Jeff Davis County Democrats host banned books meeting to raise awareness of statewide issue

Front Street Books in Alpine will display banned books over the next month in an effort to educate local readers on the issue. While the bookseller sets up a similar display every year, the topic is particularly relevant now considering state trends and laws. Photo courtesy of Front Street Books.

TRI-COUNTY — The Jeff Davis County Democrats held a public meeting on the issue of banned books this week, where Julia Green, manager of Alpine’s Front Street Books, discussed national statistics, current state laws and more. 

Around 25 people showed up for the meeting, held at the Jeff Davis County Community Center. Green, who has managed Front Street Books, a commercial retailer, for the past 23 years, kicked off the meeting by sharing with attendees that the state of Texas attempted to ban more books than any other state in 2022, according to the American Library Association (ALA). 

Last year the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom cataloged the highest number of book challenges ever recorded, and so far 2023 is continuing to set a record pace. Many of the books targeted by recent attempted bans relate to LGBTQ issues, race or teen sexuality, explained Green. 

The Top 10 books to be challenged so far in 2023 include Gender Queer, and Flamer, both autobiographical texts about the LGBTQ experience, Tricks, a novel about teens who resort to prostitution, Push, which discusses race, and The Handmaid’s Tale.  

Front Street Books recently put out their annual month-long display dedicated to highlighting banned books, which coincides with the nationally recognized “Banned Books Week” in early October. 

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel, Green said the store includes tags with descriptions about why a book was banned to raise awareness, and overall the initiative is meant to remind people book bans are far from a thing of the past. 

“I have had somebody come in and say, ‘Banned books, do they still do that?’ Every year I have people say that,” said Green. “By us pointing it out and having a display, the display itself educates people because it exists, censorship still exists.”

Texas has also made recent headlines regarding banned books for HB 900, a bill passed this legislative session which requires book sellers to rate material for appropriateness, reviewing whether a text is “patently offensive,” “sexually explicit,” or “sexually relevant” before selling it to local school libraries. Several book sellers, including Austin’s Book People, sued the state over the law, claiming that it was vague and impossible to enforce. 

The law, which was supposed to go into effect September 1, has now been blocked by Federal Judge Alan Albright, whose legal opinion, released this week, stated that while students have the right to be protected from obscene materials in school libraries, HB 900 is a “web of unconstitutionally vague requirements.” He argued the state is “abdicating its responsibility to protect children” by requiring private individuals and corporations to comply with the law, which violates the First Amendment. 

Green said Front Street Books was in essence ignoring the law because they knew they would be unable to enforce it. She said the current climate of book banning was “scary and sad,” but their customers were grateful for their willingness to provide texts representing the varied human experience.

Addressing meeting attendees, she argued no one person should have the right to remove a book from a school district’s shelves, making it inaccessible for not just their individual child, but for all children. And the removal of supposedly controversial texts could harm critical thinking.

“It’s eliminating a whole host of discussions, which are wonderful learning processes for children, and sometimes adults, if they go home and discuss the book, or the text, with their parents,” said Green “It’s also eliminating exposure to different lifestyles. It’s limiting everybody’s opportunity to learn, to grow, to expand.” 

The Big Bend Sentinel reached out to local municipal and school libraries to inquire whether they were currently experiencing a large number of challenges to books. The majority reported no such incidents. Don Wetterauer, executive director of the Alpine Public Library, said he has had some conversations with individuals in the past, but no book has ever been removed from the shelf, and it is their policy to keep books in question out during the review process.

Marfa ISD Librarian Crawford Marginot said she was sensitive to the issue and searched book shelves for controversial titles last spring, removing a few Dr. Seuss titles. In 2021 a handful of titles by Seuss were pulled from publication due to concerns they contained racial stereotypes. 

The majority of tri-county libraries reported they have a policy in place for handling book removal requests, which for the most part involve conversations between the requester and library or district leaders, filling out a formal reconsideration request, then a final decision by the library or school board. Alpine ISD Superintendent Michelle Rinehart said new policy recommendations for schools regarding banned books may be released by the Texas Association of School Boards this coming winter.