A Vermont author has learned that two of her books ended up on a list a Texas lawmaker sent to school districts, saying the books could cause “distress.”
In October, parents at the Keller Independent School District in Fort Worth, Texas called for the removal of a book on gender identity from district libraries. It sparked a firestorm of controversy, as more parents pushed to remove more books – nearly 100 in all – that touch on topics including race, sexuality, gender identity and growing up. queer.
At a school board meeting in mid-November, some parents had another word for these books: pornography.
“Please stop the cancer of sexualizing students with pornographic books and artwork,” one parent said.
“Those explicit pornographic books! cried another.
“They’re going to find information, as we all understand,” said a third, “but that doesn’t mean you push it on them, and make it available, or make it acceptable across the board. . “
Other parents spoke out against efforts to remove the books or flagged them as problematic:
“It is suspicious that the majority of these titles are related to the LGBTQ community, race, slavery and mental illness,” another parent shared. “This political action committee is not there to protect our children from pornography. They are there to attack diversity.”
These parents spoke out as a Texas lawmaker, state Rep. Matt Krause – who is running for attorney general – sent a list of some 850 books to districts in the state, saying that he targeted them because they “could make students feel uncomfortable, guilty, anxious or have any other form of psychological distress”.
Vermont author Jo Knowles wrote two of the books identified by this Texas lawmaker, and she spoke to Mitch Wertlieb of VPR. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Well, Texas is a long way from Vermont, so I wonder how did you first hear that your books were caught up in this controversy?
Jo Knowles: Well, pretty quickly people on Twitter started posting about the list and how confusing it was, really. So out of curiosity, I went to the list, and there were two of my books.
What was your reaction when you first saw two of your books on this list?
I wasn’t necessarily surprised. But I’m always disappointed, because these are books about family, love and accepting each other’s differences. And, you know, imagine how it must feel for the LGBTQ+ community, to have people in power, and people in their own community, trying to erase their existence by deleting the books that represent their lived experience.
And worse, for the reasons given, like saying: “Any type of gay content is pornographic”. I mean, it’s – I could say “Oh, that’s ridiculous”, but it’s actually very harmful and painful.
The two of the books that are caught up in this controversy… we should name them, they are See you at Harry’s and pearl. You know, specifically, what about those books that angered some of those critics? I mean, has anyone told you exactly what they find objectionable?
No. I mean, I can reasonably say that the only two things these books have in common is that they both feature a gay character. So, I mean, I guess that’s where it came from.
Your books are not banned in Texas, if I understand correctly. But other books with LGBTQ characters and themes were removed in this state.
Based on what you’ve heard from the librarians and school officials you’ve spoken with in Texas, what do you think is the goal here, if districts don’t outright ban books like yours , or the hundreds of other authors on this statewide list?
I wish I could get into some people’s brains – very briefly – and understand that.
You know, I think it has a lot to do with what’s going on in our country right now, politically. We’re so divided, and it seems like anytime someone can make people angry about something… the anger makes people loud. And it draws attention to individuals. And so I think this Matt Krause got a ton of publicity because of this list that he created.
This Texas legislator – I’m sorry to interrupt, Jo – but this is the Texas legislator running for Attorney General. Is it correct?
Yes that is correct.
And so what happens is he gets publicity, and then all of a sudden it spreads like wildfire. And now there are more challenges – there are things happening in Virginia and Pennsylvania – and all these groups are popping up. And, you know, parents talk about books that they haven’t necessarily even read. I think that’s the part that is, that’s really heartbreaking, is if they gave these books a chance and saw that they’re actually books that teach children empathy.
But, you know, to quote Matt Krause, they might make students feel “discomfort or guilt or anxiety.” That’s what books are supposed to do. I mean, that’s what good literature does, it makes kids feel, it makes kids think, it helps them see other points of view and other experiences. And that’s what makes them more empathetic towards others. If we deleted all the books that did these things, we would have the opposite.
And suddenly now they refer to other people as “another”, or different. I have children who read See you at Harry’s and ask me, why did you make Holden different? Holden is a gay character in the book. Well, it’s no different. He is a human being. But when kids aren’t exposed to all kinds of identities, that’s how they perceive other people who aren’t like them. And I think that’s very problematic.
You know, on the one hand, I can say as the author of these books that you don’t appreciate them being on a list that questions whether they’re appropriate for young readers.
But there’s all the attention this story has garnered – in a way, [does it] help arouse the curiosity of a potential young reader who would like to discover one of your books? I mean, could it — in a way that Texas school districts didn’t intend — actually increase your readership?
Well, that would be nice, but you know, for kids, they usually get books through their school library. Or maybe their parents buy them a book, or something like that, you know, very few kids are going to buy their own books.
And so, if access is withdrawn by an adult, even if he is curious, it will be all the more difficult for him to obtain it.
And Jo, finally, are you going to follow this controversy, see what’s happening in Texas and watch it closely?
There are so many amazing books on this list that it’s downright criminal that they’re taken from libraries. Especially books from writers like Jacqueline Woodson. You know, she’s just a brilliant writer, and she writes these incredibly moving stories. And to say that these books are going to be taken away from children is very discouraging.
And so yeah, I’m going to look, but it’s hard for a writer to know unless these things are posted online. We don’t know when our books will be challenged or banned, but I think because this one has received so much publicity, it will be a little easier.
Do you have questions, comments or concerns? Send us a message or tweet your thoughts at @mwertlieb.