Lessons from a book controversy in Montgomery County, Texas
I. “We’re done taking it, we’re taking a stand, and it starts tonight”
Before Cassandra Crowe came to the podium at a Conroe ISD school board meeting this May, she had given the trustees in front of her a seventy-seven-page packet that contained excerpted passages from 35 books that she called obscene, “according to Texas law, not my opinion.” Now she had a demand for the board: “We respectfully request that the following books be removed from CISD circulation in libraries as well as classrooms effective immediately, and this list is not exhaustive, while these books are under a formal review.”
Other speakers at the meeting referenced Crowe’s list of 35 books, and a small swarm of speakers came forward to argue that the board had failed to protect children from pornography and harmful materials. Kelli Cox, the publisher of local right-wing news site The Golden Hammer, read passages from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, inserting “bleep” in place of descriptions of body parts in a scene about a sexual assault. Misty Odenweller and Melissa Dungan, now running for spots on the board, scolded the current members. “We’re done taking it, we’re going to take a stand, and it starts tonight,” said Odenweller.
Crowe’s list of 35 books would also come up during public comment periods of meetings throughout the summer. Then, at the start of August, the board voted unanimously to adopt a new policy in line with Crowe’s demands. On Facebook, Crowe wrote, “We know there is a long road ahead, but we celebrate our wins along the way. Thank you to all of the mamas, dads, grans, and concerned tax payers for your commitment to taking the necessary actions to truly affect change. And thank you to the CISD board members for this crucial policy update. One down …”
I’ve been trying to decide how to write about this particular meeting in May, and the story behind it, for a while. Because there are almost too many stories here, and all of them are instructive.
These are the questions I’ve been trying to disentangle:
Is this a story about Mama Bears Rising, a new pro-censorship “moms” group, more explicitly Christian than Moms for Liberty, that has burst onto the scene in the suburbs of Houston and is following M4L’s roadmap for taking over local school districts?
Is it a larger story about the nastiness of education-focused private Facebook groups, and how they’ve attacked teachers and librarians while simultaneously grabbing for power in Texas school districts?
Or is it a more pointed story about the dishonesty of this group’s specific action, which involved pushing members to challenge books en masse even when they hadn’t read those books?
All of these stories are important, and all of them overlap. I’m not a professional journalist, but I did want to handle these stories responsibly, so I reached out to the people involved, offering them the opportunity to give their perspective. Most of them didn’t answer my questions.
Nonetheless, I’ve seen enough to know that the goings-on around book challenges in Conroe ISD can tell us a lot about the methods and motivations that characterize pro-censorship groups, and the collaboration between the members of these groups, local right-wing media, elected officials, and current candidates for school board positions.
II. “The policies that you have in place have served us very well.”
The item was placed on the agenda the month before by conservative trustee Dale Inman, who said he had been at a dinner with Attorney General Ken Paxton where there was discussion that books in school libraries might violate Texas obscenity laws.
Inman is an active participant in the Facebook page for the group Mama Bears Rising, which was formed around that time by Crowe, a policy advisor to Texas State Representative Steve Toth, and Jessica Brassington, who describes herself as “a wife, mom, and citizen advocate.” According to their website, the group is for “mamas who are rising against a declining culture that is at war with our family values.”
In a series of Facebook posts starting on May 11, Crowe announced that she had spoken to CISD superintendent Curtis Null and that the board would be taking up the matter of instructional materials in libraries and classrooms at the May 17 meeting.
She explained that under current policy challenged books remain on the shelves pending the outcome of the challenge, but that with pressure the board might adopt a policy that would mean that “ALL books that [are] currently being challenged for obscenity can be removed immediately.”
It’s a policy change based on recommendations made by the Texas Education Agency after Governor Greg Abbott expressed concern about “pornography” in school libraries last year. Though the recommendations were not mandatory and were opposed by the Texas Library Association and the Texas Association of School Librarians, similar policies are being enacted across Texas right now, especially in districts that have seen flurries of book challenges.
The problem for Crowe was that the Conroe ISD community didn’t see library books as a major concern.
When the policy change was first brought up at the board’s April meeting, Null said, “The policies that you currently have in place have served us very well. It’s not an area for us that we’ve had significant issues, we’re proud to say.”
