Texas youth say book bans violate their rights and take away 'the joy of reading'
Carlos Barron said it’s important for young people to see themselves in the books they read. For him, one of those books was Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, a coming-of-age story about two Mexican-American teenagers in El Paso.
“It was really cute seeing two Mexican boys being represented in such a cute love story," the 18-year-old said. "I felt represented in that story line."
Barron, who graduated from Austin ISD’s Eastside Early College High School in May, said he's worried current students won't have the same chance to read these books because of intensifying efforts to ban books in Texas schools.
“There’s kids out there that are not going to see that type of representation growing up,” he said.
Sebastian De Anda, 19, who also graduated from Eastside this year, said it’s important for young people to find books they can connect with, especially if they cover topics that can be hard to discuss with family, like LGBTQ+ rights.
"Maybe your family is very conservative and you're just trying to expand your knowledge to more things or having your own perspective," he said. "And now they cannot have that same freedom to learn those things."
De Anda and Barron each described books as a safe space.
"Books are sort of a second home to some kids growing up," Barron said.
They both work with Youth Rise Texas, an Austin-based group that opposes a law the Texas Legislature passed this year to ban "sexually explicit" books from school libraries. They argue House Bill 900, which a federal judge has temporarily blocked, is harmful to young people because it violates their privacy, takes away their freedom to read, and could make them feel alienated.
Banning 'sexually explicit' materials
HB 900 does not just seek to ban "sexually explicit" books in school libraries. It would also require students to get permission from a parent or “person standing in parental relation” to check out books deemed “sexually relevant.” The law puts the responsibility on book vendors to rate the materials they have sold and will sell to school districts.
State Rep. Jared Patterson is the author of the GOP bill, which also garnered support from a handful of Democrats. The Frisco Republican described the legislation as an effort to protect children and empower parents.
“Books are some of the most powerful experiences for our children,” he said on the Texas House floor back in April. “The intent of this legislation is to ensure that the content we are providing to our youth, notably provided by taxpayer dollars, is the content we want the next generation seeing.”
But a day before the bill was set to take effect on Sept. 1, a federal judge blocked it. A coalition of groups and booksellers — including Austin’s BookPeople — sued state officials charged with developing and implementing the new school library standards. The plaintiffs argued, among other things, the law violates the constitutional right to free speech.
On Monday, the state appealed the court's decision.
Opponents of the law have said the restrictions would have a disproportionate impact on books that feature people of color and LGBTQ+ characters. Maggie Stern, the youth engagement program and policy manager at the Children’s Defense Fund Texas, said HB 900 also infringes on the rights of kids and young people.
“Children have rights to read freely and to find books that spark their imagination and let them explore new ideas or concepts they might be unfamiliar with,” she said.
Stern also raised concerns about the attempt to require students to get permission to check out certain titles. She said not all students have supportive parents who want them to read books they're interested in, especially if those books address certain topics.
"It really can harm them if their parents know what they’re reading about if they are reading about LGBTQ+ identity, or sexual assaults, or abuse,” she said.
De Anda said books played an important role in his life.
“Me, as part of the LGBTQ community, reading those books, it was like trying to have this connection with myself and the book," he said, "because it was a certain topic I couldn’t talk about with my family because maybe my family wasn’t going to accept me, maybe my family is going to judge me."
Barron said needing to get permission to read a book violates young people’s privacy, as well.
“When adults take that away from you and they’re like, 'Oh you can’t read that’ because of whatever reason, I feel like then you don’t have the privacy and the joy of reading a book,” he said.
Bria Virgil, the co-executive director of Youth Rise Texas, said one way the group works to ensure students can access books they want to read is through a library in its office.
"Youth are more than welcome to contribute books to and also checkout books across a wide range of different topics, so they can still stay politically educated," she said. "Trying to maintain that access to resources for our youth is first in mind for us."
Books validate student experiences
Barron said he understands that some adults think they’re doing the right thing by keeping certain books from children. But, he wonders who gets to decide what is and isn’t appropriate.
