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Atwood, Backderf, Sanchez & More Pen Letter to Texas School District Over Book Ban

A group of authors, in connection with the literary and free expression group PEN America, sent an open letter to a Texas school district to explain their opposition to the banning of a number of books, primarily graphic novels, from school reading lists.

Leander Independent School District (ISD) is a school district based in Leander, Texas. It covers a wide stretch of geography, including Leander, Cedar Park, Georgetown, Jonestown, Round Rock in Williamson County and northwest Austin in Travis County. At issue are the district’s book club reading list, where students are allowed to pick one book from a list of 15 titles chosen for their grade level around a theme each semester. All middle and high school English classes are part of the book club and the idea is to let each kid pick what interests them. However, parents have objected to the choices that their children are being given and the school district have already agreed to ban The Lottery, Kiss Number 8, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, The Handmaid’s Tale, Y: The Last Man, and V for Vendetta, have “paused” the choices of a few others (like My Friend Dahmer) and are considering banning more.

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Here is the letter:

“To the Officials of the Leander Independent School District,

We, the undersigned authors, illustrators, and contributors, join the literary and free expression organization PEN America in writing to express our concern and dismay regarding the Leander Independent School District’s decision to remove multiple books from its book club reading lists, and the ongoing review process that could lead to the removal of others. We write to you not just as concerned citizens, but as creators of some of the very books that have been subjects of this challenge. We urge you to revoke the current bans and suspensions and to defend the right to read books that reflect a diverse set of perspectives and stories.

As we understand it, six books (including graphic novels) have been chosen for removal after parents’ complaints: The Lottery, Kiss Number 8, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, The Handmaid’s Tale, Y: The Last Man, and V for Vendetta. A further three books have been “paused” as the district engages in its book review process: Speak, The Nowhere Girls, and My Friend Dahmer. A further 13 books have been challenged for review and reconsideration: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, None of the Above, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, Out of Darkness, The Poet X, How I Resist, American Born Chinese, Eleanor & Park, What We Saw, The Power, Red at the Bone, Beneath a Meth Moon: An Elegy, and In The Dream House.

We are particularly alarmed and disappointed to see that so many of these targeted books feature authors or characters who are women, LGBTQIA+ individuals, or people of color. For example, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, The Poet X, American Born Chinese, and Red at the Bone are written by or center around the experiences of people of color. Other challenged books center women’s and girls’ experiences, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, The Power, and The Nowhere Girls. A final subset of these books, including Kiss Number 8, None of the Above, and In the Dream House, revolve around the experiences of LGBTQIA+ characters.

We are concerned that allegations against the “appropriateness” of these books for students has to do with whose stories they tell. Across the nation, books featuring characters who are people of color or LGBTQIA+ individuals, or written by authors from such communities, are disproportionately likely to be challenged or banned. In fact, such books commonly comprise a majority of the American Library Association’s Top 10 Challenged Books list.

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The letter continued, “Yet the inclusion of such books in students’ curricula is both morally necessary and educationally beneficial. All young people deserve to see themselves reflected in the literature they consume, and the inclusion of books that center diverse experiences is the most effective way to accomplish this. Exposure to such books is vital to the project of empathy-building, of rectifying historic gaps in whose stories are shared and consumed, and of forging a more inclusive, equitable, and just society.

This is what is at stake in the book challenges before you today. If the district moves forward with the proposal to remove these stories, not only do we fear that you will be restricting students’ and families’ access to diverse stories, but that you will be sending the message that these stories have no place in the classroom, school library, or other educational settings.

We hold these same concerns in regard to the district’s reported intention to add a policy this summer that would ban “inappropriate literature for the assigned students’ ages.” Such a policy is worrying to us on several levels—as authors, as supporters of literature, and as advocates for free expression. This proposed policy risks opening the door for additional book banning attempts, based on one person or a small group of people’s subjective assessment that a book is “inappropriate.”

We firmly believe that there is zero reason that any of the books that have been targeted for removal in Leander cannot be discussed in the classroom in age-appropriate ways. In fact, it is the very role of teachers and librarians to make those determinations and to guide students in their learning and exploration, including through subject matter that may require thoughtful conversation and engagement.

In all, we are deeply concerned that this entire episode risks sending a dangerous message to students: that the best way to confront ideas or literature with which one disagrees is to prohibit or silence it, rather than finding other, constructive ways to engage with it.

We stand by our works and reject the argument that their inclusion in Leander’s book club reading lists is somehow “inappropriate.” However, we do so not only because we believe in the literary merit of our books, but because we believe in the capacity of these and all books to expand the reader’s frame of reference—challenging them to confront new ideas and allowing them to explore other perspectives. We are sending this letter to you today not simply to stand up for our own books, but to stand against censorship in our schools. We call on you to resist this misguided effort to ban books and graphic novels, and to revoke any current bans and suspensions for the dignity and equality of all.


Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale

Derf Backderf, author of My Friend Dahmer

Ellen T. Crenshaw, illustrator of Kiss Number 8

Erika Sánchez, author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

Aaron Hartzler, author of What We Saw

Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak

Miles Hyman, author and illustrator of graphic novel adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery

Carmen Maria Machado, author of In The Dream House

Ashley Hope Pérez, author of Out of Darkness

Amy Reed, author of The Nowhere Girls

Colleen AF Venable, author of Kiss Number 8

Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone and Beneath a Meth Moon: An Elegy

Maureen Johnson, editor, How I Resist

Libba Bray, contributor, How I Resist

Carolyn DeWitt, contributor, How I Resist

Alex Gino, contributor, How I Resist

KC Green, contributor, How I Resist

Hebh Jamal, contributor, How I Resist

Malinda Lo, contributor, How I Resist

Jodi Picoult, contributor, How I Resist

PEN America Children’s and Young Adult Books Committee”

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