📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
Students' faces light up when the Bat Mobile doors swing open. But this isn't a million-dollar smart car owned by some rich vigilante. It's a mobile library and classroom inside of a retrofitted bus painted with pastel blues, yellows, and lavenders, and driven by me—a librarian.
The bus's colorful interior—full of foam and fabric tentacles, with coral hanging from the ceilings—creates the feeling of being in an underwater cave of creatures. It's a magical place, which is fitting, since books can be portals to new worlds and new possibilities.
The Bat Mobile is run by Austin Bat Cave, a nonprofit that provides creative writing programs to students in the greater Austin, Texas, area. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our bus served as a writing space for Del Valle Elementary School students in the Bat Cave's after-school programs. Now, it's an engaging bookmobile. Our goal is to introduce young readers to new books to help them imagine what's possible in their lives.
For the past three years, I've stocked the bus with high-quality literature in English and Spanish (and other languages as we can get them). Exciting books of all genres are carefully organized along the walls and desk: manga, graphic novels, and popular YA series with futuristic fantasies and queer main characters. I source our diverse collection from a variety of community partners. I spend a lot of my day driving around Austin picking up stacks of books and helping teachers clear out their classroom libraries.
This has been my role since the Fall of 2019, but over the last two years, this work feels more important than ever. Bookmobiles have always played a vital role in communities that struggle with access to a variety of services. Recent book bans and the ongoing challenges of living in a pandemic show just how much we need them.
In 26 states, students' access to books is under attack from conservative policymakers and parents who wish to restrict access to books that affirm the lived experiences of students of color and LGBTQ students. Texas leads the nation with 16 districts enacting 713 individual bans, according to a recent report by PEN America. Under the guise of protecting children from books that are "obscene," "offensive," or even, as several Texas lawmakers choose to label them, "pornographic," Texas politicians are censoring students' access to books that discuss race and racism in the United States, as well as texts that help students navigate their gender and sexualities.
Under pressure from parents and conservative politicians libraries are removing award-winning, beloved titles. Books that have been targeted by the ban include young adult novels like Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas and An Indigenous People's History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz from their general collection. Some books are being placed in special "YA Plus" categories for older audiences. Parents and community members can submit complaints or objections to books that often lead to librarians being pressured to remove books from the shelves of public libraries as well as classroom and school libraries for review—the very places where many students first find a love of reading.
What's happening in Texas is only one example of many blatantly discriminatory policies restricting students' access to books across the country. The Librotraficante Movement—which translates to "book smugglers" movement in English—began in response to Arizona's 2010 ban on ethnic studies programs in public schools, effectively banning Mexican American studies in Arizona schools. Through litigation and community action, including caravans across Texas and the Southwest to celebrate the reading and dissemination of banned books, the organization has continued to fight for Latinx students' access to stories and texts that reflect their experiences and empower them in the face of discrimination.
Some argue that limiting access to culturally relevant books in schools will only bring more attention to these books, allowing students to find them through other avenues. While it is true that some Texas youth have formed banned book clubs to discuss books that have been banned in their districts or campuses, these kinds of sentiments grossly ignore that teachers and school librarians provide crucial access to books for young children. Nearly 20 percent of children between the ages of five and eight do not have any books of their own at home, according to a survey by the National Literacy Trust. When politicians and white conservative parents challenge books and pull them from library shelves, educators are limited in what concepts they can teach students. These actions convey to Black, brown, and queer students that books by and for people who look like them should be removed lest they make their white peers uncomfortable. As a result students of color and LGBTQIA+ students end up being the ones most deeply affected by these proposed policies.
They are not keeping quiet.
When I spoke to youth in the Barrio Writers Pflugerville summer writing workshop that I lead, students had a lot to say about banned books. I provided them with readings from books that have been banned or challenged in Texas, including Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas and Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, to inspire their own writing. Several students said they interpret parents' and politicians' actions as another form of control. Another youth writer commented that banning books limited critical thinking and those invested in bans directly intend to constrain people's voices.
A 2021 report from the American Library Association tracking censorship saw that 50 percent of book challenges came from parents, and only 1 percent from students. The vast majority of those challenges, 96 percent, took place in public libraries, schools, and school libraries.
As a nonprofit, The Bat Mobile and other mobile libraries associated with independent bookstores aren't restricted in terms of how we can serve young people. Each time that we get a new donation of books, I look for ones by authors of color and queer and trans writers that I know my students will gravitate towards and load them onto the bus. I sort them with excitement, thinking of the recommendations I will make for specific students: speculative fiction novels like The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera, about a young Latina who carries Earth's stories with her to another planet after Earth is destroyed by Halley's Comet; or a graphic novel that delighted me, like Chad Sell's The Cardboard Kingdom series about a diverse group of kids in one neighborhood who spend the summer uniting their fantastical alter egos in an array of adventures that help them navigate familial troubles at home.
I have learned through talking with students what appeals to them, but I also choose books that I wish I could have had as a child. Maybe that's selfish. But while literacy was important in my home, beyond Sesame Street, books were homogeneous. I didn't read a book about Mexican American people's experiences until I was a kindergarten teacher myself!
