When state Rep. Matt Krause sought information from all Texas school districts about a list of more than 800 books he found objectionable or at least suspect, most of the state’s roughly 1,000 school districts ignored him.
They had good reason. It was clearly a political move by Krause, a Fort Worth Republican. One of 150 state representatives and little-known beyond his district, Krause had recently entered a crowded race to challenge Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in the Republican primary. He desperately needed statewide publicity. What better way to get the attention of his party’s base than to attack schools over books dealing with sex, sexual identity and race?
Krause sought information on which school libraries and which classrooms had each of the books on his list and how much the school districts had paid for the books. He also wanted districts to identify any other books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or gender.
If districts had met his absurdly short deadline of Nov. 12, they would have given him a huge cache of ammunition with which to alarm conservative Republican voters in the run-up to the March 1 Texas primary. Krause’s gambit failed and he soon quit the attorney general race to run locally for district attorney.
One of the few school districts that did respond to his fishing expedition was San Antonio’s North East Independent School District, Bexar County’s second largest. About three weeks after receiving a letter from Krause, Superintendent Sean Maika replied regarding its holdings of books on the lengthy list, then noted that those holdings had cost a total of $33,705.71, or 0.00269% of the approximately $12.5 million worth of books in its combined collections.
Maika said the district did not have a database that enabled it to identify books that might make students uncomfortable.
For even responding to Krause and taking up a review of its library holdings employing Krause’s list, NEISD drew national attention and considerable local flak. Last week the ACLU blasted both NEISD and the Houston-area districts of Klein and Katy for removing books related to race and sexual identity from their libraries. And the Brooklyn, New York, public library, naming Krause’s letter among other national controversies, offered free access to its huge online library to teens in schools that have removed books.
But it’s safe to say that Krause would not have been pleased by NEISD’s effort. Maika told parents in an email that he had already planned a review of the district’s library holdings after coming across a racially charged book last spring. The book was identified as The Story of Little Black Sambo.
In my opinion, Maika made a mistake by employing Krause’s list as a useful guide in conducting the review. Not only did this imply legitimacy for Krause’s efforts, but Krause’s list is a ridiculous, even laughable compilation, a pathetic platform for a serious review of a collection. I encourage you to read this thorough and entertaining analysis of the list.
The process NEISD used supports Maika’s claim that the effort was not about censorship or book-banning. He did not seek outside help in conducting the review, nor did he appoint a committee of teachers, librarians and parents. He relied on experts already on-site — the professional librarians in each of the district’s 70 schools.
According to Aubrey Chancellor, NEISD’s executive director of communications, the librarian in each school led a review of their own library’s holdings. The librarians then made the decision for their libraries as to whether a book would be kept, replaced with a book with similar themes, or reassessed as appropriate for different grade levels.
The titles alone of the books on Krause’s list that the librarians chose to keep would have raised the blood pressure of conservative voters uncomfortable with students reading about gay and transgender issues or about the history and current experience of racism in America.
Examples: The Confessions of Nat Turner. Hear Us Out! Lesbian and Gay Stories of Struggle, Progress and Hope. Kissing Kate. The Abortion Debate: Understanding the Issues. October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. LGBTQ Families: The Ultimate Teen Guide. Some Assembly Required: The Not-So-Secret Life of a Transgender Teen. Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. This Book Is Gay. Two Boys Kissing. Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. An African American and Latinx History of the United States. Everything You Love Will Burn: Inside the Rebirth of White Nationalism in America. How to Be an Antiracist. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Black Lives Matter: Protesting Racism.
There are more, but you get the picture.
For an assessment of the list of books that were “updated,” which is to say replaced, at some schools, I consulted an expert on children’s books — my daughter Rosalind Casey. Rosalind is an assistant manager at Books of Wonder, New York’s premier children’s bookstore. She has been helping children and parents find just the right book for more than a decade, including several years at The Twig Book Shop in San Antonio.
Rosalind agreed that it is quite appropriate for libraries to regularly review their collections and replace books that have become outdated. She said many of the nonfiction books on Krause’s list needed to be updated. What gave her pause, however, were the lists of suggested replacements for those, and for fiction books.
Because of their workloads, the replacement suggestions were not drawn up by the librarians but by central office staffers in the district’s department of library services. NEISD’s Chancellor stressed that they are just suggestions, and that decisions on replacements are made by the individual librarians.
Rosalind said the suggested replacement lists looked like staffers had used Google and Goodreads to do searches of kids’ books on sexual identity and racial issues. Goodreads is a website designed to help readers find books they like. It is owned by Amazon and regarded by some as mediocre at best.
“It tends to be ground zero for online flame wars about books,” Rosalind said. But it is so massive, she said, that Goodreads comes up first if you Google “good kids’ books with trans characters.”
She gave several examples of replacement suggestions she found problematic, but I’ll focus on just a couple. The book that at least one librarian decided to replace was The Miseducation of Cameron Post. The comment was that it was “superseded by a book with more positive reviews on a similar subject.”
The book follows the teen years of a Montana girl in the 1990s whose parents die in a car crash the same night as her first kiss with another girl. She is placed with her religious aunt and grandmother, who send her to conversion therapy after discovering her relationship with a high school classmate.
The novel was runner-up for the 2013 American Library Association’s William C. Morris Debut Young Adult Award and was on the best books lists for 2012 of the School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist and the Boston Globe. A movie of the same title based on the book won a top prize at Sundance Film Festival.
Rosalind said none of the suggested replacements had reviews and awards as good as Miseducation. What’s more, they tended to deal with the foster care system and not with coming-out issues and conversion therapy.
Rosalind’s most “gleeful incredulity” came in response to the recommendation of a book called Light from Uncommon Stars to replace three other books, all about kids dealing with gender identity.
Rosalind said the recommendation was probably from someone relying on Google, but could possibly have been someone trolling Krause. “The state rep would blow a gasket,” she said.
“It did receive the [American Library Association’s] Alex Award for Books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults,” Rosalind said. “It is more explicit than any of the books it was recommended to replace. It’s a sci-fi/fantasy adventure with queer alien romance, violence, sexual violence, profanity, and young musicians selling their souls to the devil. Content aside, it just doesn’t make any sense as a replacement for, say, Gracefully Grayson, an introspective, character-driven story about a middle-schooler dealing with grief and gender identity.”
So the NEISD process may have had some glitches, but overall it was not, as many feared or concluded, an exercise in censorship. Students today are, thankfully, much more aware of and accepting of sexual identity differences in society and among their classmates than their grandparents were. To remove books about these topics would be a strong signal that gay and transgender teens should be sent back into the closet.
And racism, in history and the present, remains a vital topic. Students need to know its ugly history and the story of the progress we’ve made in order to play their roles in continuing the work.
Far from being the “pornography” that Gov. Greg Abbott has cynically accused librarians of purveying, the books that deal with these topics need to be available to young people.