Onslaught against “challenging” literature continues in Central Texas
PEN America is once more calling on a Texas school district to change course after administrators announced they have removed additional books from high school curriculum choice lists.
In April, the U.S. arm of the non-profit devoted to literature and free expression joined an outcry from authors, educators and parents about several books the district pulled or “paused” from reading lists in Leander, a suburb north of Austin. On Aug. 5, it released a second statement after the district quietly announced it had removed more books.
The latest books to go include Red At The Bone, MacArthur fellow and former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jacqueline Woodson’s New York Times-bestselling novel, and Ordinary Hazards, Nikki Grimes’ memoir in verse, which won multiple awards from the American Library Association. Books removed or “paused” in earlier rounds targeted several graphic novels, including versions of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Shirley Jackson’s iconic 1948 short story The Lottery, as well as the LGBTQ-themed Kiss Number 8.
“This is a sad day for literature and for students’ freedom to learn,” Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education, said in the Aug. 5 statement.
In an interview with Book and Film Globe, Friedman noted that the books in question had already won approval as part of a curriculum redesign aimed at inclusivity and led by professional educators. School officials must be extra cautious, he said, of “a small minority deciding what everybody else should have access to.”
Leander officials started reviewing books after some parents complained that there were titles on its high-school book-club choice list were inappropriate for teen-agers. “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,” the district told Book and Film Globe in April. A spokesman said Aug. 6 that the district was unable to respond immediately to PEN America’s most recent statement.
At one February board meeting, an angry parent brandished a sex toy while complaining about Carmen Maria Machado’s award-winning memoir In the Dream House.
Machado responded in a May 11 essay published in the New York Times: “While our books may contain passages that are potentially uncomfortable, challenging or even offensive, exposure to our books is vital to expanding minds, affirming experiences, creating appreciation for the arts and building empathy — in short, respecting the adults that the students in Leander, Texas, will soon become,” she wrote.
The district launched an eight-cycle process with hybrid educator/parent groups to reconsider 140 books, initially posting results after each cycle. It posted the batch of results from the final four cycles together. Each entry includes detail on potential trouble spots and the often-illuminating vote totals for whether reviewers felt the book should stay.
While 80 percent of the district’s reviewers said Machado’s book met the curriculum standards, for example, the district still removed it from the book-choice list. A full 88 percent of reviewers felt Woodson’s Red At the Bone met the criteria for a spot, yet administrators also removed it. District reviewers dinged Shout, National Book Award finalist Laurie Halse Anderson’s acclaimed memoir of the aftermath of her own sexual assault and its lingering effects, for its “negative portrayal of men” and depiction of PTSD.
The continued censorship in Leander is emblematic of national debates on inclusive curriculum, both in English classes as well as how race intersects with history, Friedman noted. In June, PEN America issued a joint statement with more than 140 scholarly associations decrying the legislative push in multiple states to restrict lessons on race.
“What’s distinctive about this situation in Leander is that it’s about literature, which means it’s about imagination, it’s about possibilities,” Friedman said. “This is not just an effort to curb the ways in which we teach about the past, it’s also trying to curb the ways we think about our future. It’s very alarming.”