Reading & Literacy Q&A

Banned-Book Author: If a Book Isn’t in the School Library, ‘It Might as Well Not Exist’

By Eesha Pendharkar — September 27, 2022 7 min read
Ashley Hope Pérez, author of "Out of Darkness," the third most banned book in the country.
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As book bans across the country have escalated, some authors are caught in the crosshairs of the debates over the content in these books.

Books about LGBTQ characters or books with a protagonist or a secondary character of color are most likely to be banned, according to a PEN America report. From July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America found 2,532 instances 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 featuring a Mexican-American girl and an African-American boy in 1930s New London, Texas. The story is set over a period of time leading up to the real-life New London School explosion 1937, when a natural gas leak caused an explosion that destroyed the school, killing 300 students and teachers.

The story touches upon themes of racism, segregation, and classism. Last September, it was first challenged in Lake Travis Independent School District in Texas when a parent read a passage from the book at a board meeting that referred to anal sex.

“I do not want my children to learn about anal sex in middle school,” said Kara Bell at that meeting.

The Lake Travis ISD then 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 former high school English teacher, has been actively working to oppose book bans in collaboration with other organizations such as PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization and Red Wine and Blue, a parent group comprised mostly of Democratic-leaning suburban moms, since last year.

She’s received personal criticism and watched videos of her book being challenged and critiqued in school districts across the country since last fall, but she is still fighting for the chance for all students to be able to read her book and others that offer them representation and teach them about the complex history of our country, she said.

This conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What was your reaction to seeing your name and your book on one of those “most banned books” lists?

My main reaction is just sadness and disappointment and I wish this had not been a sad chapter for teachers and librarians. Instead, it’s turning into a perennial strategy for right wing groups to terrorize educators and librarians and students alike.

Whatever distress or frustration I feel, I know it is nothing compared to what it is to show up in communities where these [book banning] efforts are underway by community members, by the 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 work for young people in an environment where rather than being treated as a trusted partner, you’re being viewed with suspicion and hostility.

There’s no relief for teachers and librarians and it means we’re going to lose more and more teachers and librarians.

I don’t know how I would tolerate a climate that these groups are managing to inflict on educators right now. And I don’t know as a young person with a non-dominant identity of any kind, what it could possibly feel like to try to walk into a school where you know that there are people who are working their hardest to erase stories that reflect your experience.

What are some of the critiques you’ve heard about, from the people that want your book banned and do you think there’s any merit to them?

Criticisms being levied against Out of Darkness, Genderqueer, and All Boys Aren’t Blue, are pretext. And the reason we know they’re pretext, and not sincere concerns, is that these same themes and the same level of engagement with sexual identity or violence exists in books that feature white, straight characters. Yet, for some reason, those are not the lion’s share of the book challenges.

It’s really an effort to target certain identities and reinforce a message to right wing groups and to the political base. There are parents who get swept up in this who genuinely believe they’re concerned about young people, whether [it’s] their own children or students in their community, but the reality is that those parents are just pawns in a political game.

What about allegations that claim these books are inappropriate because of sexually explicit content or that they’re “pushing pornography on children?”

Pornography is a very specific term, it refers to materials that have as their sole purpose sexual arousal. And I can tell you, the explicit passages in Out of Darkness which deal with rape or sexual abuse are not intended to be sexually arousing. It is missing the point of literature which engages with human experiences in complex ways.

Something that is literature can’t be pornographic, because literature is always doing something more than simply arousing sexual interest.

As far as anyone trying to claim that this literature that we’re talking about is sexually explicit or inappropriate, does your kid have a cellphone or a best friend or a soccer teammate with a cellphone? Because if they do, they can access actual porn in two swipes. So let’s stop pretending that books are the problem that you need to focus on.

What happens to authors’ careers when their book is banned? What are negative impacts and are there any positives?

Midlist authors rarely see major bumps in their sales, especially not in this kind of situation where so many books are being banned. In my case, I have a secure 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 certainly not going to change how I write or what I write about. But for younger writers or for writers with less security, this is a really devastating experience and the breadth of these bans means that it’s very easy to have your career destroyed.

I think one silver lining is community. I’ve experienced it. I’ve worked with a lot of writers I didn’t know before. We’ve been partnering to try every way we can to respond to these actions. I think that this gift of knowing that you’re not alone facing a challenge is a major one.

Have you seen your book becoming more popular in terms of retail sales because it’s been banned?

Out of Darkness has never been a bestseller. It’s much more often the case that having your book banned has a chilling effect on your sales overall. don’t think I’ve seen the kind of downward impact in part because Out of Darkness was published in 2015.

But no book purchase undoes the harm of a real kid in a high school library not being able to find this book. Not having the option of doing that work and sharing that encounter with the past, with our actual American history of racialized violence and hatred.

I could be on the New York Times bestseller list tomorrow, and I wouldn’t feel OK about book banning. The reality is that who is buying the book versus who is losing access to the book, when I evaluate those two, what I care about is who is losing access to the book. In my experience as a high school teacher at a Title Ischool, a school with underserved students, with socio-economically 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 be concerning the general public? Why?

My takeaway from the hideous messages I’ve received over the past year, is that there is no outcome except for the complete erasure of these identities that will be experienced as 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 of this representation that they [the book banners] want to push back.

But what we’ve seen over and over in places where those efforts are successful is then they’re coming after the World History AP curriculum for not being American enough, and not being patriotic enough.

I care about the concerns that parents have as a parent myself. I don’t believe that these parents hate young people and want to make them suffer. I think that they’re deeply misguided. But I think at the end of the day, the consequences of their actions are so harmful for young people.

And I want to say to the parents and to school leaders, [the answer] is not restricting or removing material, it is creating support. My fantasy for these communities is for the school leaders to be relentlessly focused on the young people that they serve.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Banned-Book Author: If a Book Isn’t in the School Library, ‘It Might as Well Not Exist’

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