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Read All About It: Lubbock book bans and those standing against them

“Every school has its own little culture,” one of the librarians said. “And we are in that culture with the kids and trying to learn that culture with them so that we can respond to their particular interests.”
Samantha Larned
Texas Tech Public Media
“Every school has its own little culture,” one of the librarians said. “And we are in that culture with the kids and trying to learn that culture with them so that we can respond to their particular interests.”

For the month of October, our reporter Samantha Larned will feature new stories each week highlighting books, authors, and literacy in Lubbock with our series, "Read All About It." Stay tuned to 89.1 FM, and for more.

Texas House Bill 900 is under a temporary hold issued by a federal judge on the grounds that it may be in violation of the First Amendment, but debates about what books should be available in libraries continue across the state and here in Lubbock.

HB 900, which was set to go into effect on September 1, is intended to require booksellers to rate all materials for appropriateness before selling them to public schools and to recall previously sold items that have been deemed inappropriate.

The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom reported that 49% of the book challenges it recorded from January 1 to August 31 were in public libraries. It has been a particular point of contention in Midland County libraries, but according to the City of Lubbock’s communications and marketing manager, Lubbock’s public libraries have not “had to deal with” banned books as much as the public school libraries.

In response to a meeting of the True Texas Project in Lubbock, which called for an increase in book bans, the Lubbock Freedom to Read Coalition was formed.

The Lubbock Freedom to Read Coalition is a grassroots, nonpartisan group that seeks to combat book bans and inform people about the truth behind them, using methods like teach-ins, action committees, letter writing, and speaking at school board meetings, according to members Peter Muhlberger and Kristi Giemza.

The coalition is affiliated with people who care about and support public schools, such as educators and parents of children in the district, Giemza explained. There is also an overlap with the Lubbock branch of the NAACP, as the banning of books by Black, Indigenous, and authors of color is a major concern in the community.

In contrast, Giemza said that the most outspoken individuals in favor of the book bans here in Lubbock, do not have children in Lubbock ISD. In a meeting of the True Texas Project in Lubbock, one member explained the book-banning strategy of starting by targeting sexually explicit material, then moving on to what they refer to as “LGBT propaganda” and books dealing with critical race theory.

Speakers in favor of book bans cite the protection of children as their main cause, but Giemza explained that some of the books being challenged are protective.

“It helps kids feel connected if they feel lonely,” Giemza said. “This is a huge protective effect for suicide. If you don’t feel like you’re the only kid who’s gone through that, that can be extremely therapeutic.”

KTTZ also sat down with two librarians in one of Lubbock’s public school districts, who wished to remain anonymous. They said the book-banning debate has a chilling effect on library professionals, with some not buying LGBTQ+ books for fear of pushback.

When people call for the banning of certain books, they are only protecting their bubble and their own personal perspectives, the librarians explained.

They live in that world,” one librarian said. “We live in all the worlds.”

The librarians talk to up to 900 students a day and spend most of their days interacting with students.

By state law, public school librarians cannot discriminate. This means they have to use the same metric for queer content and heterosexual content. So when books like Bloom are challenged and removed for having a scene with two boys kissing, they should then remove all books with a boy and a girl kissing, which would mean losing massive swaths of books across genres.

“It’s not just about sexual content,” one of the librarians said. “It’s about worldviews.”

None of the library staff want to corrupt children, they explained, different people just have different definitions of what is appropriate, especially when they serve such a diverse community.

The librarians stressed that they are meant to serve the whole community. One of them said she treats a request for more Christian fiction in the library with the same weight as a request for more books about LGBTQ+ girls, both of which, she said, are difficult to find.

“We have an ethical standard to serve all individuals in a community and not just a perceived homogenous majority,” one of the librarians said.

Giemza said educational institutions are not meant to impose any kind of view on children, but to present them with perspectives and allow them to develop informed opinions. She questioned how a child can grow into a critically thinking adult if they are only shown a narrow and limited point of view.

The best thing parents can do is have a conversation with their child about what is appropriate and why they might not want them reading a certain book, the librarians said.

For those who do not want their child to read certain books, there are measures in place. Like requesting alternative assignments and providing the school librarian with a list of books they do not want their child to check out.

