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How Book Bans Turned a Texas Town Upside Down

The group began convening around lunchtime last summer, inside of the rose-beige conference room at the Llano Library. They sat on red plastic chairs atop drab carpet, surrounded by donated dolls representing world cultures. Speaking in hushed tones about children’s books, sometimes they also prayed together. Rhonda Schneider, a librarian who was also a member of the group, had recently tipped them off to a few new titles she found questionable at the branch. They grew fixated on a series by Dawn McMillan and Ross Kinnaird, which included “My Butt Is So Noisy!” “I Broke My Butt!” and “I Need a New Butt!”

“A new butt! Mine’s got a crack,” one book begins. “I can see in the mirror a crack at the back.” The character then tries to figure out how it happened. Did he get the crack from going down the slide, or riding his BMX bike, or from a fart? He imagines all the new butts he could have: spotted purple and yellow, or a mural of watercolors, or an alien butt made from titanium that is fireproof, bulletproof and bombproof. “Kids loved it,” says Tricia Dwyer-Morgan, a member of Llano’s technology-services staff at the time.

Dwyer-Morgan remembers Schneider’s telling her that the books were “grooming stuff,” referencing a tactic that abusers use to gain the trust of a young victim. “We can’t have that in the library.”

From her perch near the kids’ stage and kitchen toys, Dwyer-Morgan’s colleague Tina Castelan, who became the Llano children’s librarian three years ago, watched the butt-book drama unfold. “I was trying to be a good little librarian,” Castelan told me. “A good little soldier.” Wanting to better understand the concerns of the group, she researched the butt books for hours and found no credible documentation of the series being linked to pedophilia or pornography. Some of the titles, it turned out, were acclaimed best sellers.

A patron of the library since she was 5, Castelan remembers visiting the branch in high school and finding the novel “Impulse,” by Ellen Hopkins, about three suicidal teenagers. It helped her cope with her own depression and feelings of alienation. When she tells people that story, some will respond that no kid should have been allowed to read so explicitly about suicide. But while she was growing up, the Llano librarians never questioned her choices. “If I hadn’t read that book,” she told me, “or read more books along the same line, I wouldn’t be here.” The librarians became a steady presence in her life. “I needed a place like this.” When the butt-book complaints first began, she was concerned, but quietly continued doing her job.

Over the next few weeks, calls to restrict the books only intensified, spreading through churches and on social media. Another Llano resident, Eva Carter, who owns and manages local rental properties, remembered friends from the group, mostly mothers, showing her the illustrations that had troubled them. “There was a little kid bent over with his bare butt,” Carter told me. “An adult painting on his behind.” (“Why not an arty-farty butt?” the book reads. “One not to be forgotten, with watercolors on the top and a mural on the bottom.”) Carter became a Christian in 1996, after hearing a Billy Graham sermon on television. “Getting the filthy books up out of their reach,” she said. “That’s what I’m about.” Carter, who is active on local boards, connected the group with a judge and other members of the county commissioners court.

By early August, two of the butt books and several more that had been called out by the group vanished from Llano Library’s shelves and online catalog listings, including Jane Bexley’s “Larry the Farting Leprechaun,” “Gary the Goose and His Gas on the Loose,” “Freddie the Farting Snowman” and “Harvey the Heart Had Too Many Farts,” along with “My Butt Is So Noisy!” and “I Broke My Butt!” Amber Milum, the Llano County Library System’s director, handles purchasing books for all three of the county’s public libraries. In early October, she wrote an email with the subject “Butt Books” to the commissioners explaining that the situation had been handled: “All of the books have been in my file cabinet in the office.”

That fall, tensions flared again around the time Castelan would have normally created a display as part of Banned Books Week. In previous years, she decorated it with fire symbols or caution tape and attached labels to each book: “I’m banned because I’m considered pornography,” or “I’m banned because I’m too depressing.” She would exhibit books like “The Diary of a Young Girl,” by Anne Frank; “In the Night Kitchen,” by Maurice Sendak; and a sex-education book, “It’s Perfectly Normal,” by Robie H. Harris. But that year, in 2021, she was asked to forgo the display.

Castelan was then surprised when Jerry Don Moss, a member of the Llano County Commissioners Court, showed up at the Llano Library, asking her to point out the most controversial books in the building. She directed him to some that had typically been on the banned-books display. Castelan watched Moss zero in on “It’s Perfectly Normal.” The graphic novel, intended for inclusive discussions around sexuality, depicts nudity. Moss told Castelan the book was inappropriate, but Castelan knew it had been on the shelves at least since she was in sixth grade. Why was it suddenly an issue now?

After Moss’s visit, Milum removed “It’s Perfectly Normal” from the system, along with “In the Night Kitchen,” which, she said in a court statement, “contains illustrations of a naked toddler whose genitals are depicted throughout the book.” Milum said that both books had been checked out “too infrequently to remain on the shelves.” She later wrote an email to Suzette Baker, the head of the Kingsland Library, a 25-minute drive down the highway from Llano’s library:

Hey Suzette,

With everything going on with the people being angry at almost everything the libraries are doing. We all need to watch what we say. … You never know if someone is listening. … I spoke with Commissioner Moss yesterday, he said that there are a few people who are trying to start in on Kingsland now too. … He said all these people are watching the libraries like a hawk and they are pouncing on anything they can. … We are constantly looking over our shoulders. I don’t want this to come y’all’s way so be on the lookout and cautious.

At the end of the email, Milum wrote: “Kill them with kindness.”

Baker replied: “OMG!!!!!!!! They need to get a hobby.”

Over the last year, campaigns to ban books have erupted throughout school districts and local libraries across the country. The American Library Association, which tracks challenges to library books or resources since 1990, previously documented roughly 300 to 350 complaints annually, with most challenges targeting a single title each. But in 2021 alone, the association noted 729 complaints against 1,597 different books. It has been “an unprecedented increase in the number of challenges,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who directs the A.L.A.’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. (A regular target of challenges, and a frequent object of political attacks, has been “The 1619 Project,” a 2019 special issue of this magazine and a subsequent best-selling book examining the legacy of slavery in American life.)

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