Some educators complain about young students only choosing comics or manga, but I think students resonate with those genres because of the diverse stories they contain. Rather than police young people's preferences, I encourage students' intellectual freedom and choice—something that feels even more important in the face of encroaching bans.
I hope that by exposing young people to stories that reflect their interests and experiences they will in turn be inspired to create imaginative stories of their own. As a writer myself, I hope to inspire the next generation of Black and brown storytellers. If a student's never read the words of someone who shares their experiences, how will they know it's possible, even necessary, for the worlds we are trying to create?
Knowing the power of the Bat Mobile, sometimes I ask students to write about the bus as if it were magical. I ask them to consider what they would do with the bus if they could use it to help others. Students have imagined the bus as a food truck giving out free lunches to their community or as an entire library and traveling school.
Their dreams aren't so farfetched. Bookmobiles have served such critical functions in rural and under-resourced communities across the globe since the mid-1800s. On our bus, I have picture books that celebrate stories of other mobile libraries: Waiting for the Biblioburro by Monica Brown, a poetic story about Colombian educator and librarian Luis Soriano and his two burros, Alfa and Beto who deliver books to children in rural communities that he serves; and The Library Bus by Bahram Rahman, about a girl named Pari in Kabul, Afghanistan who nervously helps her mother deliver books and perform read-alouds on their book bus for children in her community.
The growth of mobile libraries in the United States began in 1905, when librarian Mary Lemist Titcomb of Washington County, Maryland saw a gap in how the library was serving patrons and created a book wagon that delivered books to people's homes.
And 112 years later, Street Books ATX of Austin, Texas, is a slightly updated version of Titcomb's book wagon. Established in 2017, Street Books uses a bicycle and cart to deliver gently used and donated books to folks in East Austin and the greater downtown area, making it possible for people without a fixed address to pick up a book. Their work is particularly important for houseless community members, who are more heavily policed in public spaces. According to the founder and organizer Patrick Crowley, they distributed over 2,000 books in the two years leading up to the pandemic.
Bookmobiles have also evolved in the U.S. to incorporate access to technology into the services they provide communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries across the United States equipped their bookmobiles with wifi hotspots for people to use while social distancing in their cars and outdoors. Because 28 percent of rural Americans lack home internet, according to a 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center, rural community members rely on library internet for everything from job applications to processing government forms and completing school assignments.
In Texas, where so much of the state outside of the major cities is rural—over a third of the state's 1247 school districts qualified as rural in 2016—many public libraries and grassroots organizations are putting money towards bookmobiles to continue serving their communities.
Libros Bookmobile is a mobile bookstore that has converted a school bus into a bookmobile serving under-resourced areas in Hutto, Taylor, and Pflugerville—all places with growing Black and Latinx populations. While these communities have public libraries that offer a variety of services, they only have one location in each city and few, if any, bookstores. Without adequate public transportation, libraries remain inaccessible to the families that need them the most.
Libros owner Veronica Johnson explains, "I live in Hutto and we don't have a bookstore in any fashion. Libros Bookmobile is being set up in Taylor and we will be the second bookstore in town. While both towns have great libraries, there is something to be said about not having to travel 20-30 minutes away to find books to purchase to call your own."
Johnson focuses on selling new and gently-used books at more accessible price ranges so that community members can afford them. Libros is also implementing a trade-in program for customers to bring books to donate in exchange for store credit, motivating people to give books they love a second life.
As a Latinx bookstore owner, Johnson affirms that her primarily secondhand bookstore does carry a few new books from Latinx writers. "My goal with these is to highlight, celebrate, and introduce more of our stories and authors to a community that might not be aware of all the Latinx books coming out each month… I love reading Latinx slice-of-life books, where our everyday IS the story."
During our summer Barrio Writers Pflugerville workshop, youth had the opportunity to visit the Libros Bookmobile. Despite the high July temperatures, they ventured outside to clamber onto the converted school bus. Watching a stylish teen wearing iridescent platform boots (one of five pairs she owns) exclaim to her friends about the new YA book that she had been wanting to read filled me with a sense that the work of mobile libraries, while challenging, brings necessary stories to people's lives. These young writers were excited to take home free books.
We ended up working several of those same titles they received into the writing prompts for that week. Several young writers touched on how storytellers can document events and speak for their communities, and that they have the power to catalyze change.
As the Librotraficantes celebrate their 10-year anniversary for their work in Texas, organizer Laura Razos said in conversation that despite this celebration, "the movement [against book banning] is here for the long haul."
In the wake of the recent bans and continued attacks on BIPOC and LGBTQIA authors and their work, Razos emphasizes the role that community libraries have to play. "Community libraries and community organizations can create tools to enhance our community's literary legacy, history, and culture, including the creation of under ground libraries, book exchanges, banned book reading clubs, and fostering and creating ethnic studies programs across Texas."
Seeing my students relax on the bus's cushioned bench to explore their books or share them with their friends affirms for me that there's still a need for mobile libraries like the Bat Mobile. As long as we can, we will keep opening the doors for students to find themselves at the center of the story.