My nightmare started in mid-September, when Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education for PEN America, emailed me a link. I wasn’t surprised to hear from Jon; he’d also reached out in the spring, when Central Texas’s Leander Independent School District “paused” the use of many books in its high school reading program, including my 2015 novel Out of Darkness, and again when the district officially removed the books in August. We’d been in touch about combating book bans since then, so I imagined that the subject line of his email said it all: “another removal of Out of Darkness.”
But that changed when I opened the link in the email. It took me to a roughly two-minute video from a September 15 school board meeting for Lake Travis ISD, west of Austin. In the clip, a blond woman walked to the podium, her bright red dress swishing. Later, I would learn that her name is Kara Bell, and that she has a flair for orchestrating viral videos that put her in the conservative media spotlight. At the moment, though, all I could think about was that she was reading from Out of Darkness—and clearly not because she planned to recommend it.
Bell did her grade school drama teacher proud, every word enunciated theatrically. She read, “A Mexican is a Mexican is a Mexican,” then rolled through other provocative phrases yanked out of context before landing one last juicy line: “Take her out back, we boys figured, then: hand on the titties; put it in her coin box; put it in her cornhole.”
She had strung together phrases from all over a chapter, but I still recognized the passage immediately. Creating it was painful, one of many times in writing fiction that I’ve had to depict harm that I wish did not exist in the world. Told from the perspective of the senior class at an all-white high school, the section of the novel that Bell pulled from captures the crude fantasies and dehumanizing attitudes that swirl around my main character, the only Mexican American in her school in 1930s New London, Texas. I represent these views in the book so that I can reveal their toxic effect; I don’t endorse them.
There was no time to think about any of this, though, because Bell wasn’t done. She defined the word “cornhole”—she was shocked to discover it does not just refer to the beanbag game in her yard—then launched into an impassioned rant about middle schools teaching anal sex. (Note: my book does not depict any anal sex.)
Sure, Bell’s mic was cut mid-sentence, but the harm had been done. The video went viral, first in the U.S., then internationally. Outlets from TMZ to Jimmy Kimmel Live! pumped the incident for laughs, roasting Bell as the latest “Karen,” but some skipped over the fact that, however unhinged her performance, Bell had succeeded: the day after her stunt, Lake Travis ISD removed all print copies of Out of Darkness from its middle school libraries. The district has said it will review the book, but the sudden decision violated the district’s policy, which requires that books remain on shelves during the review process. In conservative media spaces, the video played very differently, with Bell positioned as a courageous mother speaking out against “filth” in her community’s schools.
As for my novel and its actual content—well, that got lost in the noise. Set in East Texas, Out of Darkness takes the 1937 New London School explosion—in which a natural-gas leak ignited and killed some 295 students and school employees—as a backdrop for a love story between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl who has just moved to the community from San Antonio. Centering the deadliest school disaster in U.S. history, in a time when such signs as “No Negroes, Mexicans, or Dogs” could be found on the doors of Texas establishments, the novel is full of challenging scenes of heartbreak, struggle, and suffering.
But Bell’s choice for her dramatic reading felt especially telling. Her rhetoric of disgust closely echoed that of the characters whose perspective is captured in the very passage she read in the school board meaning. There’s a deep irony to the parallels: an outraged white Texan succeeds at getting a novel about Mexican American experiences removed from schools, and she does it with a distorted reading of a passage about a group of white Texans, in 1937, venting their outrage at the presence of a Mexican American in their school. Hmm.
The viral circulation of Bell’s stunt triggered waves of hatred toward me and others close to me: ugly phone messages calling me a “degenerate piece of s—,” emails that were little more than expletives strung together, social media comments saying I was “literally SATAN,” and suggestions that I hang myself. One letter I received in the mail informed me that I am “no better than a slut or hooker,” continuing, “I am guessing that you would love for some boys to take you out back.” The day I started getting hate letters at my university address was the last straw. After that, I enlisted some media-savvy friends who helped me make a funny video response to Bell’s rant—a response that I hope reveals the absurdity of these attacks and the importance of recognizing them for the attention-seeking antics they are.
