Banned and Challenged Books
in Texas Public Schools

"local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to 'prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'"

          Board of Education , Island Trees Union free School Dist. No. 26 v. Pico
          Since the first words were chiseled into stone, some people have sought to control the flow of  ideas that others might hear or see.  While the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas recognizes the legitimate interest in the selection of books and other materials by schools for their educational value, we are concerned that the passion for purity has led many school districts in Texas to remove from the classroom and even, in some cases, the library, books that are deemed to be classics.

    My Friend Flicka, A Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time to Kill, The Fountainhead, The Crucible, Of Mice and Men, Frankenstein, 1984, Bridge to Terabithia, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry were all challenged during the last 18 months in Texas schools.  Many of them were banned.  The reader may recognize many of the authors on the challenged list: Judy Blume, Mildred D. Taylor, Ray Bradbury, J.D. Salinger and Isaac Bashevis Singer.  Some of these books (A Catcher in the Rye, for example) have always been at the locus of the censorship controversy, but many of these names and titles are shocking, especially the Newbery Award winners in the group.  Among the most controversial books are A Catcher in the Rye, Bridge to Terabithia, The Chocolate War, and We All Fall Down.  Moreover, there are four authors who stand out as those most commonly challenged: Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, Christopher Pike, and R.L. Stine.  What characterizes all of these novels and writers is that they cater to a younger audience while at the same time tackling mature subject matter.  Many of these titles have been deemed inappropriate for younger students, but remain in curricula and libraries in high schools.

    Two sets of open records requests were sent to every school district in the state of Texas.  We obtained responses from all but 169 school districts.  Responses to these requests were used to compile a list of banned and challenged books in all Texas school districts.  Although the survey is incomplete, several trends have emerged with respect to these materials.

     Almost all of the challenges were issued by parents, and an overwhelming majority of those have been to books, either in libraries or in curricula, in elementary and junior high schools.  Some school districts are quite small, so elementary and junior high school students share the same library collections.  Consequently, many of the decisions in these smaller districts designed to prevent younger elementary school children from reading certain books have the simultaneous effect of limiting access to these same materials for older, more mature audiences.  Of course, not every challenge results in the removal of a book from the school library.  Very few of the challenges issued by third parties are actually successful.  The responses to these challenges run the gamut of possible solutions: the challenge has been rejected outright; the child of the member of the community who issued the challenge has been presented with alternate literary material; explicit language has been edited out of texts; parents have, subsequent to the challenge, been asked to sign consent forms authorizing the use of certain books; certain materials have been moved to restricted shelves; and, in certain cases, the book in question has been removed from the library and curriculum altogether.  Every school district, however, does have a formalized procedure to deal with complaints regarding the nature of books that are taught in classes or found on library shelves.

    As mentioned, very few of the challenges are successful to any significant degree (although almost any time a parent challenges a book, his or her child has been given the option of using another text). While the relatively small number of banned books and rigorous procedural guidelines bespeak a surprisingly moderate stance on the part of the school districts themselves, many of the challenges highlight the alarming tendency of members of the surrounding communities to exert an undue influence over the intellectual maturation of the students.  Upon being asked what should be asked what should be done with Robert Cormier's We All Fall Down, one objector in Athens ISD who claims to represent "churches" replied, "burn it."  In another district, one librarian who wishes to remain anonymous wrote that (in reference to the censorship of public school texts) a local minister had told him that "the youth of today was going to hell on a runaway train and I (the librarian) was greasing the tracks."  In Dripping Springs ISD, The Chocolate War was deemed inappropriate for children because it was not "consistent" with the values of the immediate community.  In El Paso ISD even Mary Shelley's canonized Frankenstein was reproached for being contrary to biblical order.  In Fort Bend ISD at Pecan Grove Elementary, The Straw Maid elicited a scathing objection from one community member who felt that "the part where robbers stab a straw maid that the kidnapped girl had constructed to fool them while she escaped...would encourage children, especially in Texas where there are so many maids, to stab their maids."  Community members in the same district objected to the presentation, in the form of fiction, of retardation to fourth graders as well as a homosexual reference in Call of the Wendigo.  Not everything, however, can remain in the control of the prescribed decision-making bodies.  In Fort Worth ISD a substitute teacher marked out every occurrence of the word "dammit" in Shiloh (a Newbery Award winner) in order to "protect students from foul language."

    Indeed, merely one foul word can prompt a vigilant parent or teacher to eliminate or alter the material in which it appears.  All the "words in question" in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman at Hughes Springs High School in Hughes Springs ISD were marked through.  Likewise, a citizen and educator committee met to review an offensive passage relating to the practice of slavery in the text Texas and Texans used in Arlington ISD, and decided to cover the selection in the books with a gummed label.  Perhaps the most startling reaction to a book's content occurred in Oakwood ISD, where Mary O'Hara's children's classic My Friend Flicka was evaluated by a parent volunteer and removed from the library shelves after finding "one inappropriate word."

    When a librarian from the Oakwood school district called the Advantage Learning Company, the maker of the Accelerated Reading Program, to ask if the books the district ordered could be pre-screened for "bad language," he was told there was no way for this to be done, and that if the books were taken off the selection list it would be considered censorship.  The librarian was told that Oakwood was "the lone complainer of this problem, and it was probably due to the fact" that Oakwood is a "small rural community."

    Roughly half of all complaints are lodged on account of inappropriate language.  Again, most of these complaints appear at the elementary/junior high level.  About one-quarter of the complaints result from the existence of "adult content," a general term under which subject matter such as sex, child abuse, and violence fall (the use of foul language accompanies much of this type of material, so there is significant overlap with the first category).  Another quarter or so result from allegedly inappropriate religious stances.   These include everything from the treatment of evolution to the discussion of witches to the occult.  The remainder of the challenges arise for a whole host of reasons, which include graphic illustrations and excessive use of racial slang.

    The most successful challenges are those to adult content, foul language, and graphic illustrations (although this category is relevant only for elementary schoolers).  The first two categories account for the excessively harsh treatment of Robert Cormier and Judy Blume. Again, most of the successful challenges are at the elementary/junior high school level, probably because the formalized procedures in places are designed under the assumption that high schoolers are, at least by their junior year, well enough equipped to confront serious and more mature subject matter.

    The compilation that follows lists the books by title, by author and by school district. Where known, the subject matter of the book and the reasons for its challenge are listed. Unfortunately, time and resources made efforts to ascertain why each title was challenged or banned impossible.  Information about the books was obtained from the Library of Congress Catalog (on line), from local librarians or from an internet site listing books for sale (see
Compiled by:    Lee Kovarsky
                     Becca Peters
                     Marina Vishnevetsky
                     Jeremy Wright

(Please note: this is only the introductory summary of the ACLU report, "Banned and Challenged Books in Texas Public Schools."  For a copy of the complete report, please send $5.00 to the ACLU of Texas, P.O. Box 3629, Austin, TX 78764.)