When Your Book Gets Banned By the School Board

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S1: Heads up, everyone, we’re going to be talking about banned books in this episode and the reasons those books got banned in the first place. A lot of times that includes some frank talk about sex. So you’ve been warned. When I was in high school, there was that one English teacher. Everyone adored the one who sponsored the literary magazine, the one who encouraged students to keep journals and read poetry out loud. I thought of that teacher when I got Ashley Pérez on the line. She used to teach English down in Texas.

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S2: I taught on the southeast side of Houston at Chavez since that E. Chavez High School

S1: back in the early 2000s. That meant assigning the so-called classics.

S2: Well, I was teaching back in the days of To Kill a Mockingbird of Mice and Men, always some Shakespeare. So I taught Julius Caesar Macbeth.

S1: Yeah, was there ever a book you wouldn’t teach?

S2: Well, I didn’t teach for my My District literature textbook at all. They just state, actually, we used them as doorstops. We were just that. That was a big thing to hold the door open. I think that when literature is put in a textbook, it stopped seeming alive.

S1: Ashley writes young adult books now, but the way she said that last bit, the way she talks about literature being alive. I felt like I was back in the classroom with her feeling the muted thrill of AP English. Because Ashley taught mostly black and Latino kids, she thinks a lot about how to make books like hers welcoming for all kinds of readers. That means thinking about the hidden messages her stories can send.

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S2: I have a really big issue with glossaries. For example, there was a period of time that books like mine that incorporated Spanish would have a glossary in the back, which I hate because it to me, it has that textbook quality. This is sort of or it says, Who is this for? This is assuming that the reader doesn’t have either the linguistic skills to understand these phrases or the, you know, persistence to Google them on their phone.

S1: It sounds like you became a young adult author, partially because you wanted to write a book you would want to assign as a teacher.

S2: Hmm. Well, I wouldn’t. I actually would say no in the sense that I wouldn’t want to assign my books. But the best is when another kid handed it to them and says, You should read this. That’s my favorite. And that’s because I as a teacher, that was overwhelmingly the way that non-readers became readers. I have been writing the books that I want students like mine to find in their school library.

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S1: But finding Ashley’s book in a school library that’s gotten a lot harder over the last year because as careful as she is about being inclusive when she writes, some people say they still feel left out of Ashley’s narrative. These fights are nothing new, but an expert says they’re becoming more heated. And those people, they’re showing up at school board meetings, demanding books like Ashley’s get pulled off the shelves.

S3: I want you to start focusing on education.

S1: The American Library Association has called this year’s spike in book, Manning a Moral Panic.

S3: Both of these books include pedophilia. There are children in the audience. Do not interrupt my time. Do not interrupt my time. I would like to remind everybody and here until my time is restored and my time is finished.

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S1: So today on the show, what’s it like when your book is the one getting yanked out of school libraries? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Before we got into the backlash over her book, it’s called Out of Darkness. I asked Ashley Pérez to describe this now controversial work in her own words.

S2: So Out of darkness is a love story. It’s an interracial romance between a Mexican-American girl named Naomi, who comes to East Texas from San Antonio and an African-American boy named Washington, Wash. As what he goes by. And it’s set against the backdrop of a historical event that occurred about 20 minutes from where I grew up, which is the new London school explosion. And a lot of people have never even heard of this event. But in 19 march of 1937, there was a natural gas leak in the school that, when it ignited, caused a huge explosion and the estimate of deaths is close to 300. They never knew for sure because all the school records were destroyed in the explosion.

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S1: Something else I noticed when I was reading about out of darkness is that I don’t think it’s an easy read. Like the New York Times review was written by a pretty grizzled reporter in Baghdad in Mexico City, and he wrote, I actually had to close the book at one point to seek respite with Facebook and puppies.

S2: Yeah, I remember that that was that was entertaining to me. Yes, I agree completely. And I often when I hear from folks about the challenges of reading it, I, you know, I can only respond with understanding because I lived inside that story world. And I still, I mean, my heart is still buried in that book. There are pieces of my heart. I will never get back that are there forever. But it is a challenging narrative, and I think it’s a book for a student who is willing wishing to engage with some very difficult histories, their histories of racial violence, their histories of sexual abuse, their histories of misogyny. You know, those things are all there in the book. There is also a lot of love and family and playfulness and joy that’s happening in spite of those ever intensifying pressures and constraints.