“There are plenty of choices, there’s plenty of transparency, despite what you’re hearing from these groups,” Giemza said.

One of the librarians, who works at a middle school, said she will even ask kids if their parents would be okay with them reading a certain book and always honors it when the parents tell them what they do not want their children reading.

This plays into one of the main issues the Lubbock Freedom to Read Coalition has with book-banning groups: a small number of parents making choices for everyone.

Muhlberger referred to this as ‘oppressive parenting.’ And defined it as parents who decide their children will only see what they want them to see, which is a “very narrow slice of the world.”

If children cannot find the information they’re looking for, there’s a good chance they’ll turn to their peers for the answers, or to the internet, Muhlberger said. Which are even more unpredictable than the books they’re likely to find at the library.

Control is why book banning is such a popular issue, according to one of the librarians. She explained that parents don’t have control over the internet, but they can go to a school board meeting or send an email to a school principal.

House Bill 900, which is currently on hold after a ruling from a federal judge, threatens to take control away from the community and give it to those selling books.

The librarians have a budget for about 400 books a year, 100 of which are replacements for lost or damaged books. When librarians put together an order for new books, they look at bestseller lists and requests from parents. They research every book on the list, reading some in their entirety and reading multiple reviews for every single one. The process takes weeks.

“Every school has its own little culture,” one of the librarians said. “And we are in that culture with the kids and trying to learn that culture with them so that we can respond to their particular interests.”

Under HB 900, there is no concrete standard for vendors to use in labeling books as “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant,” making it difficult to know if their definition will align with individual schools and communities, or even with one another.

This is not a responsibility that vendors want, the librarians said, it will take a lot of time and resources for businesses that likely did not publish the books in the first place.

Within Lubbock school districts, not many books have been banned, according to the librarians, and having books challenged is rare, but on the rise.

A book can only be challenged if the person issuing it has read the whole book and finds it objectionable, not just a single passage. After that, a committee is formed, composed of a librarian, teacher, parent, community member, and an employee of the district’s central office. All of the committee acts as a jury and members read the book and hold a meeting to determine if it should be removed.

Librarians and educators don’t always agree as to whether a book should be kept or removed, but the librarians said the process is a democratic one and they yield to the wishes of the community.

Librarians also pull books off the shelves without being challenged, be it because it is too intense or inappropriate, or just because it isn’t being read. They are very careful about what they put on the shelves and about what they spend their funds on.

Particularly at a middle school, librarians are aware that there are varying maturity levels. A 14-year-old and an 11-year-old might have different literary needs.

However, Giemza said restricting by age seems short-sighted, as not all kids are at the same maturity level just because of their age.

In addition to widely challenged books like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, American Psycho, Fan Girl, and the graphic novels Flamer and Bloom, Muhlberger says that common categories within banned book lists, including Texas Representative Matt Krause’s 850 book list, are books about civil and women’s rights, racial struggles, climate change, mistakes made by governments, books with queer characters, books about the human body (including pregnancy and sexual education), and books about physical or sexual abuse– which could be vital for children who don’t realize that they’re being abused.

Muhlberger said: “And if you add that all together, I think what you end up with is the impression that the books these people are trying to ban are very specifically books that they think if banned will turn the clock back on about a half-century of social progress regarding women, non-Whites, and queer people. And return to some fantasy version of the 1950s in which America is all White, heterosexual and Christian and patriarchal.”

The Freedom to Read Coalition and the librarians said they believe a majority of people support the freedom to read, but those in favor of book bans are speaking louder. Those against book bans need to be active and engaged, according to one librarian.

“I believe Lubbock knows better than this,” said Giemza. “I think they’re gonna see it for what it is. So I hope that we maintain our current policies in the schools and move on toward working on the actual issues and the actual challenges that public schools are facing right now.”

The Lubbock Freedom to Read Coalition has a public Facebook page, which displays some of its main arguments and where people can sign up to join, and a private Facebook group with more than 260 members.

Book bans can be a scary subject, but next week we’ll up the ante as we explore Lubbock’s haunted literature.

Samantha Larned is a reporter with KTTZ. Arizona-born and raised, she got her start at Arizona Public Media and moved to Lubbock after graduating from university. Samantha has a focus on culture and social issues journalism.