Even Inman said “I don’t believe” Conroe is experiencing a problem with pornography in its libraries. And at the May 17 meeting, an advisor told the board that the district had only had seven formal book challenges in the past 20 years.
Crowe realized that unless she could present removing books in the library as an urgent issue, her concerns would “be written off and will fall completely on deaf ears.” So she urged Mama Bears Rising members to formally challenge as many books as possible to cement in board members’ minds the necessity of acting. “If we organize,” she wrote, “we can divide the efforts of completing these forms among our group members and actually effect REAL, necessary change in the immediate future.”
III. The List
In updates over the following days, she posted the list of 35 books that she eventually submitted to the board, books that in her words, “we MUST challenge for removal asap (before the school board meeting next week).” That list included award-winning literary fiction and memoirs (The Bluest Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale, The God of Small Things, The Glass Castle), popular YA titles (Looking for Alaska, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and even literary classic Brave New World**. And, though Crowe would tell the board that the books all contained “graphic details of sex acts, are pervasively vulgar, obscene, not appropriate” and “violate Texas penal code,” her list also included Raina Telgemeier’s middle-grade graphic novel Drama, which contains none of that — its most salacious scene is a kiss between two characters onstage during a play.
Drama does include gay characters, though, and has been challenged and removed from other districts. Books with LGBTQ themes or characters are overrepresented on Crowe’s list, which also includes commonly challenged titles Gender Queer and Lawn Boy.
In fact, none of these books is obscene, and none violates the Texas Penal Code. While many of these books do contain depictions of sexual situations, those books are generally read by older students and are in line with books high school students have been reading for generations. And both federal and state obscenity laws require readers to consider the work “as a whole” and to weigh sexual content against the books’ “serious literary, artistic, political, and scientific value.” Laws restricting “material harmful to minors” have similar language, requiring a consideration of the work “as a whole” and only pertaining to works “utterly without redeeming social value for minors.” In other words, you can’t judge obscenity by reading only the most outrageous scenes in a book; you have to consider context.
This was recently tested in court in Virginia, where a Republican legislator tried to force Barnes & Noble to restrict the sale to minors of two of the books on Crowe’s list, Gender Queer and Sarah J. Maas’s The Court of Mist and Fury. Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge Pamela Baskerville dismissed the case because the plaintiffs couldn’t prove the books were obscene.
The literary and artistic merit of many of the books on the list is obvious — at least four of them have appeared on free-response questions on the AP Literature exam multiple times. Brave New World, for example, first appeared on the AP Exam in 1989, and The Bluest Eye in 1995. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for a thoughtful conversation about what books are and are not appropriate for students, and at what ages; but the Mama Bears Rising approach — with its accusations of porn-peddling and child sexualization — makes that kind of conversation difficult, if not impossible.
IV. “Find friends and submit 5 or 10 each”
After Crowe put out the call, several members of Mama Bears Rising volunteered to challenge books. Dungan volunteered to challenge The Bluest Eye and Beyond Magenta; her fellow school board candidate Odenweller challenged books by Sarah J. Maas. Odenweller soon took the reins of the project, alphabetizing the list for Crowe and collecting “data” on books for others to challenge.
Jennifer Kratky, a candidate for trustee in nearby Tomball ISD, offered advice to the group for completing mass challenges: “Don’t submit a huge number, that was tried (by a single person) in another district and did not go over well. Find friends and submit 5 or 10 each. Yes attach printouts and write (see attached). Leave the other suggestions blank. We pay them enough to find good books, for crying out loud!” Kratky also offered to “set up a work session” to help the group submit their challenges.
Inman chimed in repeatedly, offering help and encouragement, and Toth also participated in the threads.
In the end, most of the volunteers seem to have failed to submit formal challenges before the meeting. Information requests made to the district show that only six books were formally challenged in Conroe ISD in May, and two of those challenges occurred before Crowe’s call for volunteers. The other four were all challenged by Odenweller.
But the list, the public comments, the crowd Mama Bears Rising brought to the meeting, and Odenweller’s challenges had the desired effect. Board president Skeeter Hubert opened the discussion of the new policy saying, “The problem that has come to light is we have some extreme books that are in our libraries now.”
