Here’s our review of this month’s featured novel, Out of Darkness. It prompted great discussion at our monthly book group. I can’t wait to hear what our online community thinks of it! Keira and I had the pleasure of meeting Hope Pérez at September’s Américas Award ceremony where she was one of the recipients of this year’s award. She’s absolutely wonderful! If you have the opportunity to hear her speak or meet her, take advantage of it! You’ll be glad you did.
Out of Darkness
Written by Ashley Hope Pérez
Published by Carolrhoda Lab, 2015
Age level: 15 and up
New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them.
“No Negroes, Mexicans, or dogs.”
They know the people who enforce them.
“They all decided they’d ride out in their sheets and pay Blue a visit.”
But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.
“More than grief, more than anger, there is a need. Someone to blame. Someone to make pay.”
Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.
Ashley Hope Pérez’s Out of Darkness is a book that is both beautiful and brutal. I’ve come to refer to these kinds of books as brutiful. The first time I started it, I put it down. I got to page 40 and thought, I can’t do this right now. I was hooked, but I also had a pretty strong feeling about where it was going, and I didn’t want to go there. Admittedly, that’s evidence of my own privilege. I get to choose when, where, and how I engage with a story such as Out of Darkness because it’s not reflective of my own life experience. It’s not a mirror for me; instead it’s more of a window, or perhaps a door.
Despite the significant number of honors and award it’s received (see the end of the post for a list), some continue to question the book’s appropriateness for high school students because it deals with racism, racial violence, and sexual abuse. I understand this. There is the idea that we must protect the innocence of our students for as long as possible. But I think we need to stop and unpack this idea of protection and childhood innocence. When we look more critically at this notion, we must address a number of questions: Who gets to remain innocent? Whom or what are we protecting when we refuse to give voice to the trauma many of our students experience? As Malinda Lo notes, “It is natural to want to protect young people from horrible truths, but all too often we forget to question whom exactly are these young people we want to protect? Typically, they’re white. Young people of color have already experienced racism; they are beyond this kind of protection.” Bringing to light the stories of those who have been silenced or marginalized can be painful, but that doesn’t mean that those stories shouldn’t be told. Too many of our students have had similar experiences, and it’s our job to create the spaces for them to process these experiences.
As the We Need Diverse Books movement continues to reiterate, we all deserve to have empowered protagonists that reflect our own realities. To not provide those for our students is to create a shame of invisibility. According to Brené Brown (2008), “Invisibility is about disconnection and powerlessness. When we don’t see ourselves reflected back in our culture, we feel reduced to something so small and insignificant that we’re easily erased from the world of important things. Both the process of being reduced and the final product of that process—invisibility—can be incredibly shaming.” As if living through racism, sexism, bullying, or sexual, emotional, and physical abuse isn’t painful enough, we add another layer of shame in erasing these experiences from the literature we use in our classrooms. For more on this topic, check out The Atlantic’s recent article How Banning Books Marginalizes Children.
Recently I’ve noticed a flurry of articles discussing the importance of teaching empathy to our students (you can read more about this here, here, here, and here). I think this is a significant part of discussing appropriate literature and the protection of our students. No one is advocating for the use of Out of Darkness in an elementary or middle school classroom. School Library Journal suggests it is for grades 9 and up. For the majority of high school students, I’d argue this could be an incredibly powerful reading, and not just for those who find themselves reflected in the characters. It’s just as important for those who don’t. If we believe empathy is an essential skill, as research continues to suggest, then we must expose our students to stories and points of view that are different from their own. There’s more I could write about here, but for the sake of time, I’ll direct you to Hope Pérez’s article “Embracing Discomfort in YA Literature.”
I’m sure we’re all familiar with iterations of the following famous quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana, 1905). Our current situation of race relations in the U.S. didn’t occur in a vacuum. There is a history of racism and white privilege that we continue to gloss over in our classroom curricula. We’ve all heard the saying “History is written by the victors.” I’m afraid that as long as we continue to read the victors’ versions, we’re going to continue to make the same mistakes. Books like Out of Darkness provide the opportunity to read another version, a narrative counter to what is often presented in mainstream literature and textbooks.
Out of Darkness is a profoundly affecting book. There is a continued state of suspense that keeps the book moving forward and will be sure to keep students engaged. While I can’t speak for young adult readers, my guess is the majority of adult readers know where the book is headed. The injustice is painful. Hope Pérez creates characters the reader truly cares about. Yes, they’re fictional, but, as Hope Pérez writes in the “Author’s Note,” the suffering these characters endure is based on similar documented events throughout the South. So, while fictional, the stories of Naomi, Wash, Beto, and Cari provide an understanding of what life was like in the South during this historical period.
