Librarians Fight Book Bans With Twitter Takeover
Texas has become a battleground over book banning. A state representative is investigating which school districts carry titles that could cause students “discomfort.” The governor has accused school libraries of carrying pornography and demanded a review of their stacks.
Now entering the fray is a cavalry of librarians, who are taking to social media in opposition of what they say is an attack on their professionalism—and on student access to diverse books.
In October, Texas Rep. Matt Krause sent a letter to the state’s education agency demanding that school districts report whether they carry titles from a list of 850 books, or any other that could “make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” The books are largely written by diverse authors and feature LGBTQ characters, sex education or racism.
Part of the fervor in Texas and around the country is over the perceived teaching of critical race theory, or CRT, in K-12 schools. It even played a role in Republican Glenn Youngkin’s successful bid for the Virginia governorship. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott piled on in November, citing parent anger in his directive to the Texas Association of School Boards to investigate “clearly pornographic images” and inappropriate materials in libraries. (The association does not have regulatory power over schools.)
Throughout the scuffle, librarians and authors have been watching with a growing sense of alarm and anger. They see the uproar as a push toward censorship, with racist and sexist undercurrents.
A group of librarians decided to flip the conversation and quietly began organizing a Twitter takeover. On Nov. 4, they flooded the #txlege hashtag with tweets about the power of young adult books, many that were on Krause’s list, using #FReadom. (The hashtag combines the words “freedom” and “read.”)
“One of the chilling effects is people get scared, and you get siloed. You're afraid, you're alone,” says Twitter takeover organizer Carolyn Foote, a library consultant who spent 29 years as a school librarian. “We hope people realize they’re not alone—there are people and librarians fighting for students to have rights to literature and information.”
As more and more people use public outcries to question books in schools rather than use established review processes, libraries are stuck in the middle of a culture war. Becky Calzada, Leander ISD library coordinator and another Twitter takeover organizer, says not every student has access to books outside of libraries, making it all the more impactful when books are taken out of circulation.
“We’ve got some book deserts, so the school library is the only place some students can get the information or the pleasure reading they need,” Calzada says. “We’ve got kids who don’t even have 10 books they own at home.”
Author Ashley Hope Pérez grew up in East Texas, and her 2015 book “Out of Darkness” is on Krause’s list of books under scrutiny. Its plot centers on the romance between a Black boy and Latina girl in rural 1930s Texas. The characters deal with racism in their community and abuse at home.
Six years after publication, Pérez’s book still gets challenged. The National Coalition Against Censorship spoke out against the removal of the novel from two Austin-area schools this fall. Over the years, the author has come to recognize patterns in outrage over books like hers. She says campaigns tend to come from right-leaning groups that frame the issue as one of parent concern over sexual content and comprehensive sex education.
“There’s a lot of effort to suggest the mere presence of these books in schools is part of a coordinated attempt in public education to force young people to adopt a particular perspective,” Pérez says. “I think a lot of parents believe that’s what they’re responding to, but they’re ultimately tools of these political organizations. Those parents may or may not may not be aware of it, but framing public education as untrustworthy, teachers and librarians as the enemy, plays into a broader narrative that undermines public education. Republicans have been in that business for a long time.”
Jimmy Kimmel aired a clip of a parent yelling at the Lake Travis school board over “Out of Darkness,” claiming it encourages middle school students to have sex due to the appearance of the word “cornhole.” Pérez says she could tell the parent didn’t actually read the book, which is par for the course among her critics.
“Even if it doesn't work in the sense that most people don’t object to their teenager engaging with content that’s complex, what they do succeed in is creating a muddy narrative of what schools are up to,” Pérez says. “If someone says this is pornography, and if you say it’s not, then you’re in an argument about what’s pornography. We’re already in a bad place if we’re having the conversation on those terms.”
Pérez works with PEN America and National Coalition Against Censorship because she feels these controversies ultimately send the message that Black, Latino and LGBTQ stories—and perhaps those students—don’t belong in schools.
“The idea that Abbott or Krause knows better what’s appropriate for kids to read than the professionals that have been trained in those areas, it’s just laughable,” Pérez says, “but somehow that has become acceptable.”
Sparking a (Twitter) Trend
Foote says that a few days after Krause’s letter of investigation came out, librarians started talking. They knew their professional organization, the Texas Library Association, would speak out, but they felt the pull to take action.
Calzada had the Twitter takeover idea while scrolling #txlege hashtag, usually dominated by policy wonks and reporters. She wanted to make a statement about how diverse young adult novels aren’t just entertainment—they can change students’ lives.
“I didn’t read a book about a Latina child or woman until I was an adult,” Calzada says. “You grow up reading the classics, but they’re all white kids. It’s getting better, and we see more books that kids can see themselves in.”
Foote says they spread the word about the Twitter takeover in secret. She was traveling in California on Nov. 4 and woke up at 5 a.m. to participate. By day’s end, the hashtag was trending.
She and other librarians, who adopted the moniker FReadom Fighters, plan to continue posting across social media about impactful books every Friday. They’ve launched a website with news and resources for librarians about fighting censorship.
“I wanted the legislators to know we’re out here—people who support kids' access to books—and there are a lot of us,” Foote says. “I didn’t want us to take these events in fear. It's scary when you have this anger coming at you.”