Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez is a 2016 Michael L. Printz Award finalist, one of the highest honors for Young Adult literature. It’s loosely based on Romeo and Juliet, following the real-life 1937 New London school explosion in East Texas. In the novel, a Mexican girl and Black boy fall in love, breaking all of the rules about interracial romance during a volatile time in Texas — and American — history. One of the big threads throughout the book is a story of a white man obsessed with power and control.
That thread echoes precisely how Kara Bell, a parent of a student in the Lake Travis Independent School District (LTISD), acted in interrupting the district’s COVID-related board meeting to decry the book.
“I do not want my children to learn about anal sex in middle school,” Bell told the board, according to Complex. “I’ve never had anal sex. I don’t want to have anal sex. I don’t want my kids having anal sex. I want you to start focusing on education and not public health!”
Indeed, the book has an anal sex scene. But it’s a scene embedded in tremendous context of time, racism, and power.
“What she’s reading from,” explains Pérez on Instagram, “is from a part of the book where the whole point is to capture the utterly relentless sexual objectification and racialization the Mexican American main character endures.”
Bell sounds unhinged in her reading, but nonetheless, the district took her interruption and grossly inaccurate reading of the book as a reason to pull it from middle school libraries in Hudson Bend and Bee Caves Middle School.
LTISD took this action in order to follow their policies of materials review. A spokesperson for the board told KXAN that though the board has oversight in materials made available in school libraries — those facilities do serve in loco parentis, unlike public libraries — they would not remove materials which would deny ideas to students about which the district itself disagrees. However, books which contain vulgarity may be pulled for that reason.
“A district must, however, exercise its discretion in a manner consistent with the First Amendment,” said the spokesperson.
Earlier in the year, Kara Bell ran an unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the LTISD. She was also issued an assault citation after pushing a Nordstrom Rack employee after refusing to put on a mask. Her behavior at the school board meeting aligns with her political stance and actions, and it’s the students paying the price.
Central Texas has become a hotspot for book challenges over the last few years. Notably, Leander Independent School District is continuing its battle over a wide list of young adult and adult titles in its middle and high school. The district has removed a number of titles, has had the police called about books on shelf, and had a board member just resign after being unable to exert more authority in book removal. It is of little surprise the same tactics of interruption, of uncontextualized passage reading, and targeting of books by and about Black, Brown, and queer people are subjected to challenges by white parents seeing their voices given power in neighboring districts.
Jonathan Friedman, Director of Free Expression and Education at PEN America, notes that the current political climate is kindling these challenges.
“Craven political leaders are fueling a panic about supposedly ‘divisive concepts’ being taught in schools, and that in turn has sparked a wave of righteous but misguided parental calls for out and out censorship,” he says. “For anyone who believes in liberty and choice, calling to ban books from a classroom should be anathema. The solution to creating a better classroom for our kids isn’t trying to cover their eyes from difficult or challenging books—even ones we disagree with. That’s not how education is supposed to work.
Out of Darkness is currently being reviewed by the district.
Next week kicks off Banned Books Week, and the book’s author will be part of a panel with author Chris Tomlinson — author of the book Forget the Alamo, recently challenged by the Texas government — about ongoing censorship in Texas. The free conversation will take place September 28 at 7pm central in Austin.
Readers are encouraged to write to the LTISD in support of freedom of information, as well as in support of keeping Out of Darkness in school libraries for students. You can email the Board at email@example.com using the template email below in full or in part:
Dear School Board,
Please ensure students have access to Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez by leaving it in school libraries at Hudson Bend and Bee Caves Middle School. The historical novel presents a history of East Texas too often not included in history books, while giving a Mexican American girl a leading role. This is important for students to see, as both a window and a mirror, a vital opportunity to grow not only one’s literacy skills, but also one’s compassion for others.
Out of Darkness was a Michael L. Printz award honor book, one of the highest honors of literary merit given to a book for young readers. It garnered numerous positive reviews in respected outlets like Kirkus and Booklist.
Young readers are smart enough to stop reading when they become uncomfortable, as well as smart enough to know that discomfort is part of the educational process. Our history in America is uncomfortable, and it’s thanks to books like Out of Darkness that we’re allowed to sit with and understand those realities. More opportunities to get stories like these into the hands of readers — who may elect to pick them up on their own in school libraries — will only help cultivate a stronger, smarter, more compassionate future population.
Stand by your values of defending the First Amendment for all, and reinstate the book into those libraries.
Thank you for your time.
LTISD’s next meeting is October 20, at 6 pm central in the Live Oak Room of the Educational Development Center. If you’re local, you’re encouraged to show up and support the book’s inclusion in school libraries.