When I published The Fight for Midnight, my debut young adult novel, this summer, the first two events I held to promote the book were at BookPeople, the venerable downtown Austin independent bookstore that opened in 1970, and Blue Willow Bookshop, a West Houston bookstore with large selections of children’s and young adult literature. The book is a coming-of-age story set at the Texas Capitol during the 2013 legislative fight over abortion restrictions; the protagonist is a seventeen-year-old rising senior who comes to the Capitol because he’s invited by a girl he has a crush on. The book contains no sex or explicit discussion of sex, and the only mentions of drug use come because the protagonist feels alienated from his friends when they start getting high. It’s a story about learning how the personal and the political intersect. When I wrote the book, the reader I imagined was a teenager who might find it on the shelf of their school library and might be inspired by it to figure out his own beliefs around complicated political questions. But given the current environment in Texas, where we’ve been neck-and-neck with Florida over the past two years in what seems like a race to ban the most books, I wasn’t surprised to get the audience question during my event in Houston: Did I expect The Fight for Midnight to be banned? I told the truth—I didn’t see why anyone would ban a book that didn’t contain anything inappropriate for teenagers, and I hoped that it wouldn’t happen. The store’s owner, Valerie Koehler, standing a few feet away, looked at me like I was naive. “Oh, it’ll be banned,” she declared.
Book bans and censorship are topics close to Koehler’s heart—which is why Blue Willow joined BookPeople and a group of four free speech organizations, including the Authors Guild and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, in filing a lawsuit against the Texas Board of Education and other state agencies charged with enforcing House Bill 900, a law that expands the breadth and scope of book bans in Texas and creates new obligations for booksellers to help enforce them.
Blue Willow is small, but its collection, which gives extra attention to books for children and young adults, is distinctly well curated. It’s the sort of neighborhood bookstore an eager reader can turn to when they’re not sure what they want and find something that’s just right for their interests. Yet when the Texas Legislature passed HB 900 during the 2023 session, the state gave Blue Willow an urgent new responsibility that might well leave it with less time to help readers find books they’ll love.
No song ever sounds as good as the one that moved you when you were seventeen. (At that age, I could find myself in the wail of the Cure, the vibrato of Tori Amos, or—less frequently—the flow of Tupac.) When you’re first finding your place in the world and your feelings are enormous, art is a touchstone that helps you understand things that you haven’t yet figured out about yourself. And books, by their immersive nature, give voice to those feelings and provide a guide to so much of the newness that comes with being young. The stories we pick up at that point in our lives can shape us, help us identify our values, inspire us to dream about what we could be, and give us answers to questions we hadn’t even thought to ask. (They don’t even have to be particularly relevant, outside of the idea that connects with us—one of the most important books to me when I was a kid was a long-outdated YA title about a teenager trying to reunite with his family after the Soviets drop a nuke on his hometown.) The ideas we get from the books that stick with us when we’re young are core to who we are. This used to be understood as a good thing—Pizza Hut gives young readers free pizza for finishing books! But making them harder to find doesn’t change what kids get out of books, it just makes the process of self-discovery more difficult.
HB 900 does that under the guise of banning “sexually explicit” books from school libraries and classrooms, and it requires stores that sell books to schools to create a rating system identifying “sexually relevant” and “sexually explicit” material. That’s a tremendous burden to place on a bookstore. Neither Blue Willow nor BookPeople—nor any other independent bookstore—possesses the training and resources to create from whole cloth a system to rate the degree to which the contents of a book are sexual in nature. (The law also requires bookstores to provide retroactive ratings for “sexually relevant” and “sexually explicit” books sold to schools in the past—a downright farcical proposition.) Blue Willow’s employees love books, but it’s not realistic to expect that they would read every book that passes through the shop’s doors, or track who is purchasing the tomes and for what purpose.
Texas school districts have been banning books since before HB 900, but the state law escalates the matter considerably. The natures of Texas’s book bans have long been mercurial, and the law only makes them more so. “Sexually explicit” gets a definition in HB 900, but it’s tough to pin down—it’s any material that “describes, depicts, or portrays sexual conduct . . . in a way that is patently offensive.” (Patently offensive, as defined by the Texas Penal Code, means “so offensive on its face as to affront current community standards of decency.”) “Sexually relevant,” meanwhile, means simply that the book describes or depicts sexual conduct, “patently offensive” or otherwise. If you’re still with me, that means a book such as, say, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, with its graphic depictions of sexual torture, must, under HB 900, be banned (as it has been in Conroe and Keller ISDs, two of the most prolific school districts for book bans)—but so, perhaps, might any book, if someone wants it banned and can convince the Texas Education Agency to do so. Broadly unobjectionable books find themselves on local ban lists all the time, for any number of reasons. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is banned in Frisco, despite one having to squint mightily to find anything even remotely sexual in its 1,191 pages. If booksellers want to continue to sell books that might end up in school libraries, they will have to attempt to navigate this eye-of-the-beholder question of just how sexual a given book is.
