As we approach Banned Books Week, authors are facing challenges for books that deal with tough topics. Out of Darkness is a gripping novel about race, segregation, and love that has won numerous awards including a Printz Honor. Although the book was published by Carolrhoda Lab in September 2015, it has just recently been banned by some school districts. Lerner Publishing Group stands with author Ashley Hope Pérez and we support the right to read.
As part of Banned Books Week we asked Ashley to give a little background on the backlash that Out of Darkness has recently faced and asked her for ways that people can fight censorship.
Table of Contents
From Out of Darkness author Ashley Hope Pérez
I love experiencing literature read aloud, but hearing an agitated woman read a passage from Out of Darkness in a Texas school board meeting before launching into a loosely connected tirade about anal sex—that was not what I would have hoped for. (I recommend the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Benita Robledo and Lincoln Hoppe, instead.)
Since the Kara Bell/Lake Travis school board video has gone viral, responses to her behavior divide pretty neatly into two categories: those mocking her outrage and skewed conclusions and those celebrating her for protecting children from “pornographic” material.
To be clear, the passage from Out of Darkness that Ms. Bell claims is “teaching anal sex” is a device to introduce the reader to the relentless objectification, sexualization, and harassment the female main character experiences as the one Mexican American in a white high school in 1936 East Texas. It’s from one of a handful of passages narrated by “The Gang,” a kind of nasty locker room equivalent of a Greek chorus. The point is to show, in condensed form, the kind of ideas, stereotypes, and attitudes that circulated freely at this time with regard to women and, particularly, “Mexican” women. The voice of “The Gang” is disgusting and crude on purpose; it allowed me, in a few pages, to convey the treatment that Naomi experiences day in and out without subjecting readers to the quantity of abuse on the page that would have been needed to approach realism. I didn’t create those conditions nor do I endorse them, but in writing a historical novel, I needed to represent them.
Given the role of segregation in the novel, there’s a kind of grim irony to Ms. Bell’s performance of outrage in that it neatly mirrors (almost comically so) the kinds of speeches that white parents enacted in the South when black or brown students attended (or attempted to attend) schools with their white children. The presence of non-white children landed as a threat to these parents because it signaled that their values, their worldview, their preferences, their ideologies were being shifted from the center of American life.
I think something similar is at work when it comes to the censorship efforts of Ms. Bell and others like her, which focus overwhelmingly on books that feature or are written by non-White, queer, and otherwise non-dominant people. Books for young people—in this case mine—have been seized upon as fireballs to lob in a larger clash between cultural values. On the one hand, it’s an old conflict; I remember protests over the performance of Angels in America in my hometown of Kilgore, Texas. On the other hand, it’s newly ferocious, in part because we aren’t working from the same data set as those we disagree with and in part because online echo chambers radicalize and polarize us further.
It’s certainly the case that the world that Out of Darkness is encountering now is very different from what met it back in 2015 and 2016, when it received starred reviews and awards, not a slot on a banned books roster. Don’t get me wrong: when I was writing in 2013 and 2014, coming to understand what kind of book it would be, I fully expected significant pushback. But by the time the book came out, the world had changed. The Black Lives Matter movement existed; and there was finally a national conversation about the historical (and ongoing) wounds of racism. Out of Darkness made sense as a book that helped readers understand the roots of those shifts and why change was still urgently needed.
Whatever the mocking headlines Ms. Bell earned, the situation really isn’t funny. Not funny when it means that kids don’t find the books they need; not funny when it means that school librarians hesitate before ordering complex and challenging books; not funny when it means that teachers opt for “safe” texts in class rather than those that will stretch their students and illuminate corners of experience they hadn’t considered.
As a former HS English teacher and a professor who frequently works with students becoming teachers, I have some thoughts about what can be done to advocate for teaching and reading diverse, challenging literature in those spaces where it has become controversial to do so. I think one significant move can be context: know what the “challenging” content in a book is and anticipate how readers (and stakeholders) might be supported in understanding the value of it.
For librarians: It may help to curate some resources for books that are at the far end of the thematic intensity scale—for example, reading guides, nonfiction supplementary material, or even a more general list of questions designed to prompt students to make sense of the situations in a book and why an author might have included them.
For teachers: be prepared for objections by developing clear, research-based rationales for why and how they are teaching a given book. In these situations, I found it useful to provide comparisons between the content in the books that my students were reading and the literature that has been taught in high schools for years—from Shakespeare to The Great Gatsby to parts of the Bible. All of these works contain “mature” content.
