Authors deal with a rise of school book bans across the country
As school book bans accelerate across the United States, authors are wrestling with the blowback.
A handful of parents have vilified Ashley Hope Pérez’s Out of Darkness and Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy at school board meetings. Their rants have gone viral in video clips, leading to police complaints and online threats. In interviews with Book and Film Globe, both authors questioned if the parents raising a fuss have actually read the books.
“I expected this book to touch nerves, but it touched such a strange nerve,” said Evison, whose novel explores themes of class and capitalism through his main character’s struggles. “It’s obvious that they haven’t read the book.”
Evison wrote Lawn Boy for adult audiences. It resonated with teens, however, and the American Library Association honored it in 2019 with an Alex award. The ALA gives that award annually to 10 books written for adults that hold special appeal for readers aged 12 to 18.
Lawn Boy follows 22-year-old Mike Muñoz, who toils for low wages as a landscaper and perseveres through a variety of indignities. The Washington Post called it “an effervescent novel of hope that can enlighten everyone.”
“I wanted to write a book that had the velocity of adolescence,” Evison recalled. “I wanted to write a book about class in America.”
Mike’s sexual identity was a way to push back at the casual homophobia of Mike’s best friend, he added. In one paragraph, Mike remembers how back in fourth grade, he and another boy touched each other and had oral sex. The other boy has grown up to become a successful real estate agent in town. “I wonder, all these years later, why he just kicked our friendship to the curb like that. Was it shame?” Mike wonders.
Branding the novel “pedophilia,” a suburban Austin parent complained about Lawn Boy to the police as well in public comments to the school board. The Leander, Texas, school district has pulled the book, as has Fairfax County in Virginia.
A similar cascade of events has followed Out of Darkness, a novel that draws from the catastrophic 1937 New London school explosion in East Texas. Published in 2015 and “uncontroversial for the first six years,” Pérez notes, the book earned a Printz honor for literary excellence from the American Library Association and Texas State’s Tomás Rivera award for depicting the Mexican American experience.
Pérez, an assistant professor of world literature at Ohio State, said she was partially inspired to write young-adult fiction from conversations with her students when she was a high-school teacher in Texas. She first became aware of pushback from Leander, where her novel was among many “paused” or pulled books from the district’s book-club choice list. The district’s move came after a curriculum revision aimed at making reading options more inclusive.
“The English department at Leander had worked really hard to create a robust program that offered a lot of choice and revised the offerings towards great diversity and a range of different experiences,” Pérez said. “Based on the books that were targeted, it seems pretty clear that the content concerns accompanied — maybe unconscious — discomfort about narratives that center nonwhite experience, queer experiences and immigrant experiences.”
Leander wasn’t the only place where parents raised a ruckus over Out of Darkness, which spotlights the relationship between Mexican-American high school senior Naomi, who’s just moved to New London from San Antonio, and Wash, a Black teen whose father is the principal of the town’s separate school for Black children. In Lake Travis, just west of Austin, parent Kara Bell lambasted the novel at a school board meeting, insisting it promoted anal sex.
The video of Bell’s statement, which featured her repeatedly shrieking this particular phrase, made the rounds of social media, even ending up as fodder for late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel. Pérez, in response, recorded her own YouTube video addressing Bell’s claims. Out of Darkness contains a reference to “cornhole” in a passage describing how some of the white teens in town think about Naomi on her first day at their school.
“The whole point of that passage is creating a visceral sense of the misogyny and racism that the character has around her when she attends school,” Pérez said. “It’s the sense of threat that I want readers to recognize.”
Pérez and Evison have received hate mail and death threats. Evison took down family pictures from his social media to shield his children. Recent online reviews of their books are full of name-calling, slurs and threats of gang rape. Nevertheless, both say keeping stories accessible is their goal.
“I’m trying to do what I can, yes to stand up for my work, but also to illuminate the absurdity,” Pérez said. “It’s not even just the absurdity of the performance and the theater, but of school boards lending credence to these objections over the judgment and professional experience of librarians and teachers who are dedicated to serving all of the students in their schools.
“I don’t see a sincere concern about their own children’s education,” she said of parents who have taken to the microphone at school board meetings to complain about certain books. “They’re reading all these things that they are saying were incredibly harmful, and reading them in front of their children at these meetings. It’s a performance of outrage.”
Evison said the experience has shown him how quickly perception of a book can spread, regardless of accuracy. And while his original motivation for writing Lawn Boy was to explore more topics than sexual identity, he hopes that young readers who see themselves in his book find it comforting: “That’s one thing I want to do. If I can reach three people, then that’s worth all the hullabaloo.”