If a book isn’t in the school library, ‘it might as well not exist’
As book bans across the country have escalated, some authors are caught in the crosshairs of debates over the content of these books.
Books about LGBTQ characters or books with a protagonist or supporting character of color are most likely to be banned, according to a report from PEN America. From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America found 2,532 cases of individual books being banned from schools, affecting 1,648 different book titles.
One of the most banned books is out of darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, which has been banned in 24 school districts, according to PEN America. The award-winning young adult novel is a teenage love story about a Mexican-American girl and an African-American boy in 1930s New London, Texas. The story takes place over a period of time leading up to the real-life explosion at New London School in 1937, when a natural gas leak caused an explosion that destroyed the school, killing 300 pupils and teachers.
The story touches on themes of racism, segregation and classism. Last September, it was first challenged in the Lake Travis Independent School District in Texas when a parent read a passage from the book at a board meeting that referenced anal sex.
“I don’t want my kids learning about anal sex in middle school,” Kara Bell said at that meeting.
The Lake Travis ISD later removed the book from two other schools for being sexually explicit and inappropriate. A few other districts followed, banning the book for the same reasons.
Pérez, an assistant professor at Ohio State University and a former high school English teacher, has worked actively to oppose book bans in collaboration with other organizations such as PEN America, a freedom advocacy organization. expression and Red Wine and Blue, a parent group made up mostly of Democratic-leaning suburban mothers, since last year.
She has received personal criticism and watched videos of her challenged and criticized book in school districts across the country since last fall, but she is still fighting to ensure that all students can read her book and others who provide them with representation and teach them about the complex history of our country, she says.
This conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
What was your reaction to seeing your name and your book on one of these “most banned books” lists?
My main reaction is just sadness and disappointment and I wish this chapter wasn’t sad for teachers and librarians. Instead, it turns into a permanent strategy for right-wing groups to terrorize educators, librarians and students.
Whatever distress or frustration I feel, I know it’s nothing compared to what it’s like to show up in communities where these [book banning] efforts are underway by community members, by right-wing groups [that] push them forward, [or by] opportunistic politicians to undermine public education and what it is [for teachers and school librarians] to try to do your best for young people in an environment where, rather than being treated as a trusted partner, you are viewed with suspicion and hostility.
There is no relief for teachers and librarians and that means we are going to lose more and more teachers and librarians.
I don’t know how I would tolerate a climate that these groups manage to impose on educators right now. And I don’t know as a young person with a non-dominant identity of some sort, what it would be like to try to get into a school where you know there are people who work their best to erase stories that reflect your experience.
What are some of the criticisms you’ve heard from people who want your book banned and do you think they have any merit?
Critics rise against out of darkness, Genderqueer, and Not all boys are blue, are a pretext. And the reason we know these are pretexts, not sincere concerns, is that these same themes and level of engagement with sexual identity or violence exist in books that feature characters white and straight. Still, for some reason, those aren’t the lion’s share of the book’s challenges.
It’s really an effort to target certain identities and reinforce a message to right-wing groups and the political base. There are parents who get carried away by this and sincerely believe that they care about young people, whether [it’s] their own children or students in their community, but the reality is that these parents are just pawns in a political game.
What about claims that these books are inappropriate because of their sexually explicit content or that they “push child pornography?”
Pornography is a very specific term, it refers to materials that have the sole purpose of sexual arousal. And I can tell you that the explicit passages in out of darkness that deal with rape or sexual abuse are not intended to be sexually arousing. It misses the point of literature that approaches human experiences in complex ways.
Something that is literature cannot be pornographic, because literature always does more than just arouse sexual interest.
As for anyone trying to claim that this literature we’re talking about is sexually explicit or inappropriate, does your child have a cell phone or a best friend or football teammate with a cell phone? Because if they do, they can access real porn in two shots. So let’s stop pretending that the pounds are the problem you need to focus on.
What happens to authors’ careers when their book is banned? What are the negative impacts and are there any positives?
Midlist authors rarely see major bumps in sales, especially not in this kind of situation where so many books are banned. In my case, I have a safe day job, and I have two books under contract, and I’m pretty confident that I’ll find my way out of this moment professionally. I’m definitely not going to change the way I write or what I write about. But for young writers, or for writers with less security, it’s a truly devastating experience, and the scale of these bans means it’s very easy to destroy your career.
I think a silver lining is community. I have experienced it. I’ve worked with a lot of writers that I didn’t know before. We have joined together to try by all means to respond to these actions. I think this gift of knowing that we are not alone in the face of a challenge is major.
Did you see your book become more popular in terms of retail sales because it was banned?
out of darkness was never a bestseller. It’s much more common for your book to be banned to have a chilling effect on your overall sales. I don’t think I’ve seen the kind of downward impact partly because out of darkness was released in 2015.
But no book purchase right the hurt of a real kid in a high school library who can’t find that book. Not having the opportunity to do this work and share this encounter with the past, with our current American history of racial violence and hatred.
I could be on the New York Times bestseller list tomorrow, and I wouldn’t feel okay with the book ban. The reality is who buys the book versus who loses access to the book, when I’m evaluating those two, what matters to me is who loses access to the book. In my experience as a high school teacher at a title school, a school with underserved students, with socioeconomically disadvantaged students, if the book is not in the school library , it might as well not exist for some students.
Do you think book bans should apply to the general public? Why?
What I take away from the hideous messages I have received over the past year is that there is no result except the complete erasure of these identities which will be experienced as a success by these groups . And that’s why everyone should be concerned.
Because right now it’s LGBTQ and black and brown and Asian identities and all this representation that they [the book banners] want to push back.
But what we’ve seen time and time again in places where these efforts succeed is that they come next after the history curriculum of world history for not being American enough and not patriotic enough.
I care about the concerns parents have as a parent myself. I do not believe that these parents hate young people and want to make them suffer. I think they are deeply mistaken. But I think at the end of the day, the consequences of their actions are so bad for young people.
And I want to say to parents and school leaders, [the answer] is not to restrict or remove material, it is to create support. My fantasy for these communities is that school leaders are relentlessly focused on the young people they serve.