Battle Over School Reading Lists Continues in Suburban Austin

PEN America joins fight after Leander ISD “pauses” book recommendations

PEN America has joined the fight against parent-fueled efforts to pull books from student reading lists in a suburban Austin school district.

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The U.S. arm of the international nonprofit devoted to literature and free expression released its April 21 open letter to Leander ISD, signed by several authors of books that the district has removed or “paused” from its high school reading lists. Writers who signed the letter include The Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood, National Book Award finalist Laurie Halse Anderson, MacArthur fellow and former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jacqueline Woodson, best-selling fiction writer Jodi Picoult and memoirist Carmen Maria Machado.

‘In the Dream House,’ by Carmen Maria Machado, the source of much controversy.

“We write to you not just as concerned citizens, but as creators of some of the very books that have been subjects of this challenge,” the letter reads. “We urge you to revoke the current bans and suspensions and to defend the right to read books that reflect a diverse set of perspectives and stories.”

The district pulled some books from choice lists in March and “paused” additional titles after parents complained that some of the books featured inappropriate content. Hybrid parent-teacher panels are reviewing all 140 books that are part of the book-club lists. Superintendent Bruce Gearing said administrators also are currently drafting board policy “prohibiting the purchase of inappropriate literature for the assigned students’ ages” that will go to a board vote this summer. 

Parents complained about graphic-novel versions of The Handmaid’s Tale, Halse Anderson’s Speak and Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery; Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw’s graphic novel Kiss Number 8, Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, and Machado’s In the Dream House.

Leander parents complained about this graphic-novel adaptation of ‘The Lottery’.

Other books at issue include Woodson’s Red at the Bone, Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer, Amy Reed’s The Nowhere Girls, Brian K. Vaughan’s graphic novel Y: The Last Man and Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V is for Vendetta.

Many of the pulled books center LGBTQ themes and BIPOC perspectives, noted Leander ISD high school English teacher Zach Long in an interview with Book and Film Globe. None is required reading. The book-club units let students choose from a 15-title list, which educators recently revised to incorporate more diverse and contemporary stories, Long said. 

Removing books from the list–particularly ones that center marginalized communities –sends the wrong message to all students, he said.

“This is not just teaching for comprehension, this is not just teaching literary devices,” he said. “This is also a way to connect with each other, and with humanity. These options for kids are so important. 

 “When we start removing these options, especially when we see a lot of these books focus on queer stories, on LGBTQ stories, it’s actively telling our students who identify with that that it’s OK to take away your story. It also sets a precedent for other students that you don’t have to respect that perspective.”

District parents pushed back on some of the choices by petition, arguing that the lists provide “harmful literature” to students. “Public education in Leander ISD should be consumable by the students in our community while creating little to no controversy,” the petition reads. Organizers recently updated it to ask parents to keep students home from school April 28 as a S.I.C.K. day, or “Stop Indoctrinating our Children K-12.”

Parent Lori Hines complained about the book choices at a February school board meeting.

“No one is asking to ban books,” she said, brandishing a sex toy in reference to one passage in Machado’s memoir. In The Dream House, which traces Machado’s experiences in an abusive relationship, appeared on multiple best-of-the-year lists. 

“No one is asking to ban books,” said one parent while brandishing a sex toy. “We are asking for age-appropriate reading material that advances independent thought and critical thinking.” 

“We are asking for age-appropriate reading material that advances independent thought and critical thinking,” Hines testified.

The district told parents that its process for reviewing the reading lists was hampered by COVID shutdowns. “We over-relied on written reviews and recommendations…We acknowledge this breakdown in the process and apologize for selecting inappropriate literature for the assigned students’ ages,” it said in a statement now posted to the district’s web site. 

In response to a request from Book and Film Globe for comment on the PEN America letter, the district released a statement that reads, in part: “Any time there is a concern from parents about material offered in our schools, LISD makes every effort to listen, engage and course-correct where necessary.” 

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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