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Push to purge some books from schools highlights nation's cultural schism


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: A new report from the American Library Association shows that attempts to ban books in the U.S. surged last year to the highest level since the group began tracking book challenges 20 years ago.

According to the study, most of the top targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQ people. It is an issue now tied up in local state and national politics.

Jeffrey Brown recently went to one epicenter in Texas to report for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Student: It's almost like she's betrayed by her own mind by creating that fantasy, and also betrayed by this person that she idolized for so long.

Jeffrey Brown: A book club discussion in the library at Vandegrift High School in the Leander, Texas, Independent School District northwest of Austin. But this is the banned book club, where the reading list is made up of books removed from classrooms.

It was started by sophomores Alyssa Hoy and Ella Scott.

Alyssa Hoy, Co-Founder, Vandegrift High School Banned Book Club: I think it was really unexpected that they were taking these out of the classroom.

Jeffrey Brown: Unexpected?

Alyssa Hoy: Yes. I think these are critically acclaimed books. And they're loved by so many people. And they tell very powerful and engaging stories that should be told.

Jeffrey Brown: Have you noticed themes in the books that are -- that are being questioned?

Alyssa Hoy: Yes, most of the books we read have women or women of color, or people who don't have heterosexual relations, or are just not white straight people as the main characters.

Ella Scott, Co-Founder, Vandegrift High School Banned Book Club: We have noticed that is a really common theme.

Jeffrey Brown: On this day, members were reading "In the Dream House," a memoir by Carmen Maria Machado about an abusive same-sex relationship.

The book was widely praised and on many best-of-the-year lists for 2019. But some parents focus concern on a few brief, but graphic scenes, and, last year, it was one of 11 books and graphic novels removed from classroom libraries and English class book clubs, where no specific book is required, but students choose from lists of about 15 books to read and discuss.

Nine of the 11 remain available in school libraries, but are under review for possible removal there as well. The banned book club members are reading in order to add their voices to the debate.

What did you take from "In the Dream House."

Ella Scott: I learned a lot about abusive relationships, which is something I can't just know unless you go through it. And it taught me how it affects a person. It gives you insight into how it really damages a person.

Jeffrey Brown: Not so far away, Roosevelt Weeks, director of Austin's public libraries, also makes it personal.

Roosevelt Weeks, Director of Libraries, Austin Public Library: It's still up to that parent to say, hey, I don't want my child to read that. It is a parent's responsibility of that child.

But I don't want a group of people to tell my son or my daughter what to read.

Jeffrey Brown: In Texas, as elsewhere, the issue is deeply politicized. Last October, Republican state Representative Matt Krause, then running for Texas attorney general, sent schools statewide a letter demanding to know whether they had any books on a list of about 850 titles.

He said he was concerned about materials that -- quote -- "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex." The national free speech group PEN America denounced the move as targeting race, sexuality and gender.

A month later, Governor Greg Abbott called on state education officials to develop standards to prevent -- quote -- "pornography and other obscene content." And local school board meetings have become contentious.

Trista Parks, Parent, Leander Independent School District: Part of the problem is parents just flat-out don't realize. I had a -- I never in a million years would have thought some of this material would be in a classroom with minors.

We are community divided.

Jeffrey Brown: Trista Parks, a parent whose two children graduated from the Leander District, sights explicit, in some cases, violent passages from several books that, as she correctly points out, we can't show on television.

Trista Parks: I'm not sure how any kid being exposed to that kind of graphic material in a classroom can be helpful. So, I don't necessarily fault the author. I'm not saying that this book is bad for adults. I'm not saying that for older people. Go read what you want. You have the freedom to do that.

Yet it's running freely in the school, not only running freely in the school, bought and paid for by taxpayer dollar to feed from teacher to student.

Leander School Board member Aaron Johnson believes the turmoil over books stems from changes in the culture, the publishing world and public education, but that it's moving too fast for many, including his family.

Aaron Johnson, Member, Board of Trustees, Leander Independent School District: I think their domain that parents should primarily address at home with their children, and that, because of the sensitivity and because of differing values in different homes in our community, it's difficult to do this well across an entire spectrum of public education in the classroom.

Jeffrey Brown: Johnson worked with two other board members last fall to recommend updates to the district's policy for adding and removing books to curriculum. While acknowledging that books in the classroom book clubs aren't required, he says the overall list shows what he calls a leftward bias.

Aaron Johnson: But when we approach those themes with similarly situated materials or materials with similar points of view, we're not really getting much balance. We're creating bias in materials that should be neutral.

Jeffrey Brown: Of course, the argument is always that there is no neutral, right, I mean, that what you call the pre-ideological days had its own ideology that left out these voices.

Aaron Johnson: I don't know that I subscribe to that. If we're talking about stories from new and different voices, that's great. I'm OK with that. But the question I will ask is, are they going to fundamentally challenge what I'm trying to do from a moral perspective at home? And if they do, then we're violating trust with our community.

Jeffrey Brown: To Johnson, this is about choosing, not banning books.

Austin Public Library's director, Roosevelt Weeks, sees something else.

Roosevelt Weeks: You start saying that you can't read this book, I don't want this book in the library, then, in essence, that book is being banned.

And that's what's happening. They actually need to pull these books from the shelves. And that's what's happening. That's real. There's politicians that's threatened to pull funding if I put a book on a shelf. That's banning.

Jeffrey Brown: Weeks is a member of the Texas Library Association, which represents public and school librarians. The group recently unveiled a campaign called Texans for the Right to Read, in the face of what it sees as a tax that could potentially hold librarians themselves legally liable for supplying books others deem inappropriate.

Roosevelt Weeks: Libraries, I believe, are one of the last bastion of democracy. And that's being attacked.

You are trying to tell me what I shouldn't read or what I should read. That's being attacked. And when I can't critically think for myself, then that's what we are, and that's what's causing a lot of the issues in this country.

Woman: There is a war being waged on youth in Texas right now. And education is the battlefront.


Jeffrey Brown: Such sentiments were heard from speaker after speaker at a recent rally at the Texas capitol put on by Voters of Tomorrow, a youth activist group.

Carolyn Foote, Co-Founder, FReadom Fighters: Your libraries, librarians, teachers and school boards are being attacked in this current culture war.

Jeffrey Brown: One of them, Carolyn Foote, a retired school librarian and co-founder of FReadom Fighters, misspelled to emphasize read.

She sees a chilling effect under way with political attacks from the right causing school districts to take books off shelves to avoid potential problems, with librarians caught in the middle, some even leaving the profession.

Carolyn Foote: They have pressure from the parents. They're having pressure from within their administration sometimes to do things they don't think meet with their professional ethics. And then they're getting pressured from students to keep materials on the shelf or to do something about it, and to support their stories.

And so they're really in this really pressure cooker situation that's very difficult.

Jeffrey Brown: One thing everyone we spoke with believes, there's more to come, as this story about stories and books themselves continues to play out in homes, schools, and the public arena.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Austin, Texas.

Judy Woodruff: Thank you, Jeff.

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