My video made the rounds (45,000 views!), but humor balanced with context and nuance was no match for the clickbait of “Mom Loses It Over Anal Sex in Book at School Board Meeting” (as TMZ described it). Bell’s performance has been watched millions of times, and chances are that extreme behavior like hers will keep grabbing media megaphones. Challenges to my book have now been raised in at least seven Texas districts—not just Leander and Lake Travis, but also Bastrop, Birdville, Keller, Ponder, and Round Rock. Although some challenges are still pending, others have had their intended, chilling, effect. In Leander, students are currently allowed to check out my book from the school library, but it is banned from use in classroom libraries and the school book clubs. In Lake Travis ISD, all copies have been removed from library shelves. And just last week, Keller ISD, north of Fort Worth, restricted access to Out of Darkness in all high school libraries, citing the book’s “violence and difficult imagery.” Students in the district must ask a librarian for the book and show proof of parental consent.
The attacks on Out of Darkness say far more about our cultural moment than they do about my book, which was published six years ago. Before 2021, Out of Darkness had never once been challenged, much less banned. It received awards and was named a best book of the year by School Library Journal. The book hasn’t changed; the climate has, with conservatives on the offensive in areas of education and public health, and politicians eagerly lining up to cash in on what Republicans are trying their best to make a winning issue (I’m looking at you, representative Matt Kraus and Governor Greg Abbott). Challenges to books in schools are happening not just in Texas, but also in Florida, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, Utah, and Virginia. Out of Darkness has been challenged or removed at dozens of libraries, and things are heating up further through a new round of attacks on teens’ access to mental health and LGBTQ resources.
Parents such as Bell may say they are concerned about sexual content, but many focus almost exclusively on books by or about LGBTQ, non-white, or otherwise non-dominant characters such as immigrants, Muslims, or homeless kids. Books that also address sexual assault, gender identity, or hot-button issues such as police brutality are especially likely to get challenged. Controversy has attached to everything from the memoir Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, to All American Boys, a novel about police violence by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, to mild middle-grade books including Jerry Craft’s New Kid, a story of an African American student navigating the challenges of enrolling in a mostly white school. Even such long-established classics as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and August Wilson’s Fences—staples of high school literature curricula—have been swept up in the nets cast by conservatives. The breadth of the attacks is dramatic, as one Pflugerville library demonstrated by photographing its teen section after removing every book that someone might find offensive. Only a handful of titles remained.
As a former Texas high school English teacher, I can attest that the vast majority of books with sexual content feature white, straight, middle-class characters—but these seem not to bother the dissenters. Rather than focus on what their kids are actually reading, these parents often take their lead from social media pages and conservative organizations that list which books to target and provide talking points, as well as screenshots of school library catalogs. Parents’ outrage may be genuine, but their actions create an even more hostile environment for already marginalized kids.
Through all of this, I keep thinking of the students I taught at César E. Chávez High School in southeast Houston from 2004 to 2007. During our many trips to the library together, my predominantly working-class and Latino/a students told me about the kinds of books they wanted to read but couldn’t find on the shelves. Since then, I’ve written each of my novels in hopes of filling a gap for teens. Young adult literature has come a long way in offering more accurate, more inclusive representations of teen experiences; I hate the thought of that modest progress being undone by parents whose outrage has taken on a life of its own. I feel sick at the idea of teens finding empty places on the shelves where the books they need should be. That’s the worst part of this nightmare: what it means for young people who rely on school libraries. These are the students who don’t have internet at home, who work long hours, who don’t have bus fare to get to the public library. These are the students whom public schools have a responsibility to serve every bit as much as the kids of the loud minority of parents seeking to remove books from classrooms and library shelves.
Parents have a critical role to play when it comes to what their kids read, and Out of Darkness isn’t for everyone. But it is a book that matters to someone, and that student deserves to be able to find it in their school library. For now, kids in Lake Travis and other districts will have to look beyond their school libraries for books like Out of Darkness. But school boards can—and should—change that by putting students’ needs first, following their own policies, and politely encouraging the Kara Bells of the world to focus their efforts elsewhere.