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


Efforts to ban books have sparked a countermovement to find new ways to keep those books in circulation. In Texas, where hundreds of school book bans have been reported in recent years, some teachers and students have been building underground libraries. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Three teenagers are giggling at a coffee shop in Texas about what it takes to get their hands on books.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Well, these are special books, so...

ULABY: We're in the far, far suburbs of Houston at a coffee shop so nondescript it looks like an ugly Starbucks knockoff. These three 17-year-old seniors brought me here to talk about a secret bookshelf in their teacher's classroom.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: It's really low-key, very undercover.

ULABY: How undercover?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: She tells, like, a select few of students who she feels might need a book to get them into reading.

ULABY: These students have a lot in common besides attending the same public school.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: We're all minorities.

ULABY: And they're all queer. The secret bookshelf, they say, is the one place where they can easily find books that give them characters they can immediately relate to.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Just to see, like, Latinos, LGBTQ - that's not something, like, you really see in our community, or it's not very well represented at all.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Well, I am a young, Black lesbian, and I don't meet people like myself in my day-to-day life, either. So reading these characters in these books - it really gives me hope.

ULABY: You will not hear the names of these students. NPR has confirmed their identities, but they worry about the consequences of going public with their secret classroom bookshelf.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: We don't want to jeopardize our teacher in any way - or the bookshelf or the district or the school.

ULABY: Or themselves. Sharing such books in a Texas public school has felt dangerous for the past few years. These students do not want to draw the ire of antagonistic activists or put their teacher at risk. She is a longtime public school employee, a Texas native. And like her state, her secret bookshelf is enormous.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: At this point, I may have about maybe 600 books.

ULABY: They spill from two big bookshelves in her classroom into a bunch of plastic crates.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: I'll never have enough bookshelves (laughter).

ULABY: This teacher started her secret library a couple of years ago, after a Texas lawmaker named Matt Krause sent public schools a list of 850 books he wanted banned because he felt they would make students uncomfortable about race and sex. That made this teacher furious.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: The books that make you uncomfortable are the books that make you think, and isn't that what school is supposed to do? It's supposed to make you think.

ULABY: So she swung into action. First, she called friends.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: I was like, y'all, I have this project. I want his impact to be that it's actually expanding kids' access to people that are different from them.

ULABY: Then she talked to her students. She gave one of them a job. Here's that student remembering the assignment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can you go through the list? Can you see, like, what books you'd recommend for us to add to the library? And then she gave me her card to buy them.

ULABY: Wait a minute, she literally was like, here are the books we're not supposed to have; go get them?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah. It was a lot of gay books, I remember that.

ULABY: This student has recently graduated. In high school, he came out as a transgender man to his parents.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I wouldn't call them supportive, so I had to do a lot of sneaking around.

ULABY: Including sneaking books featuring romances between queer characters. Some on the bookshelf are about contemporary high school students now. Some, says the teacher, are queer classics.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Yes, I throw James Baldwin at them whenever I can. "Giovanni's Room" is really popular. That book is so wonderful. It's about travel and his identity and confusion. It's so wonderful.

ULABY: I reached out to former Texas lawmaker Matt Krause for comment repeatedly and got no response. He's currently running for county commissioner in Fort Worth. Here are some students talking about the books he's been trying to ban they've read from the secret bookshelf.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: There was "1984" by George Orwell. I love that book. I love dystopian novels. "My Heart Underwater" by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo - that was banned strongly because of the LGBTQ main character.

ULABY: And here's another student.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Some of the books that I've read are books like "Hood Feminism," "Poet X," "Gabi, A Girl In Pieces" - like, books that have really helped me come to sense with feminism. How I grew up, I just see a lot of - like, especially in my community, a lot of women being talked down upon. And those books - it was really nice to read and be educated on.

ULABY: To be clear, this public school with the secret bookshelf in Texas, it's not in a fancy part of town. Many students there do not have parents who can drop everything to get their kids books about being queer. Here's the teacher.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Oh, I have taught kids whose parents have never set foot in a classroom. They are from small towns in other countries, and their parents were farmers. I've had kids whose names were not spelled correctly because their parents were illiterate. You know, a lot of the kids have parents that did not go to college. A high amount of kids here are on free and reduced lunch.

ULABY: A spokesperson for the school district where this teacher works said they prefer not to comment on the issue. The transgender student worries about how much worse it's getting in Texas for teachers who want to help students like him.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Because of the way the laws are going for trans people especially, it could become illegal to the point where it could be assumed that she's grooming kids. And that would be terrible because that's not what she's doing at all.

ULABY: A Texas teacher was fired last year for assigning a book to her students. It was a graphic novel about Anne Frank that showed Anne having a romantic daydream about another girl. There are other documented cases in Texas of teachers leaving jobs because of pressure over challenged books. One local Freedom to Read activist described the atmosphere as chilling. That's what makes the underground bookshelf started by this teacher remarkable, says Kasey Meehan of the free speech advocacy group PEN America.

KASEY MEEHAN: Yes. That is, in fact, incredible, and it's really courageous.

ULABY: It's not wrong for students to be worried, Meehan says, given how much things have escalated in Texas in recent years.

MEEHAN: Parents are taking books from schools and bringing them to police and sheriff's offices and accusing librarians and educators of providing sexually explicit material to students.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: It does make me nervous. It does make me nervous. I mean, this is absolutely silly that I'm not free to talk about books without giving my name and worrying about repercussions because history has taught us this lesson over and over again.

ULABY: The teacher who runs the secret bookshelf of banned books.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: You know, I intend for this library to just keep growing.

ULABY: And at some point, she hopes it will no longer have to be a secret.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: I do believe that book banning is going to go away. I think it's kind of the last grasp of people trying to maintain control because they know it's slipping. That's what I tell myself anyway.

ULABY: Late last year, the Texas State Board of Education passed a policy prohibiting what it calls, quote, "sexually explicit, pervasively vulgar or educationally unsuitable" books in public schools. Critics say that language is dangerously vague. And although parts of that policy were just blocked by federal court, it was not overturned, and that language was left untouched.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.