Vt. author's books with LGBTQ characters singled out in Texas book list, decried as 'pornographic' by parents
A Vermont author has learned that two of her books found their way onto a list that a Texas lawmaker sent to school districts, saying the books might cause "distress."
In October, parents at the Keller Independent School District in Fort Worth, Texas petitioned to remove a book on gender identity from the district’s libraries. That set off a firestorm of controversy, as more parents pushed to remove more books — nearly 100 in all — that touch on topics like race, sexuality, gender identity, and growing up queer.
At a school board meeting in mid-November, some parents had another word for those books: pornography.
"Please stop the cancer of sexualizing students with pornographic books and illustrations," one parent said.
"These explicit, pornographic books!" another exclaimed.
"They're going to find information, like we all figured out," a third said, "but it doesn't mean that you push it on 'em, and you make it available, or you make it acceptable on any level."
Other parents spoke out against the efforts to remove to books, or flag them as problematic:
"It is suspicious that the majority of these titles are related to the LGBTQ community, race, slavery and mental illness," yet another parent shared. "This political action committee is not here to protect our children from pornography. They are here to attack diversity."
Those parents spoke out as one Texas lawmaker, state Rep. Matt Krause — who's running for attorney general — dispatched a list of some 850 books to districts across the state, saying he was targeting them because they "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.”
Vermont author Jo Knowles wrote two of the books identified by that Texas lawmaker, and she spoke to VPR's Mitch Wertlieb. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Well, Texas is a long way from Vermont, so I'm wondering, how did you first hear about your books getting caught up in this controversy?
Jo Knowles: Well, pretty quickly, people on Twitter started posting about the list, and how perplexing 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 that list?
I wasn't necessarily surprised. But I'm always disappointed, because these are books about family and love and, and accepting each other's differences. And, you know, imagine how it must feel to the LGBTQ+ community, to have people in power, and people in their own community, trying to erase their existence by removing books that represent their lived experience.
And worse, for the reasons given, like saying, "Any kind of content that has a gay character is pornographic." I mean, it's — I could say, "Oh, that's ludicrous," but it's actually really 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 is it about those books that have caught the ire of some of these critics? I mean, has anyone informed you of what, exactly, they find objectionable?
No. I mean, I can reasonably say that the only two things that these books have in common are that they both feature a gay character. So, I mean, I'm assuming that's where this is coming from.
Your books are not actually banned in Texas, if I have this right. But other books with LGBTQ characters and themes have been removed in that state.
Based on what you've heard from librarians and school officials that I understand you have spoken with in Texas, what do you think the aim is here, if the districts are not issuing outright bans on books like yours, or the hundreds of other authors on that statewide list?
I wish I could go inside some people's brains — very briefly — and figure that out.
You know, I think a lot of it has to do with what's going on in our country right now, politically. We are so divided, and it seems like any time somebody can get people angry about something ... anger makes people loud. And it brings attention to individuals. And so I think this Matt Krause has gotten a ton of publicity because of this list he's created.
That Texas lawmaker — I'm sorry to interrupt, Jo — but that's the Texas lawmaker running for attorney general. Is that correct?
Yes, that's correct.
And so, what happens is, he gets some publicity, and then suddenly, it just spreads like wildfire. And now, there are more challenges — there's some stuff going on in Virginia and Pennsylvania — and all these groups pop up. And, you know, parents are speaking out about books that they haven't even necessarily read. I think that's the part that's, that's really upsetting, is that, if they would just give these books a chance, and see that they're actually books that are teaching kids empathy.
But, you know, to quote Matt Krause, they might make students feel "discomfort, guilt or anguish." 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 have more empathy for others. If we removed all books that did those things, we would have the opposite.
And suddenly, now, they refer to other people as an "other," or different. I have kids 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, he's not different. He's a human being. But when kids are not exposed to all kinds of identities, that's how they view other people who aren't like themselves. And I think that's very problematic.
You know, on the one hand, I can tell as the author of these books that you don't appreciate them being on a list that questions whether they are appropriate for young readers.
But there's all the attention that this story has generated — in a way, [does it] help bring more curiosity to a potential young reader who might like to check out one of your books? I mean, could this — in a way that the Texas school districts did not intend — actually increase your readership?
Well, that would be nice, but you know, for kids, usually they get books through their school library. Or their parents maybe buy them a book, or something, you know, very few kids go and buy their own books.
And so, if the access is taken away by an adult, then even if they are curious, it will be that much harder for them to get it.
And Jo, finally, are you going to be keeping up on this controversy, seeing what happens in Texas and watching this closely?
There are so many amazing books on that list, that it is just criminal that they might get removed from libraries. Especially books by writers like Jacqueline Woodson. You know, she's just this brilliant writer, and she writes these incredibly moving stories. And to think that those books are going to be taken away from kids, it's very disheartening.
And so yes, I will be watching, but it's hard for an author to even know, unless these things go online. We don't know when our books are being challenged or banned, but I think because this one has gotten so much publicity, it will be a bit easier.