Books

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

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Becky Harlan/NPR

Becky Harlan/NPR

In the far, far suburbs of Houston, Texas, three teenagers are talking at a coffee shop about a clandestine bookshelf in their public school classroom. It’s filled with books that have been challenged or banned.

“Some of the books that I’ve read are books like Hood Feminism, The Poet X, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces,” says one of the girls. She’s a 17-year-old senior with round glasses and long braids. The books, she says, sparked her feminist consciousness. “I just see, especially in my community, a lot of women being talked down upon and those books [were] really nice to read.”

These students live in a state that has banned more books than nearly any other, according to PEN America. The Texas State Board of Education passed a policy in late 2023 prohibiting what it calls “sexually explicit, pervasively vulgar or educationally unsuitable books in public schools.” Over the past two years, Texas teachers have lost jobs or been pressured to resign after making challenged books available to students.

The teacher who created this bookshelf could become a target for far right-wing groups. That’s why NPR is not naming her, nor her students.

“We don’t want to jeopardize our teacher in any way, or the bookshelf,” another teenager explains. Until recently, he says, was not naturally inclined towards reading. But the secret bookshelf opened a world of characters and situations he immediately related to. “Just to see Latinos, like LGBTQ,” he says. “That’s not something you really see in our community, or it’s not very well represented at all.”

The secret bookshelf began in late 2021, when then-state representative 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.”

The books that make you uncomfortable are the books that make you think. Isn’t that what school is supposed to do? It’s supposed to make you think?

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 nineteen, 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 Kraus 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 for NPR for “highlighting this very important topic but 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 about Anne Frank to her students that showed Anne 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,