Ashley Hope Pérez: 'Young people have a right' to stories that help them learn
This essay by Ashley Hope Pérez is part of a series of interviews with — and essays by — authors who are finding their books being challenged and banned in the U.S.
For over a decade, I lived my professional dream. I spent my days teaching college literature courses and writing novels. I regularly visited schools as an author and got to meet teens who reminded me of the students I taught in Houston — the amazing humans who had first inspired me to write for young adults.
Then in 2021, my dream disintegrated into an author and educator's nightmare as my novel Out of Darkness became a target for politically motivated book bans across the country.
Attacks unfolded, not just on my writing but also on young people's right to read it. Hate mail and threats overwhelmed the inboxes where I once had received invitations for author visits and appreciative notes from readers. At the beginning of 2021, Out of Darkness had been on library shelves for over five years without a single challenge or complaint. As we reach the end of 2022, it has been banned in at least 29 school districts across the country.
From the earliest stages of writing, I knew Out of Darkness would be difficult — for me, and for readers. I drew my inspiration for the novel from an actual school disaster: the 1937 New London school explosion that killed hundreds in an East Texas oil town just 20 minutes from my childhood home. This tragic but little-known historical event serves as the backdrop for a fictional star-crossed romance between a Black teenager and a young Latina who has just arrived in the area.
As I researched the novel, I imagined the explosion as its most devastating event. But to engage honestly with the realities of the time and of my characters' lives, I had to grapple with systemic racism, personal prejudice, sexual abuse and domestic violence. As I wrote, the teenagers' circumstances began to tighten, noose-like, around their lives and love, leading to still more tragedy. I sought to show the depths of harm inflicted on some in this country without sensationalizing that history. The book portrays friendship, loving family, community and healthy relationships because they, too, are part of the characters' world. Then, as now, young people struggle mightily for joy, love and dignity.
When Out of Darkness was first published, I braced for objections. Would readers recoil from the harshness of my characters' realities? Or would they recognize how the novel invites connections between those realities and an ongoing reckoning with racialized violence and police brutality? To my relief, the novel received glowing reviews, earned multiple literary awards, and was named to "best of the year" lists by Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal. It appeared on reading lists across the country as a recommendation for ambitious young readers ready to face disquieting aspects of the American experience.
So it went until early 2021. In the wake of the 2020 presidential elections, right-wing groups pivoted from a national defeat to "local" issues. The latest wave of book banning exceeds anything ever documented by librarian or free-speech groups. The statistics for 2021, which represent only a fraction of actual removals, reflect a more than 600% increase in challenges and removals as compared to 2020. (See Everylibrary.org for a continually updated database of challenges and bans and PEN America's Banned in the USA reports for April 2022 and September 2022 for further context.)
These book bans do not reflect spontaneous parental concern. Instead, they are part of an orchestrated effort to sow suspicion of public schools as scarily "woke" and to signal opposition to certain identities and topics. Book banners often cite "sexually explicit content" as their reason for objecting to books in high schools. What distinguishes the targeted titles, though, is not their sexual content but that they overwhelmingly center the experiences of BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and other marginalized people. If you were to stack up all the books with sexual content in any library, the tallest stack by far would be about white, straight characters. Tellingly, those are not the books under attack. Claims about "sexual content" are a pretext for erasing the stories that tell Black, Latinx, queer and other non-dominant kids that they matter and belong. Beyond telegraphing disapproval, book bans serve the interests of groups that have long sought to dismantle public education and shut down conversations about important issues.
Debates about the suitability of reading materials in school are nothing new. These include past efforts by progressives to reorient language arts instruction. Concerns about racist language and portrayals might well lead communities to seek alternatives to the teaching of works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But de-emphasizing problematic classics does not generally entail removing the books from library collections. By contrast, in targeting high school libraries, conservative book banners seek to restrict what individual students may choose to read on their own, disregarding the judgment of school librarians who carefully select materials according to professional standards.
Rather than reading the books themselves, today's book banners rely instead on haphazard lists and talking points circulated online. Social media plays a central role in stoking the fires of censorship. Last year, a video of a woman ranting about a passage from Out of Darkness in a school board meeting went internationally viral. The woman's school board rant resulted in the removal of every copy of Out of Darkness from the district's libraries, triggered copycat performances, and fueled more efforts to ban my book.
Book banning poses a real professional and personal cost to authors and educators. For YA writers, losing access to school and library audiences can be career ending. And it is excruciating to watch people describe our life's work as "filth" or "garbage." We try to find creative ways to respond to the defamation, as I did in my own YouTube video. But there is no competing with the virality of outrage. Meanwhile, librarians and teachers face toxic work conditions that shift the focus from student learning to coping with harassment.
But book banning harms students, and their education, the most. Young people rely on school libraries for accurate information and for stories that broaden their understanding, offer hope and community, and speak honestly to challenges they face. As libraries become battlegrounds, teens notice which books, and which identities, are under attack. Those who share identities with targeted authors or characters receive a powerful message of exclusion: These books don't belong, and neither do you.
Back in 2004, my predominately Latinx high school students in Houston wanted — needed — books that reflected their lives and communities but few such books had been written. In the decades since, authors have worked hard to ensure greater inclusion and respect for the diversity of teen experiences. For students with fewer resources or difficult home situations, though, a book that isn't in the school library might as well not exist. Right-wing groups want to roll back the modest progress we've made, and they are winning.
These "wins" happen even without official bans. Formal censorship becomes unnecessary once bullying, threats and disruption shake educators' focus from students. The result is soft censorship. For example, a librarian reads an outstanding review of a book that would serve someone in their school, but they don't order it out of fear of controversy. This is the internalization of the banners' agenda. The effects of soft censorship are pervasive, pernicious and very difficult to document.
The needs of all students matter, not just those whose lives and identities line up with what book banners think is acceptable. Young people have a right to the resources and stories that help them mature, learn and understand their world in all its diversity. They need more opportunities, not fewer, to experience deep imaginative engagement and the empathy it inspires. We've had enough "banner" years. I hope 2023 returns the focus to young people and their right to read.
Ashley Hope Pérez, author of three novels for young adults, is a former high school English teacher and an assistant professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. Find her on Twitter and Instagram or LinkT.
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