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A group of angry library patrons in Texas has gone to court over book removals

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The free expression group PEN America reports more library books have been banned in Texas than any other state. In a rare lawsuit on the matter, a group of angry library patrons in one small Texas town has gone to court over book removals. NPR's John Burnett has more.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A year ago, the government of Llano County, about an hour northwest of Austin, started pulling books it found objectionable from its three public libraries. By the time the purge was over, 17 titles were gone, including Maurice Sendak's award-winning "In The Night Kitchen."

LEILA GREEN LITTLE: Ray Bradbury once said, there's more than one way to burn a book, and the world is full of people running around with matches.

BURNETT: Do you feel like that's going on in Llano County?

GREEN LITTLE: Yeah. It's a scary time when people are trying to get rid of books from public institutions.

BURNETT: Leila Green Little is the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against Llano County that contends the government cannot dictate which books patrons can and cannot read. It all began with three children's books - "My Butt Is So Noisy," "I Broke My Butt" and "I Need A New Butt." Because the books contained illustrations of bare bottoms, a handful of outraged citizens in Llano called them, quote, "pornographic filth." The author, Dawn McMillan, emailed NPR from her home in New Zealand. I wrote the butt books for fun with no intention to offend anyone and with no agenda of any kind. They're silly stories bringing laughs while getting kids, especially boys, into reading. One of the co-plaintiffs is Jeanne Puryear, a 76-year-old retired clerical worker who votes Republican.

JEANNE PURYEAR: I just think it's censorship, pure and simple.

BURNETT: Puryear says she used to check out kids' books to read to her grandchildren, and she was curious why the new banned books were considered so offensive.

PURYEAR: Because I wanted to see what was so bad about them, and frankly, I couldn't find anything. The butt books and the farting books - I mean, it's a fact of life. Kids find it funny.

BURNETT: None of the defendants or their attorney agreed to interviews for this story. In its reply to the lawsuit, the county contends that a public library has, quote, "broad discretion to decide what material to provide to their patrons" and that "the First Amendment does not apply."

STACEY NOBLES: We're not saying to get rid of the books and burn them, you know? This isn't Nazism or something where you're gonna get rid of 'em.

BURNETT: Stacey Nobles is pastor of the Llano Cowboy Church. He wrote a letter to the local newspaper supporting the book removals. He's drinking coffee in a local cafe.

NOBLES: Nobody banned it. What they said was this is not appropriate for the children's section of books. If mom or dad want the child to be able to read that book, then mom and dad can check it out and hand it to the child.

BURNETT: The county says the lawsuit is, quote, "hyperbolic and absurd" because the books at issue, while not in the stacks, are still available through interlibrary loan and online book database or by special request at the checkout desk. The furor began over books in the children's section. But plaintiff Leila Green Little says the kids' books were just the beginning.

GREEN LITTLE: This isn't just Maurice Sendak books and the, quote-unquote, "butt" books being taken off the shelves. There's other books, you know, that are not targeted towards children that this group of citizen censors has had pulled off the shelves.

BURNETT: In addition to children's books, four highly regarded and awarded books for adults and young adults came off the Llano library shelves. They are "Being Jazz: My Life As A (Transgender) Teen;" "Spinning," a book about a young figure skater who comes out; "Caste: The Origins Of Our Discontents" and "They Called Themselves The K.K.K.: The Birth Of An American Terrorist Group." Early this year, according to the lawsuit, the commissioners court created a new library advisory board, packed it with political appointees and closed the meetings to the public. The plaintiffs say they have no recourse but the courts.

GREEN LITTLE: We've lost friends (laughter) over this. There are people in town that used to say, hi, to me, and they don't do that anymore.

BURNETT: Little is a 37-year-old grad student in library science and a mom whose kids use the public library. In Llano, a mostly white, mostly Republican, cowboy-flavored town of fewer than 4,000 souls, she says the social cost of suing the library has been profound.

GREEN LITTLE: However (laughter), I knew that when my kids get older and they have something that they need to stand up for, I couldn't in good conscience tell them to speak up and speak out if I didn't do the same thing myself.

BURNETT: The first hearing to ask a federal judge to force Llano County to return the restricted books is set for the end of this month in Austin. John Burnett, NPR News, Llano, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.