What comes after school boards ban your book

Ashley Hope Perez’s ‘Out of Darkness’ was one of the most-challenged books of 2021, but the Columbus author continues to speak up for the right of students to have access to challenging material

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Banned books at the Vandegrift High School library in March.

Columbus author Ashley Hope Perez braced for blowback prior to the 2015 publication of her novel Out of Darkness, well aware of the mature themes addressed within and the potential for the text to cause an uproar. At the same time, Perez said the book benefited from landing amid a newly established Black lives matter movement, which she said helped foster an environment more conducive to difficult conversations.

Set in an East Texas oil town and unfolding against the backdrop of a real-life tragedy — the 1937 New London school explosion, which killed 294 people — Out of Darkness is a harrowing family drama that never flinches while exploring issues of racism and its ongoing stranglehold on power dynamics, centered on the experiences of Naomi, a young, bilingual Mexican girl who develops a relationship with a Black boy named Wash. In one targeted passage, Naomi is subjected to the racially motivated, sexually objectifying taunts of white classmates, with Perez employing harsh language that effectively captures the ugliness of the exchange.

In September 2021, parent Kara Bell took the stand and spoke at a school board meeting in Austin, Texas, condensing the passage into a series of buzzwords, eradicating its context and repeatedly saying the term “anal sex” in a 90-second clip that soon went viral, even reaching the late night talk shows. Despite the inaccuracy of Bell’s reading, the school board acted on her testimony, pulling the book from libraries at Hudson Bend and Bee Cave middle schools — accelerating a campaign that started when the novel was first banned from school libraries in Leander, Texas.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

In 2021, Out of Darkness charted as one of the top five most-challenged books, according to the American Library Association, which last year found 729 challenges affecting nearly 1,600 books at public schools and libraries — the highest number since the ALA began compiling challenges more than 20 years ago, and more than double 2020’s figures. And Perez said the book has been pulled from school libraries in at least seven states, including Texas, Utah, Virginia, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas and Missouri. “And I’m sure there are places I don’t know about,” she said. 

Here in Ohio, the introduction of House Bill 616, which combines aspects of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation with wording that would ban the teaching of “divisive concepts,” citing everything from Critical Race Theory to The 1619 Project, could open up the novel to even more challenges.

Perez said she first viewed Bell’s viral video on the day that it posted “and then I just watched it explode and be everywhere — on Jimmy Kimmel, all over the internet.” Each time the video has resurfaced on right-wing outlets in the months since, Perez said her various inboxes fill anew with “slimy messages” sent via Instagram and LinkedIn, in addition to phone calls and even letters mailed to her employer. 

Amid these unrelenting attacks, Perez continues to speak out, not only in defense of her book, which was reviewed favorably by the New York Times and appeared as a finalist for the 2016 Michael L. Printz Award, one of the highest honors given for Young Adult literature, but in support of the teachers, librarians and young readers harmed by this ongoing political campaign and the excessive attention given to outlandish school board rants delivered by the likes of Bell in Texas. (It wasn’t the onetime Texas school board candidate’s first time making the news with a video appearance, either; in April 2021 Bell was cited with assault by police following a confrontation with a Nordstrom employee when Bell refused to wear a mask.) 

“There’s no comparison between the kind of megaphone that’s being handed to people who are engaging in these antics and the attention being given to hard-working teachers and librarians, or kids that are standing up for their right to read, or school boards that uphold the value of books like Out of Darkness and Gender Queer,” said Perez, an assistant professor in the comparative studies department at Ohio State, who will speak at Bexley Public Library at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 10, as part of the library’s ongoing “Standing Up to Censorship” series.

Tellingly, the books most-often targeted tend to be by and about Black, Brown and queer people, with campaigns often carefully tailored to avoid explicit mentions of these issues. “People will send me screenshots from these parent Facebook groups, and they’re explaining, ‘When you make your comment at the school board meeting, don’t say LGBTQ, don’t talk about race. You have to focus on the sexual content if you want to get rid of these bad books,’” Perez said. “But that language is being used over and over as a cover. These groups have basically just taken lists designed to help diversify offerings in libraries and in school curriculum and turned those into targeted books. It’s pretty transparent what the motivations are, because … I was a high school English teacher, and if you were to go into any high school library and stack the books that had sexual content, [the largest pile] would be books about straight white characters. But if you look at the American Library Association’s most-challenged books, none of those books are on there, because it’s not really about the sexual content.”

Ashley Hope Perez

Perez said that living amid this ongoing firestorm can be exhausting, at times, but she continues to speak up about the issues because she understands that her voice is needed in the discussion, along with teachers, librarians and students, to counter the narrative being driven by politicians and a handful of loud parents.

“I don’t have some huge media platform, but I feel strongly about using what I do have to advocate for young people and their right to read, but also to name what the harms of these actions are,” Perez said. “I’m in a situation where I’m not as vulnerable as some of the other authors who have been targeted. I have a university job. I have two books under contract. I know I will get to continue writing. But for some writers, being targeted in this way can be a career-ending experience.”

In one of Perez’s early interviews, the author spoke of the idea that “discomfort is not danger,” and she continues to defend the rights of students to have access to challenging material.

“It is true that it’s a very difficult book. It is also true that difficult books are what young people need to have access to,” Perez said, recalling how she read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the darkroom of her high school photography lab, whose red light added an ominous glow well-suited to the book’s dystopian future. “The fact that a book like Out of Darkness is a book that not all young people are ready for in no way lessens its importance for those who are ready. … One of the things I find really problematic is the way terms like ‘age appropriate’ have been used, because what’s appropriate for young people at a given age varies widely. And for folks who don’t believe their kids are ready for certain materials, schools offer resources and ways of opting out. It’s this move to take away access from all young people that is really alarming.”

Perez said one particularly chilling effect of this ongoing movement to restrict materials from students, which has taken legislative form in bills targeting instruction on race and sexuality, is the way these laws can introduce self-censorship, where school districts or individual teachers might refrain from addressing necessary topics out of fear. Recently, Lisa McNair, a younger sister of Denise McNair, one of four little girls murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was prevented from speaking about her experiences at a public school in Florida, which feared she might talk about critical race theory, a graduate-level field of study that has never been taught in public schools. 

“I don’t even know really what critical race theory is, just to be perfectly honest,” McNair said in an April interview with al.com. “I’m telling my history about my sister, true history of a tragic civil rights murder that took place for real in 1963. So that was disappointing.”

“The goal is to make the challenges unnecessary, because people have become anxious enough that they’re policing their own actions,” Perez said. “That’s what the legislation is about. They’re what PEN America called ‘educational gag orders,’ because they’re designed to restrict the range of speech that’s possible in school places.”

To counter this growing threat, Perez said it was imperative for school leadership to hear directly from parents who value their children having access to diverse, challenging books. She also emphasized the importance of hearing from those most directly impacted by the decisions, and those whose voices are too-often overlooked: the students.

“We’ve seen all kinds of strategies that work, and one is to let the young people say why these books are important to them, and to give room to teens to have them speak about why they want these books in their libraries,” Perez said. “And in instances where kids have been allowed to speak in school board meetings, their voices are hard to ignore. Because these parents are showing up and saying this thematically intense material isn’t appropriate for young people, but the young people are saying, ‘We’re already dealing with these issues in our actual lives, and we want resources. We want books that give us safe spaces to think about and talk about what we’re challenged by.’”