Ashley Hope Perez wrote her historical young adult novel From the darkness Giving a voice to stories that have been silenced. So it’s painful for her to see her book among the many that have been banned as part of a wave of challenges sweeping through American schools.
At the school board meeting, after the school board meeting, a short walkthrough From the darkness was read aloud in shock. The theater led From the darkness Be banned 23 times in the 2021-2022 school year, according to the newly released PEN America Index of Banned Books. It was the third most banned book in US schools.
Pérez, who is also a professor at Ohio State University, spoke to PEN America about the experience of having her book caught in the book ban madnessand the need to treat the new movement as an urgent threat that is causing real harm to students.
“It has to be shocking every time,” she told PEN America. “I really don’t know how we’ll find our way back if these attacks on young people’s access to books succeed. And I think if we start siphoning off ideas and experiences from young people’s education, we’re failing them.”
PEN America: Which means From the darkness what to say about silencing stories?
Ashley Hope Perez: I grew up in a community about 20 minutes from New London, Texas, where the book is set. And in the 1930s, there was a school explosion there that killed hundreds of children. But growing up, I never heard of the event. There was a kind of silence around him. The view at the time was that it was best to just move on. Researching the explosion really showed how expensive it is when we silence stories. Conversely, when we can share painful stories, we have a chance to support each other in healing. So if I think about it, where From the darkness comes from, it comes from a place to honor and draw attention to stories that have often been silenced.
What do you think what was done From the darkness a target for book bans?
The ban of From the darkness is a new thing. It was published in 2015 and for more than half a decade there was not a single challenge for this book. I think the reason for that From the darkness What has sparked controversy or been the target of book bans has to do with adult unease. There’s a clear lineage from adults who feel afraid to have certain conversations with young people – for example, fear that their values will be questioned – to efforts to control what young people read. And what we do know about young people is that they are ready to have those conversations. When we take away the books that provide space for these difficult conversations, we are really taking away the resources young people need to come to terms with realities they have yet to face, whether that book is here or not.
It almost feels weird to ban a book when kids have the internet and their phones right in front of them.
Yes. I mean it’s a performance. Sometimes the people who bring these challenges don’t even have kids in schools where the books are. To me, that’s really emblematic of the fact that it’s about pushback and power. About specific communities that claim their voices and stories matter. I think that in a way the books function as symbols of certain identities that right-wing groups distance themselves from. And because we’re in a moment when you can’t show up to a school board meeting and say, “I don’t want my kid going to school with gay kids or black kids,” this is a vehicle. Saying “this book sucks” is a way of signaling disapproval of certain identities or sending a message of exclusion to children from already marginalized backgrounds. And it’s very effective. Children feel that their own community does not welcome them.
What would you say to someone who thinks your books are inappropriate?
My answer primarily to this assertion about any book would be, have you read it completely? did you read the whole book Do you see what the author might be trying to do? And then my second question would be: Have you thought about how this book offers a resource to young people? What kind of conversations can they have because of this book? I know there are people who keep saying, “It just shouldn’t be there. It just shouldn’t be there.” Well, there’s a lot about the world that I wish were different, but simply withholding accounts of those experiences or those harms doesn’t make them disappear into the real world. It just means that young people don’t have the opportunity to talk about it.
What would you like to see from people interested in freedom of speech and books?
I think one thing we need to do is be vocal, and not just vocal in school board meetings, but vocal in conversation with our neighbors and people in our communities. By all means, find your allies, but also start conversations with people who may not be as passionate about accessing literature. Talk to them about how these challenges draw resources away from learners. Because if the librarian has to spend his day searching the catalog for the 300 books that someone has tagged, he can’t help young people who need to write their research papers.
It must be jarring for librarians at this point.
And that’s part of the goal, right? The goal is to make the book challenges unnecessary because the climate is so hostile that, out of self-defense and simply not wanting to be labeled pedophiles or groomers, librarians willingly purchase materials that could be considered controversial, even though they know someone in their building needs this book. We can not permit that. We must continue to show up and support librarians and teachers so they can make a difference to children and what they need.
Ashley Hope Perez is the author of Out of Darkness, a recipient of the Michael L. Printz Honor, and an assistant professor teaching world literature at Ohio State University.