Trustee Ray Sanders said, “I do not want my children reading what was read out tonight.”
And at the district’s August meeting, the board voted unanimously to accept the new policy championed by Mama Bears Rising.
Hubert told me over email: “A variety of things played a part in our policy revisions, including concerns from parents and patrons. Our primary reason is our belief that instructional materials and library materials are not the same. We felt it was important to make that clear in our policies, and I think we achieved that.”
V. “Ideally I try to play by the rules”
Apart from its size and coordinated nature, perhaps the most striking element of the Mama Bears Rising effort is the group’s willingness to bend rules and misrepresent the truth to achieve their goals. Conroe ISD’s “Request for Reconsideration” form for books asks, “Have you read the book or publication or reviewed/seen the display, program, or recording materials in their entirety?” If the answer is no, the form advises, “Please do so before completing and submitting the form.”
Conversations in Mama Bears Rising’s Facebook group make clear that reading the books was never a priority for the group. After Crowe sent out her call for volunteers, Odenweller wrote, “There is no way we can read all these books ourselves in time. But question 1 says, have you read this book … in their entirety? Yes or No. If not, we need to read before submitting????”
A parent who had already submitted two challenges responded, “[A]s far as reading the books, I submitted two reconsideration forms. The first I read the book and watched the movie which I felt made up for not having read the second one but skimming it and finding excerpts online. Ideally I try to play by the rules but is it really necessary to read the whole thing to know it’s complete garbage? I say no.”
Both Odenweller and Crowe “loved” the response.
Four days later, Odenweller turned in formal challenge forms for four of the books of the fantasy series The Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, marking on each signed form that she had read the entire book. As evidence of the books’ purported obscenity, Odenweller copied and pasted passages posted at BookLooks.org, a book-rating website created by Moms for Liberty.
Odenweller didn’t respond when I asked by email if she had, in fact, read all of the books she challenged.
It’s an important question. While debating the new policy, trustee Datren Williams objected that because “anybody can cut-and-paste,” it would be easy for different groups to do mass challenges of books. He worried that the new policy could therefore result in a “half-empty library.”
Hubert reassured him: “They have to file a formal complaint. So that means they have to read the book and they have to fill out the form.” But neither Hubert nor anybody else on the board addressed the possibility that people might just lie on district forms and say they’ve read something they haven’t.
In an email, Hubert told me, “I believe that people are honest and if a person says they read the book, I will believe them.”
But Mama Bears Rising’s dishonesty didn’t stop with their book challenges. Again, legal definitions of obscenity and statutes forbidding the distribution of harmful materials to minors both require that the work as a whole be taken into account, and require a consideration of the work’s literary, artistic, political, and scientific value. Members of Mama Bears Rising repeatedly cited these statutes in their public comments and in the paperwork they filed with the district — but they did so selectively, ignoring the parts of the law that challenged their arguments. In one egregious example, Inman read Statute 43.24 of the Texas Penal Code to his colleagues on the board, but skipped over the portions of the law about evaluating the work as a whole and considering its redeeming social value.
The Conroe group’s lack of concern for reading the books they challenge showed up in several misconceptions about the texts on the list. In one post, for example, Crowe said of Brave New World that “it is sexually graphic and hints at rituals like eating babies.” Jessica Brassington reminded Crowe that “eating babies was actually another reading assignment my daughter had: A Modest Proposal.” But Brassington agreed the classic novel shouldn’t be assigned in schools because in it “children were encouraged to engage in erotic play, there was rituals of whipping yourself, orgy, taking somas, casual sex, and suicide among other things.”
In another post, Crowe described Telgemeier’s Drama as a “graphic novel about a gender confused child who decided he identified as the opposite gender. This book is a celebration of the transgender lifestyle.” Putting aside the fact that having transgender characters in no way makes a book obscene, there are no transgender characters in Drama. The book is about the crushes of a straight, cisgender middle school girl. One of her crushes is gay, and one male character puts on a dress for a play when the actress cast in a role is unable to perform, but there’s no indication anywhere in the book that he “identifies as the opposite gender.” This confusion could easily be cleared up by reading the book — not a hard task, given that it’s a graphic novel targeted towards 10–12-year-olds.
