'Dangerous and Cruel': YA Authors Say Unprecedented Book Bans Hurt Kids Most

As a young-adult literature author born in Argentina and raised in Miami, Romina Garber aims to write the experiences she didn’t see in books growing up. “I didn’t have any reference points for my immigrant identity in the books I read or the shows I watched,” she says. That’s why she was heartbroken to see her fantasy novel Lobizona (2020) — about Argentine werewolves and witches and a protagonist whose mother gets arrested by ICE — was being challenged for its inclusion in public school libraries in Texas. “For too many readers, this book is the first time they’re seeing themselves on the page,” she says.

In recent months, there’s been an unprecedented push to ban books from public school libraries, particularly in Texas. On Wednesday, an investigation from NBC News showed that during the first four months of this school year, parents and community members across 100 Texas school districts made 75 formal requests to ban books from libraries, compared to just one request during the same period in 2020. Most of the contested texts involve race, gender, or sexuality. 

According to the investigation, hundreds of titles have been pulled from school libraries for review, against rules from the American Library Association that say the books should remain on shelves during the review process. A source from the ALA told NBC that some school boards were even skipping the review process and removing books simply to avoid backlash. According to authors and those who report regularly on this issue, the people who will be harmed most by the removal of books are kids in marginalized communities. 

Last February, a parent waved around a strap-on during a Texas school board meeting, complaining that a sex scene in Carmen Maria Machado’s award-winning memoir In the Dream House, about an abusive relationship with an ex-girlfriend. It included a sex scene that involved a dildo. The book was not required reading, but rather named on a list of options for a high school book club that was meant to encourage students to pursue their own reading interests. In September, a woman in another Texas school district ranted at a board meeting that she did not want her kids to have anal sex, because of a reference to it in Out of Darkness (2015) by Ashley Hope Pérez. An Austin NBC affiliate reported that the district pulled the book for review from two middle school libraries after the disruption.

In October, State Representative Matt Krause released a list of 850 books, many of which include themes of race or sexuality, that he said “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” Krause told schools statewide to report whether or not they offer the books in their libraries, including titles like Wait, What?: A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up and What is the Black Lives Matter Movement? In November, Governor Greg Abbott announced he’d seek criminal charges against people providing schoolchildren with materials some conservatives are calling “pornography.” 

Pérez says a list like the one from Krause was never about the books themselves, but more about documenting so-called evidence to support an ideology. “The whole idea is to create this impression that there are vaults of pornography in schools, feeding this narrative that frames teachers and librarians as liberal indoctrinators and corruptors of youths,” she says. 

“It’s important for young readers whose identities have historically been represented to see these stories, as well. It lets them have a window into someone else’s existence.” 

YA fantasy novelist Kalynn Bayron, who is Black and queer and who writes Black and queer characters, says the fervor over book banning worries her about her ability to reach readers — whether they relate to the characters or not. “It’s important for young readers who share the marginalized identities of my characters. I want them to know that I see them, and their life experience counts, that it matters, and it means something,” she says. “But I think it’s equally important for young readers whose identities have historically been represented to see these stories, as well. It lets them have a window into someone else’s existence.” 

To author Brendan Halpin, winding up on Krause’s list felt like a badge of honor, at least at first. Halpin co-write Notes from the Blender (2011) with Trish Cook, about a girl whose parents are getting divorced and whose father is marrying another man. “So that’s the dangerously gay part, I guess,” he says. “I was thrilled, at first. I was like, ‘This is fantastic. If somebody like this doesn’t want people to read my book then I’ve done something worthwhile.’” As he’s seen the ire surrounding these books intensify, however, he worries about kids seeing LGBTQ stories being de-legitimized by institutions. “Your school library can’t have these books; your existing can’t be seen to be officially acceptable.” 

Others push back on the glorification of being on a banned list like Krause’s. Pérez points out that while being on a banned list can boost sales for some established authors, she’s heard from some people whose first published book is on that list. For them, getting passed over by libraries can have devastating consequences, which Pérez says creates a chilling effect on the proliferation of authors from marginalized communities, something the YA book world has been pushing for in recent years. “It’s creating a contraction in those areas where authors and publishers have been trying to create expansion and create diversity in young adult and children’s literature,” she says. 

Several people congratulated Bayron when her debut novel, Cinderella Is Dead (2020), landed on Krause’s list. She rejects the glorification of a banned book list “wholeheartedly,” however, because it limits students’ access to materials. “The best way for my work to reach young readers is to have it readily accessible and by trusting the librarians and educators who advocate for my work,” she says. “Assuming a young reader would be able to hunt down a banned book and somehow get it into their hands is just not realistic. It would be better if bigots weren’t allowed to have such a huge say in what goes on the shelves in our schools and public libraries.”

Kelly Jensen, editor at review site Book Riot — which published an analysis of Krause’s sprawling list and its murky connections to an anti–critical race theory bill — says the public’s anger around banned books lists can be misplaced. She noticed a recent push online for people to compile banned book reading lists and to buy up copies to support authors. It’s a nice thought, she says, but misses the point when it comes to helping young readers. “The ones who are most marginalized are the ones who stand to lose the most when books are censored,” she says. “[For] a lot of these kids, the school library is the only place they have access to materials. They don’t have the transportation [to a public library], they don’t have the money, or they don’t feel safe to look at books about an experience they may be having or an experience they’re curious about.” 

Lev Rosen is seeing his 2018 novel, Jack of Hearts, being banned “everywhere,” he tells Rolling Stone. The book has a queer teen protagonist and deals with questions about sex Rosen says he sourced from teens across the U.S., including those living in conservative areas. “​​Teenagers want to know these things,” he says. “Giving them answers and telling them not to be ashamed of their desires and how to pursue them safely and consensually isn’t hurting them, it’s helping them take control of their bodies and wants.” He worries about the impact on queer kids not just of book-banning but of the knock-down, drag-out fights unfolding publicly in school board meetings. “​​Imagine being a closeted student and watching some mom of your peer — or yourself — cry about how she’d be horrified if her teenager came home with a book about a queer person,” he says. “That means if you went home and said you were queer, you’d be hated, probably more than the book.”

Alex London, who writes sci-fi fantasy thrillers with queer characters, also worries about the disappearance of books that could provide a lifeline for young readers who are just beginning to grapple with their LGBTQ identities. “I feel like books are a really safe way for kids who maybe don’t see any supportive adults in their community to find there is a world out there waiting to accept them and cheer for them,” he says. “You take that away, and it’s not just petty politics, it’s dangerous and it’s cruel.”

To shut down efforts to ban books in schools, Jensen says it will take more than public outrage and well-meaning vows to read the titles conservatives say are taboo. It requires engagement on the local level

“Write letters, show up to school board meetings and library board meetings, run if you can,” she says. It may not be as sexy or Twitter-worthy as donating thousands of books to a library, but it’s more likely to have a real impact.

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