For parents concerned about what their teens are reading: I’d encourage you to read challenging texts with their teens. Reading together can create opportunities for conversations you wouldn’t have had otherwise, and you can navigate the difficult material alongside your teen—and potentially in a way that allows your student to understand your values. It is possible to read works that signal a different world view from your own without losing touch with who you are.
For students finding their access to books restricted: be resourceful, and don’t give up! The books you feel drawn to are important for you, and you have a right to read them. Don’t forget other places where you can get what you want to read—like your public library. If you’re up for organizing, fundraise and partner with adult allies to purchase many copies of books are being pulled from your school library. These can circulate among your friends and classmates. Above all, be curious and come to your own conclusions about the books that have been challenged or banned. What are grownups afraid you’ll discover about yourself and your world? Discover it anyway.
A Statement from Adam Lerner, Publisher and CEO of Lerner Publishing Group
“Out of Darkness has been honored with starred reviews, a Michael L. Printz Honor, and was named one of Booklist’s ‘50 Best YA Books of All Time’. The banning of this acclaimed novel in select Texas school districts is a form of censorship. Although Out of Darkness deals with some harsh topics, the language that Ashley Hope Pérez uses introduces readers to the relentless objectification and harassment the main character experiences as the one Mexican American in a white high school in 1936. As we approach Banned Books Week, Lerner Publishing Group stands with Ashley as an author and we strongly support the right to read.”
If you would like to do something in response to recent book bans and challenges, here are some ideas
- Read challenged YA books with the young people in your life–talk about why folks don’t want them to have them, support them with the challenging and complex issues, have a deeper relationship because of the shared reading experience. These books (all recently banned in Leander, Texas) are a great starting point.
- Send messages of appreciation for access to your school libraries and school districts. There’s a model letter on this Bookriot.com news piece on the issue.
- Spread the word that books are still being banned and taken out of context. Share Out of Darkness with those in your life who are willing to tackle an intense but rewarding read. See below for some social media posts you can share!
- Share the praise that Out of Darkness received upon publication, to help show that it is an important contribution to the YA literary cannon.
- Michael L. Printz Honor Book, 2016
- Booklist’s 50 Best YA Books of All Time, 2017
- Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year, 2016
- Tomás Rivera Book Award, 2016
- YALSA Best Books for Young Adults, 2016
- Writers’ League of Texas Discovery Prize, 2016
- Kirkus Best Teen Books of the Year, 2015
- School Library Journal Best Book, 2015
Reviews and Praise for Out of Darkness:
“Pérez deftly weaves [an] unflinchingly intense narrative….A powerful, layered tale of forbidden love in times of unrelenting racism.”―starred, Kirkus Reviews
“This book presents a range of human nature, from kindness and love to acts of racial and sexual violence. The work resonates with fear, hope, love, and the importance of memory….Set against the backdrop of an actual historical event, Pérez…gives voice to many long-omitted facets of U.S. history.”―starred, School Library Journal
“[This] layered tale of color lines, love and struggle in an East Texas oil town is a pit-in-the-stomach family drama that goes down like it should, with pain and fascination, like a mix of sugary medicine and artisanal moonshine.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Elegant prose and gently escalating action will leave readers gasping for breath at the tragic climax and moving conclusion.”—Booklist
“The beauty of Perez’s prose and her surefooted navigation through the dangerous landscape of the East Texas oil field in the late 1930s redeem the fact that anyone who dares read this agonizing star-crossed love story will end up in about six billion numb and tiny pieces. Absolutely stunning.” —Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity and Michael L. Printz Award Honoree
Buy the Book
Paperback from Holiday House
Audiobook from Penguin Random House
Indiebound.org to support indie booksellers
Bookshop.org to support indie booksellers
Amazon print and ebook formats
Available at all wholesalers and distributors in hardcover and paperback
Share on Social Media
Download these pictures to share on social media and support banned books! Right click and choose “save as” to save to your device, or keep scrolling for linked posts you can retweet, share, or regram.
Retweet BookRiot’s article on Twitter!
Read Ashley’s thread on Twitter responding to messages she has recently received.
Read Ashley’s Facebook post about the school board video.
Regram Lerner’s Instagram post.
Banned Books Week Resources
Banned Books Week: https://bannedbooksweek.org/resources/
PEN America: https://pen.org/campaign/banned-books-week-2021/
Author Ashley Hope Pérez will have a panel during PEN America Banned Books Week. Sign up for “A Conversation with Chris Tomlinson and Ashley Hope Pérez” here: https://pen.org/event/conversation-with-chris-tomlinson-and-ashley-hope-perez/
Get the eBook of Out of Darkness at a Banned Books Week Discount!