“What [are] sensitive topics? Like why is being gay such a sensitive topic?” he asked.
Barron said many kids start learning about their sexual orientation and gender identity in middle school and books play an important role in them understanding and accepting themselves.
“These books are giving them a sense of like, they are valid, they are real," he said. "I feel like banning books with those specific topics is just keeping them away from what they’re going to face when they grow up."
And, while there are more representations of LGBTQ+ people in media, De Anda said students spend most of their time in school and should feel represented there, too.
“Now we can’t have this representation in schools, in the libraries? It’s kind of awful," he said. "I feel kind of mad as well."
De Anda said it’s upsetting to see state lawmakers focus on banning books when there are so many other challenges facing young people, such as inadequate mental health resources and the fentanyl crisis.
“Why are you making laws to ban books when there’s serious problems happening across the country from like California to Florida?” he said.
Where does HB 900 stand now?
In his order temporarily blocking HB 900 from taking effect, U.S. District Judge Alan Albright said even though he agrees students should be protected from obscene content in school, the law "misses the mark on obscenity with a web of unconstitutionally vague requirements."
He added that the state cannot require book vendors to rate materials based on sexual content, at least not in the way the law currently requires. He said the law does not provide enough guidance and would be "prohibitively expensive" for vendors.
"For whatever reason, Texas chose not to have anyone employed by the state at any level make the initial evaluation of the sexual content," Albright wrote. "It chose instead to impose this extraordinarily difficult and prohibitively expensive burden solely on third parties with totally insufficient guidance."
Albright declined the state's request to let Texas officials continue to develop the new library standards while the law is on hold. He concluded HB 900 ultimately violates the First Amendment.
Plaintiffs, including BookPeople CEO Charley Rejsek, applauded the judge's ruling, saying the law "imposes impossibly onerous conditions on booksellers, and ignores the vastly different community standards across local communities."
Soon after the judge released the written order explaining his decision, the state appealed. The case now heads to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Texas leads the nation in book challenges
Whether HB 900 eventually takes effect, efforts to ban books continue to rise in Texas and across the country. The state had the most book challenges in the country in 2022, according to a recent report from the American Library Association. The organization found there were 93 attempts last year to ban 2,349 books in Texas. The ALA said the most challenged title was The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, which is considered a classic American novel.
State Rep. Patterson, himself, challenged more than two dozen titles within his local school district before introducing statewide book restrictions during the last legislative session.
And in anticipation of HB 900, school districts in Texas began to review their collections or held off on buying new books. Take Katy ISD in the Houston area. That district’s school board decided over the summer to stop buying new library books and put recently purchased ones in storage until they could be reviewed. When Fort Worth ISD students returned to campus this year, school libraries were closed and remained closed for two weeks. District employees were poring over books to see if any had sexually explicit or violent content.
Shirley Robinson, executive director of the Texas Library Association, said there are also informal attempts to censor what’s in school and local libraries throughout the state.
“We’re seeing things like books being checked out or books being damaged, potentially, or the library staff or administrators going in and just arbitrarily pulling books because they might have content that could be seen as potentially problematic,” she said.
Robinson said regardless of what happens with HB 900, librarians are going to continue to face scrutiny.
“When all of this started two and a half years ago, it set things in motion that are going to be very difficult to unwind,” she said. “The harm to the professionalism and training of our librarians, as well as the collections they curate for very diverse populations across the state, has already been done.”
Even though he is out of school, De Anda said he is sad the push to ban books continues. Barron added book bans could actually cause students to seek out the titles that are getting challenged.
“When you are an adult and you’re telling a kid, ‘Don’t do this,' they’re going to do it more," he said. "So I feel like when you’re an adult and you’re like ‘You can’t read this book,’ now they want to read it because it’s interesting to them. It’s something an adult is keeping away from them and now they want to read it even more.”
Copyright 2023 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.