what books are available to which students.
“Librarians should have the most power, because in their profession they have to have a degree (in library science),” said KIPP Beacon (Austin) eighth grader Kai Cantú, 13, “Their job kind of rests on them being unbiased”
Lucy Ibarra Podmore, chair elect of the Texas Association of School Libraries, and a high school librarian in San Antonio, said while parents and politicians are honing in on graphic passages, students rarely focus on those.
“They’re really focusing on the overall arc of the story. That’s what people are missing,” Podmore said. Students are drawn to stories in which teenagers like themselves have complex feelings about their identity, relationships, and the world around them.
Some books do include violence, sexual relationships, and social issues like race and LGBTQ rights come into the story, Podmore explained, because teenagers encounter those things in their real lives. “There are books that are talking about sexual relationships between teenagers because that’s happening.”
While Podmore sees the political posturing and power struggles for what they are—she notes how books about race and LGBTQ identity made up the overwhelming majority of Krause’s list—she also sees the alarmism over mature content as a result of the “rose-colored glasses” through which many adults see teenage lives.
While today’s parents grew up with a dearth of young adult fiction in the 1980’s, going “straight from Beverly Cleary’s Ramona to adult books,” Podmore said, the last 20 years have seen a bloom of novels both resonant and appealing for teenage readers.
Along with the timeless coming of age challenges, today’s students live in a world shaped by social media and political unrest. Lockdown drills to remind them of the possibility of a school shooting, and the pressure to achieve starts as early as selective admission pre-schools.
Books speak to the emotional and social world they are in, Podmore said, “Some kids aren’t talking to anyone about it.” When she recommended that her entire high school read Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green, which tackles the topic of anxiety, she said many students said they’d finally found a way to explain their own anxiety to their parents, friends, and teachers.
She’s been heartbroken to see books about LGBTQ characters at the center of so much furor. It amplifies the message many LGBTQ kids already hear: they are not welcome in the community.
Books help students make sense of things they’ve experienced in other ways too, Podmore said. “Fiction has always been a safe place to explore situations or conversations that you may not be familiar with.” For some, that means putting words to feelings they have or even being able to name ways they have been hurt or abused.
That’s one reason Bellville ISD student Carlos Aponte, 13, said he didn’t want to see parent permission required for checking out books based on content. His teachers let their classes select their own reading, and his parents encourage him to read broadly, but he knows that’s not the case for all of his classmates.
For students who come from abusive situations, or families who might respond negatively to a student coming out as queer or even expressing different political ideas, Aponte said, “Books are an escape.”
At the same time, because his classmates are going through more than the adults in their lives might understand, Aponte does have concerns about content that might graphically depict or romanticize self-harm or death by suicide. “That could have a big impact,” Aponte said, “It’s tricky.”
While older students felt they should have access to any content or topic, they recognized the need to be cognizant of people’s sensitivities.
“I don’t think that any high school would allow content that contains violence that does not pertain to history,” said Dallas ISD student Kennedie Westbrook, 16, “However, I think that content which details heart-wrenching events like Antisemitism and slavery should advise the reader to be wary. Viewer discretion advised.”
Podmore said she did something similar when she was a middle school librarian, by putting “YA” (young adult) stickers on books with more mature content. She told students just like they knew their family’s rules about what they could and could not watch l on television or the internet, they needed to respect their family’s boundaries around reading. If their parents wanted them to hold off on some of the more mature content, she said, she hoped they would.
“They’re kind of self-governing and very self-aware,” Podmore said, “More self-aware than the adults are giving them credit for.”
At the same time, Cantú said, it could be a good idea for a librarian to monitor certain books, and require the student to debrief with the librarian, such as books with Nazi or neo-Nazi characters, or books like Mein Kampf. Having access to those ideas is important, Cantú said, even if just to see how “messed up” and dangerous those views are. but the school should make sure that is indeed the message the students are getting.
What it’s really about
The American Library Association does offer guidelines for communities to reconsider books accused of being offensive or inappropriate, and it’s a process that isn’t unfamiliar to most librarians, Podmore said. What’s bothering her now is the political furor and fear have led many to shortcut the process— which keeps books on the shelves as committees of parents, librarians, and teachers deliberate— and give into the loudest voice in the room.
In some ways, it does feel like the political fight over books and the reality of how students engage those books are happening on two different planes, she said. Students are not gobbling up graphic content, nor are the books transforming ambivalent teens into activists.
On the other hand, whom teens empathize with, and what their minds are open to are not without political consequences. Empathizing with their LGBTQ neighbors or the concerns raised by the Black Lives Matter movement might change the way they vote one day. It might change the policies they support.
“I think that it’s important to read about social issues because it helps society to grow empathy towards oppressed groups,“ Westbrook said, “It also exposes people to the harsh reality that their neighbor next door might face.”
Podmore referenced Ashley Herring Blake’s middle grade novels that tenderly handle the issue of pronouns in ways sixth graders took in stride. “The adults tend to make a much bigger deal about this than the kids,” Podmore said. The kids took the issue of pronouns and gender identity in stride, while adults feel like much more explaining is necessary.
Books come to the aid of students whose parents aren’t ready to have a conversation a student is ready to have, Podmore said, but it would be a mistake for parents to think the book put the idea in the kid’s head.
Students suggested adults — both parents and teachers — embrace the discomfort.
“While it’s typically an uncomfortable topic to talk about, at our age we already know about sex and how babies are made,” Westbrook said. “But we have to take health class. So why not talk about other uncomfortable topics like racism, stereotypes, homophobia, etc?”
But making pronouns not a big deal — even more putting queer characters in the central role with whom the reader is supposed to identify — is part of the social change parents and politicians are resisting, Podmore said. “That’s what scaring a lot of people. Their experience isn’t centered anymore.”