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S1: Ashley says when out of darkness got released back in 2015, she brace yourself for some kind of pushback. But in the six years the book’s been out, she never really got any. That is, until she got word back in the spring that it had been put on pause in a central Texas school district. And then over the summer, a video emerged.

S3: A Mexican is a Mexican, is a Mexican. Take her out back, we boys figured. Then hand on the titties, put it in her corn box, put it in her cornhole. Grab a hold of that braid. Rub that calico. You can find that on page 39 of the book called Out of Darkness, which you can find at Hudson Bend Middle School and Pete Cave Middle School.

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S1: This video shows a parent. Her name’s Carrabelle objecting to a passage in Ashley’s book. She is speaking at a school board meeting just outside Austin.

S3: I do not want my children to learn about anal sex in middle school. I have never had anal sex. I don’t want to have anal sex. I don’t want my kids having anal sex. I want you to start

S1: focusing the words Bell’s quoting. They do appear in out of darkness, but she’s compressing an entire scene into a string of buzzwords. In the scene, Naomi Ashley main character. She has walked into a new school. Her classmates recognize she is the prettiest girl there, but they dismiss her because of her race. A Mexican is a Mexican, is a Mexican. One girl says. And the boys they daydream about sexually assaulting Naomi.

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S2: So in September, I had the pleasure of seeing Central Texas actor Karabell. Not really. She’s not an actor, but she is quite a performer. Do a dramatic reading of a series of snippets from a chapter and out of darkness in a school board meeting in a video that went viral. You know, it’s circulated with headlines like, you know, Texas mom loses it over anal sex. She was reacting to the inclusion of the word cornhole in a passage that was from the perspective of white high school students in this 1936 Texas school who were objecting to the arrival of a Mexican-American student in their class. And sort of we were seeing how the young men in the class were viewing her as a sexual object, etc.

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S1: And we said we should contextualize the video this mother from, I believe, outside of Austin. She goes to a school board meeting. My understanding is she had actually tried to run for school boards. So clearly very activated parent. She’s just yelling words at you and you don’t really know what she’s talking about.

S2: Nor does she know what she’s talking about, right? Because she definitely hasn’t read the book. I mean,

S1: I know the one I reacted to this. I was just my brain was just kind of scrambled because I was like, What is going on here? But those are your words. I mean, how did you react?

S2: It’s so painful, right to to hear, to hear something that you’ve worked incredibly hard to shape and to present in a way that is, you know, it’s part of a literary whole right to see someone just yank those phrases as if any of the phrases that she’s using are things that I endorse. You know, several of the things our dialogue and the the whole point of the passage is to show readers the what the main character has to endure, what she has to navigate, the ideas and perspectives and limiting beliefs that are circulating in the school space where she has to spend eight hours of her day. But this parent is not interested in the function of that passage in the work as a whole, nor is she interested in the work as a whole. I mean, this is the kind of thing where there’s a reason she’s reading from something in the first 30 pages because that’s these parents are often have have decided because they’ve been steered towards particular books by websites like No Left Turn or Moms for Liberty. They’ve already decided that this book needs to go, and they’re just looking for what will be the most attention grabbing and a particularly this individual new. I think that her presentation of the topic was going to grab attention. And I think that was the goal.

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S1: You pointed out to that what the district did here, because this woman did win the book got taken off the shelves. It violated their own policy, like their policy was that they might review a book, but during that time, the book would remain on. Shelves. That’s not what happened here.

S2: No, and unfortunately, in these challenges that are happening all over the country, we’re seeing that over and over. Districts have these policies for a reason, and that is, I can say, as an as an English teacher myself, right? If I was afraid that one parent complaining would mean that all the books I was teaching, for example, if I was teaching a book in class were going to be removed. Then I what am I going to teach? I’m not going to teach the thing that’s that’s challenging and controversial in some way. I’m going to teach the most unobjectionable thing. And that’s kind of the goal here is to chill discourse and intimidate teachers and librarians. So it’s not even just about removing out of darkness from a library. It’s about. Creating an environment in which the librarian. The next time they order books is going to think twice before choosing a book that engages with difficult histories in our nation or that engages with LGBTQ identities or that engages with teen sexuality in some way, even if that book is highly recommended in professional journals for school libraries.

