THE WOODLANDS — When Michele Nuckolls’ young children checked out a book from the South Regional branch of the Montgomery County Memorial Public Library system that featured a character with two same-sex parents, she was appalled.

The mother of four, who homeschools her kids, believes that children’s books mentioning LGBTQ+ relationships or questioning gender identity should be labeled with parental warnings — akin to the MPAA rating system for movies.

In a state where education and books have become increasingly politicized, many Texas parents have advocated for book bans that eliminate titles with LGBTQ+ or gender identity themes on public school shelves. Late last year, Gov. Greg Abbott called for criminal charges to be filed against public school staff who provide young adults novels that Texas Republicans consider “pornographic.”

Michele Nuckolls, a local Christian conservative activist, during a book reading at Montgomery County Memorial Library System’s South Regional Library on May 25 in The Woodlands. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

But Nuckolls chose a different approach in The Woodlands.

Instead of encouraging the library to ban books, she successfully appealed to the library’s director and the Montgomery County commissioners to expand the library’s collection of children’s books that reflected Christian values. 

In recent weeks, the library added 140 titles from Brave Books, a Conroe-based publishing company, and another 61 Christian, conservative children’s books.

The approach helped stem public backlash that has engulfed schools and libraries across Texas, but it also brings into question the place that religious texts should have in public libraries. The American Library Association advises institutions across the country to be inclusive rather than exclusive — as well as mindful of the First Amendment boundaries related to endorsing one religion over another.

Rhea Young, the Montgomery County library system’s director, said her organization has a responsibility to carry “materials on the various sides of controversial questions.” At the same time, Young considers circulating books “because of widespread or local demand” from residents of the deeply conservative region. 

“When I made the decision to include the donation of Brave Books to our collection, I did so based on this part of our policy,” Young wrote in an email.

Brave Books in Montgomery

Months after Nuckolls’ children checked out the book, she beamed as author Cecil Stokes read from “Little Lives Matter,” a popular Christian, conservative children’s book, inside a cool, air-conditioned room in the county library’s South Regional branch.

“Just as the wildflowers were starting to bloom in Wigamore Woods, the sweetest little bear cub was born,” he said. “He wasn’t like any other cub on Freedom Island.”

Flanked by a tower of red, white and blue balloons topped with American flags, Stokes regaled his audience of about 40 parents and elementary-aged children with the story of Mobi the bear.

The Christian film producer and author didn’t write “Little Lives Matter,” but he is intimately familiar with the text. Stokes changed his tone into a guttural snarl as he voiced the narrative’s villain, “Culture the Vulture,” and then softened again as Mobi defiantly opposed Culture.

It had been a long two months before Nuckolls could celebrate the inclusion of “Little Lives Matter,” one of the 200 newly stocked books. At recent county meetings, Nuckolls cajoled Young and Montgomery commissioners to expand the library’s collection of Christian children’s books.  

“It’s about protecting our children from gender confusion,” Nuckolls said in March. “It’s confusing and frightening for our children and how they categorize their world.”

However, longtime University of Houston education professor Margaret Hale said white, Christian values have been centered in the children’s book collections of Texas libraries for decades. She thinks Montgomery County’s decision to include Brave Books sets a dangerous precedent.

It’s important, Hale said, for parents to remember that kids should not only see themselves and their values represented, but also people and traditions that are different from their lived experiences.

“If we’re never exposed to it,” she added, “we tend to fear it.”

A solo process

Young, who has been the county’s library director since September, is the sole executive officer of the Library Advisory Board, a liaison between the commissioners, county residents and library patrons.

However, the board, composed of five voting members appointed by the county commissioners, does not select library materials. That responsibility belongs solely to Young, who uses the library’s “Materials Selection Policy” to guide her decisions.

Before Nuckolls secured funding for Brave Books, she worked with Young to order 61 new Christian children’s books to expand the collection and replace worn or lost copies.

A selection of titles from Brave Books, a Christian conservative publishing company, during a book reading at Montgomery County Memorial Library System’s South Regional Library on May 25 in The Woodlands. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Then, on April 11, Nuckolls took to the podium during Commissioner’s Court. She thanked Young and appealed to the commissioners to make Brave Books an approved vendor under the Montgomery County Memorial Library System, waving a copy of “The Antiracist Kid: A Book About Identity, Justice, and Activism,” as she spoke.

“Traditionally, libraries have been a place of a diversity of thought,” Nuckolls said. “Unfortunately, I am finding woke, activist books, but I am not finding the conservative balance — the values our country was founded on.”

Montgomery County District Attorney Brett Ligon offered to donate the money needed to place Brave Books in circulation.

“I’ll pay for ‘em,” he said. “That way the government doesn’t have to do it. That way conservative readers in the county get the opportunity to read good books in our county library.”

Ligon, County Attorney B.D. Griffin and County Judge Mark Keough, who presides over commissioners court, ultimately split the $1,200 cost of placing 140 Brave Books titles in the library. 

Young approved the donation. Montgomery County residents can check out copies of Brave Books in all seven library branches.

In an email, Young wrote that the county library system has always had Christian children’s books in circulation. She cited the materials selection policy for why she approved Nuckolls’ request.

While the American Library Association promotes inclusion, privileging one religion over another could potentially violate the First Amendment “establishment” clause, which prohibits the government from establishing or endorsing a religion.

Expand, not ban

As a homeschooling parent, Nuckolls said she had no other option but to champion her efforts through the public library system.

That said, she thought it would be easiest to ask Young to expand their collection of children’s books that reflect her family’s values, rather than ban books that don’t. 

But Hale, the University of Houston education professor, worries the prevalence of Christian children’s books in comparison to books featuring Muslim characters who practice Islam, for example, will limit children in Montgomery County.

“Kids should have both windows and mirrors in the books they have access to,” Hale said. “Mirrors so we are validated, and windows so we can learn other things — family, values, religion — that’s how we can become better human beings.”

Young balked at the suggestion that accepting the Brave Books donation or ordering additional Christian, conservative children’s books in the Memorial Library System contributes to the politicization of books.

“We do not believe in book banning and we understand that ALL people want to see themselves represented in books,” she wrote. “We believe that parents have the right to decide what their child reads.”

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Céilí Doyle covers the region’s suburbs and rural communities for the Houston Landing. She comes to Texas by way of the Midwest, most recently working for The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio through the...