VI. “God is at work”
What lessons should we take from the events in Conroe ISD?
The most obvious is that book challenges like this are not about the books. This is a hard lesson for those of us who love books, who think of certain books as treasures and friends, as bringers of joy and consolation. For Mama Bears Rising, these challenges had nothing to do with Toni Morrison or Aldous Huxley, with Margaret Atwood or Raina Telgemeier. Instead, the group saw a policy they wanted and set out to prove a problem existed that would justify enacting it. The objective was to gain control over the ideas students can access, and the books were just the tools at hand.
But maybe the more important revelation involves the swift rise of a new Christian nationalist group in Texas. Mama Bears Rising officially launched on May 3rd with a screening of the anti-teacher film The Mind Polluters at Grace Church in the Woodlands; the mass book challenge on May 17th was their first organized action. By the summer the Facebook group had grown to more than 1700 members, and included at least five school board candidates, at least one current trustee (Inman), and State Representative Steve Toth. Book-banning enthusiasts from other parts of the state — including State House of Representatives candidate Michelle Taff Evans and activist Kyle Sims — have joined and regularly post. Brassington and Crowe have appeared on podcasts and local media, and both were at the Texas Capitol in July to testify in front of the House Committee on Public Education.
Though the group borrows techniques from Moms for Liberty, which is active in Houston but does not have a chapter in Montgomery County, Mama Bears Rising is more explicitly Christian. On their website, Crowe and Brassington say that the pace of their group’s growth “can only be attributed to God” and cite Ephesians 6:12: “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”
In practice, the “mighty powers” and “evil rulers” Mama Bears Rising fight have often been Conroe ISD teachers. In the build-up to the May 17th meeting, Kelli Cox used The Golden Hammer to name the teacher who assigned The Perks of Being a Wallflower as a choice reading assignment. On the group’s Facebook page, one member said, “We need to blast out everywhere the teachers teaching this name and pic.” Group members share district employees’ specific positions, employers and social media, and disparage individuals by name.
This tendency of Mama Bears Rising is in line with “parents’ rights” groups around the country, which often use private Facebook pages to organize campaigns targeting individuals. The Travis County and Bexar County chapters of Moms for Liberty have both encouraged personal attacks on teachers, and leaders of the Corpus Christi group have held trainings on monitoring teachers’ social media accounts.
Nastiness in private Facebook groups is nothing new, but it takes on a different resonance with groups of this size, and especially when these groups contain high-ranking members of a district’s power structure. In Keller ISD, four trustees are members of a private group in which teachers’ Amazon wishlists are scrutinized, the resignations of perceived “activist” teachers are celebrated, and parents who speak against censorship at board meetings are mocked and villainized. In Conroe, Inman has used Mama Bears Rising’s page to gather information about teachers and to disparage individual voters in the district.
The situation could get worse in November. Though Inman is not seeking re-election, three members of Mama Bears Rising will be on the ballot. Misty Odenweller is running unopposed. She landed in that position because board president Skeeter Hubert made a mistake on his application, making him ineligible to run for that spot. Explaining the surprise development on her Facebook page, Odenweller said, “God cleared the pathway for me.”
She said that the news meant she would have more time to campaign for her fellow Mama Bears Rising members, Melissa Dungan and Tiffany Nelson. She urged her supporters to vote, and to donate to all three campaigns. “And continue to pray,” she concluded. “Because God is at work, and His hand and fingerprints were all over this.”
- I reached out to Cassandra Crowe, Jessica Brassington, and Misty Odenweller, as well as trustees Skeeter Hubert, Dale Inman, and Datren Williams. Only Hubert answered my questions via email; Williams never responded, and Crowe, Brassington, Odenweller and Inman initially agreed to answer questions but didn’t respond to follow-up emails.
- It’s not clear whether Mama Bears Rising objected to the graphic novel adaptation of Brave New World or its original text. The excerpts Crowe linked in the document she shared with the group came from the graphic novel version, but conversations in the group suggest that they object to the original text, too.