They say, “Once a teacher, always a teacher.” While not in the classroom now, I continue to evaluate books based on what they could accomplish in a classroom setting. What can be taught through the book? What discussions can be broached? What can students learn through the book? How might we be changed through the process of reading the book? The discussion above has touched on a number of issues Out of Darkness addresses, but there are a few more that I’d like to mention. Racism and abuse are explicit themes throughout the book, but there is also a critique of sexism and gender norms that is perhaps more implicit. Henry (the father/stepfather) represents a more stereotypical social norm of masculinity. He’s a “man’s man”—he hunts, he works, and he expects to be unquestionably waited on and obeyed by the women in his home. He’s also one of the most unstable and mentally unhealthy characters in the book. He attempts to force Beto into taking on this same type of masculinity. But Beto resists. Beto doesn’t conform to this social norm, and that may be part of why he survives, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The book also provides an engaging context for teaching about fiction and non-fiction and the ways in which those boundaries can be blurred through historical fiction. Hope Pérez’s “Author’s Note” is useful here, particularly in discussing why one may choose to write a fictional account of an historical event and how this could be a more effective way to teach about a period in history.
If your students have read or will read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Out of Darkness provides the opportunity for an interesting comparative study as both are tragedies about star-crossed lovers. “The Gang” is an interesting character in Out of Darkness. As both Shakespeare and many of the Greek dramatists use a Chorus, students familiar with either of these could do a comparative study on the role of these group characters. “The Gang” in Out of Darkness provides a segue to critically discuss groupthink and its role in bullying.
The list of awards, honors, and starred reviews for Hope Pérez’s most recent novel continues to grow. Out of Darkness has received the Michael L. Printz Honor for Excellence in Young Adult Literature (2016), the Tomás Rivera Book Award (2016), and the Américas Award (2016). It was also listed as a School Library Journal Best Book of 2015, a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2015, a 2016 Top Ten TAYSHAS selection, and a Spirit of Texas book. It received starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal and was praised in the New York Times Sunday Book Review.
For more information on the author, read Alice’s recent post all about Ashley Hope Pérez.
If you’ve had the chance to read Out of Darkness, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Just leave a comment below.
If you’re an educator, our Educator’s Guide Page has resources for using the book in the classroom. The Américas Award is currently creating a guide to accompany the book and we will update our page as soon as it’s available.
Until next week,
Based on various conversations we’ve had about the book and its use in the classroom, we thought we’d provide both background on why we believe it’s so important that books that deal with topics such as those discussed in Out of Darkness be used in the classroom, and resources that can be used to support teachers and students who read the book.
A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who had worked at the local Rape Crisis Center. During this conversation I was made aware of some shocking and gut wrenching statistics on sexual abuse in New Mexico (NM).
Statistics compiled from Sex Crimes Trends in New Mexico: An Analysis of Data from The New Mexico Interpersonal Violence Data Central Repository 2010-2014, and New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey (YRRS) High School Survey Results Bernalillo County Grades 9-12, 2015
Out of Darkness deals with the issue of sexual abuse, and many have questioned whether or not it is appropriate to use in schools because of this. When I look at the statistics above, it seems very clear to me how important it is that we use books like Out of Darkness in our classrooms. Given the high probability that we will have students in our classes who are or have been victims of sexual abuse, we must provide the spaces that allow them to process these experiences and seek any help or support that they may need.
Obviously, no educator should introduce a book like Out of Darkness without significant forethought and planning. After speaking with a colleague who has experience in offering classroom outreach and training on sexual assault and related issues, we have a few recommendations for ways that educators could prepare for teaching this book:
First, we would suggest that the educator contact the school’s social worker or counselor and let them know that she/he will be using the book in the classroom, and that it deals with issues of sexual violence and abuse.
Second, for our NM teachers, we suggest contacting the Rape Crisis Center. They have staff trained to come into high school classrooms and do presentations on these topics. Teachers using literature dealing with themes of sexual abuse regularly arrange these presentations so that students have a context from which to understand the topics they are reading and discussing. During these presentations, the Rape Crisis Center staff can also speak to students about the services in the community available for survivors of sexual violence. If you are not a local NM teacher, we would suggest seeking out your local resource center(s) before implementing the book in the classroom.
Third, we suggest viewing the documentary Audrie & Daisy. The film is an urgent real-life drama that examines the ripple effects on families, friends, schools and communities when two underage young women find that sexual assault crimes against them have been caught on camera. It takes a hard look at American teenagers who are coming of age in this new world of social media bullying, spun wildly out of control. It is currently (as of October 2016) available to stream on Netflix.
Fourth, have an alternate reading available. Our colleague from the Rape Crisis Center pointed out that when someone has had their power taken away from them through sexual violence, it is very, very important for there to be options in how they want to heal from that experience. For some survivors, reading a book like Out of Darkness will be empowering. For others, it may trigger PTSD, in which case it is of great importance that they have an alternative option.