There are currently more than six hundred titles banned at school districts throughout the state. Because the law is defined vaguely and “patently offensive” is a deeply subjective standard, it’s impossible to say how many books might be interpreted to meet it if a given parent or school administrator decides that they’d prefer to see certain books taken off library shelves. Currently, many titles seem to be under fire less because they’re likely to scandalize a young reader with explicit portrayals of sexual activity and more because they present a viewpoint that someone who complained to a school district disagrees with. This may account for the presence of titles that apparently lack depictions of sexual conduct—such as Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s And Still I Rise: Black America Since MLK and Kirstin Cronn-Mills’s LGBTQ+ Athletes Claim the Field: Striving For Equality—on the list of books banned in Texarkana.
Children today have plenty of access to “patently offensive” material without ever setting foot in a library; almost every teenager carries a window to some of the most patently offensive stuff in the world in their pocket at all times. But books—even books that may be shocking—do more than just display images or text. The nature of a book is to build empathy, to craft a narrative that helps a reader identify with a character in a story. Writing The Fight for Midnight, I agonized over how to ensure that the characters on both sides of the issue were represented as fairly and honestly as possible, so that identification would be with something real and genuine. When I see opposition focused so specifically around books, I struggle to think of a reason why one might fight so hard—other than because preventing a young reader from building that empathy is itself the goal.
Blue Willow, BookPeople, and the other plaintiffs in the suit argue that HB 900 compels speech from the bookstores in the form of a rating system that they might not agree with. They also contend that the prohibition on allowing bookstores to sell books the State Board of Education may declare “sexually explicit” without judicial review constitutes prior restraint, or censorship that stops speech from being made. Prior restraint has been repeatedly found unconstitutional.
The first court to rule on the lawsuit agreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments. Judge Alan D. Albright, a Waco-based Trump appointee, excoriated the law as he issued an injunction against it in late September (that injunction is currently stayed, pending an appeal from the state). In his ruling, Albright wrote that the decisions regarding which books to find unacceptable have “the enormous possibility if not probability that [they] will be entirely arbitrary and capricious (at best),” and that under this system, bookstores such as Blue Willow and BookPeople “must decide between accepting the state administrative agency[’s] . . . speech as their own or being effectively blacklisted.” The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear the state’s case on appeal sometime next year, and the lower court’s ruling has been stayed pending that appeal, which means the law is currently in effect. After the Fifth Circuit hears the case—regardless, potentially, of what it rules—the matter could escalate as high as the U.S. Supreme Court.
There’s a metaphor in it if you get up close to Blue Willow’s storefront, which is just a mile off Interstate 10 on the edge of the west Houston Energy Corridor. The shop is part of a nondescript strip mall, the kind that appears all over Houston and its suburbs; it looks, from a distance, like it might be a tax prep place or an insurance office, a nail salon or a dry cleaner, like the neighboring businesses.
But where the rest of the businesses mostly share the uniform, glass-and-aluminum storefronts, Blue Willow’s facade is unique. The door is heavy and wooden, with ornate carvings and an inviting prairie-style window. Instead of the floor-to-ceiling windows of its neighbors, the shop has colonial-style bay windows, to better display the books that make up the store’s wares, above a brick wall base. Flower boxes flank the entrance, and above the door hangs a hand-painted, hand-carved sign with the store’s name on it, edged with blue trim. If you were to crop the rest of the businesses out of the frame, you could convince yourself that you were in a neighborhood dripping with charm—that you were in Covent Garden, in London, or Paris’s Le Marais. When I entered the shop for my reading from The Fight for Midnight in July, I felt transported, which is, to my mind, the highest praise one can offer to a bookstore.
Even as it attempts to navigate the law, this charming little bookshop in an otherwise charmless strip mall in west Houston will continue doing what it does—helping readers young and old (but mostly young) find the next stories to fire their imaginations. As book bans expand in number, the importance of the local bookstore in serving its community only grows, after all.