S1: Another thing that bothers Ashley is that while parents are often complaining to their schools about the sexual content of books like hers, that doesn’t seem to be their true objection to what she’s written. And she feels like that because she sees the books that aren’t getting banned.

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S2: I portray these events. To challenge them, not to endorse them often bring up the Bible because I grew up in a Bible church and I know that book really well and I ask, you know, do you think that the Bible is grooming young people to be sexually abused or gang raped or, you know, to engage in incest because all of those situations occur in that text? And I and I think that, you know, we haven’t really talked about this, but there’s there’s just no denying the pattern of which books are being targeted. But even though the most common reason given is sexual content, it is not the sexual content that these books have in common. These books have in common centering characters or experiences from non-white non-dominant communities. And I, you know, I often just if I could make a stack of all of the books in the high school library with sexual content and make a stack of those that feature straight white, middle class characters. That’s going to be the highest stack. But those are not the books that are being challenged. And every middle school and high school in Texas I’m willing to venture has copies of the Bible. So this idea that this content is unacceptable in some books, but fine in others, is where I really I just I feel the the actual intentions, what kind of message is really being sent becomes clearer.

S1: When we come back, are there any books that are worth banning? Part of the reason I wanted to talk to you was this statistic from the American Library Association, which found that these conversations about banning books in schools, they’re just happening more often this year than last year. And it seems like a major spike. Mm-Hmm. And given that statistic, I realized I had this question for you, which was, do you think there are any books that should be banned from schools?

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S2: No, I think once a book is included in their school library, I trust the librarians judgment, although there’s no comparison in terms of volume of challenges coming from, you know, folks who identify as conservative versus folks who identify as liberal. There have been a handful of cases where, you know, to kill a Mockingbird. There was a call for its removal or of mice and men. And I think that I firmly believe that those books do belong in school libraries.

S1: And we should be clear the reason why I think many educators have become uncomfortable with To Kill a Mockingbird is that it puts forward a white savior narrative, and it makes a lot of readers deeply uncomfortable.

S2: Right? Yeah. But I think but like and circling back to that conversation about discomfort, discomfort is not danger. And I think that teaching to kill a Mockingbird in an unqualified way, you know, without contextualizing those issues is, at this point, irresponsible. But to teach it in ways that highlight and address those problems can be very powerful, and frankly, our literature is full of narratives that are problematic, and many of these ways are we don’t have to teach every one of those problematic narratives. But to find opportunities, even if it’s Hey, I you know, I’m teaching this novel, but I’m going to step to the side and have my students read a chapter or two from To Kill a Mockingbird so we can talk about the difference. What’s different when African-American characters are portrayed as having agency in their own lives versus when they are portrayed as secondary to the actions of a white character?

S1: One parent in Houston who successfully petitioned her school into getting rid of a couple of books, not your book. She explained herself by saying that she’s not into censoring. That’s not what this is about for her. She sees this more. As you know, we filter students internet access. We have keywords and trigger words. We know people shouldn’t have access to certain things as a minor. Why isn’t this the same process in school libraries? Mm-Hmm. And I wonder what you’d say to that?

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S2: Well, I think that what’s missing from that is. Attention to what is the material, right? It’s not a Web site, it’s a work of literature.

S1: What’s the difference?

S2: So I think whenever folks are talking about, you know, we have filters for these other things. I want to say libraries have those filters, too. They come in the form of professional reviews, librarians referring to the recommendations of professional journals. You know, they can’t read every book. That’s true. But are there are resources that guide their selections? So there’s already been filtering and in though and the case that they include something that has sexual content like Out of Darkness, there has a track record of professional, trustworthy organizations evaluating that content and saying, Yes, this is this is functioning as part of a literary whole. It’s not there to glorify the situation. It is part of a story that complicates and challenges that.

S1: It’s not the same as accidentally clicking on pornography.

S2: Exactly. And I think that that’s I mean to to to imply that it’s the same just reveals a lack of understanding about what it is to engage with literature.

S1: One thing that I feel like we’ve come back to a couple of times in this conversation is the fact that the increasingly heated rhetoric I’m hearing right now when it comes to what kids can and can’t read. The entry point for a lot of parents, what seems to get them so upset is sex. And you’ve pointed out that, you know, a lot of times like there’s sex and a lot of books. And it’s it’s often been objectionable to people, whether you’re talking about, you know, are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret or whatever. But I wonder a little bit what you make of this sexual panic that is focused on books that deal with race, like, of course, with your book, there’s the mention of the word Cornwall, which is a reference to anal sex. Mm-Hmm. But then if you look at like the Virginia governor’s race, there was a lot of talk about the book beloved in that governor’s race. And that has scenes involving sexual assault bestiality, another book that has gotten a lot of attention in the last year this book Lawn Boy, or there’s a very similar school board meeting to the one that happened for your book, where a woman gets up and reads passages. She actually has poster boards where, you know, it’s really frank conversations about gay sex being a queer kid, being a fourth grader, having sexual thoughts, stuff that’s tough and stuff that’s challenging.

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S2: I mean, it’s stuff that’s tough. It’s tough. That’s challenging, but it’s also real. And again, that’s where I come back to you. Who am I? You know, who am I serving? And I certainly care about parents and their perspective, but I am not writing to please parents. And I don’t think and I think that also, you know, you just you can’t create literature. If you were trying not to offend people. Literature has always taken me to the to the far, far edge of what I can bear to forget. You know, comfort, I’m never comfortable when I’m writing because the things that are worth writing about challenge us.

S1: Can you tell me how your life changed after this video went viral of a woman? Just dragging your work.

S2: Hmm. Yeah, my my editor called it vandalism, and I appreciate that. The most significant effect has been that because this was so high profile, my book, which is perhaps more widely read in Texas since it’s set in Texas, it’s on many of the Texas Library Association sort of book guide lists. But because of this performance, all of a sudden out of darkness is on the radar of basically every parent participating in this kind of orchestrated challenge. I have been sent lots of materials from private Facebook groups in these communities where my books been challenged, removed or banned. And the reason I want to say, and this is going to sound cynical, I don’t want to say that it’s true for every parent. But the reason so much of this focus is on sexual content is because folks know they can’t challenge something with a focus on the race of characters or the sexual orientation of characters.

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S1: What do they say about it in the Facebook groups? That leads you to think that,

S2: no, I’m going to paraphrase this, but I basically when you challenge these books, focus on the sexual content, do not use the word they sex, do not use LGBTQ, do not talk about race. Books can’t be removed for those reasons. I mean, it’s that clear. So while some parents may, may be they’re objecting because of the sexual content. There’s clearly an agenda that’s about other issues. And I think I really again, I think it’s about reclaiming, you know, this this idea that somehow education has been taken away from conservative communities or from that their stories are no longer central. But I mean, it is really that explicit. I want to be clear that underlying all of this is a much more I’ve heard from many school leaders there. They are overwhelmed and exhausted with public information requests, parents showing up and they, even though they’ve passed the number of requests you can make for free. They have no issue making, you know, running up bills of 500 600 dollars because they have funding

S1: and they’re requesting for like emails or communications

S2: purchase orders from the library teachers the beginning of year surveys to check if they ask students for preferred pronouns, things like that, that they’re basically looking for signs that the way things are being conducted in the school somehow violates the principles that they that they think should govern education. One thing I always want to say really clearly and strongly, especially when being asked about my experiences with this situation, is that I feel what we as authors are going through when these books are removed is a fraction of the struggle and suffering that is occurring for the librarians and the teachers and above all, the students in these communities. Because trying to learn, trying to teach and in an environment of such hostility and opposition is unfathomably difficult. And I hear from teachers and librarians all the time who are at their limit. And the thing I wish I could say to, you know, middle of the road, parents, parents, you might hear a video like that and think, Oh, I don’t think anal sex is like the best thing for middle school. Maybe that parent has a point. I would want them to understand. What is happening is that teachers and librarians and schools resources are being pulled away from teaching students and being sucked into these manufactured controversies.

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S1: Ashley Pérez, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure.

S1: Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of three Y.A. novels, including Out of Darkness. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Alan Schwarz, Mary Wilson Carmel Delshad and Daniel Hewitt. We are led each and every day by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter, say, Hi, I’m at Mary’s desk, and I will catch you back in

S4: this feed tomorrow.