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Highland Park Teens Speak Up For Their Books

Highland Park High sophomore Avery Davis, wearing an orange ribbon in support of her books

The required reading at Highland Park High School is still in flux. Some parents convinced administrators to remove books with adult material  -- then other parents, alumni and teachers petitioned the administration to reverse that decision.

Mostly missing from the public debate has been the voices of teenage students whose classes have been affected. As part of the KERA Yearbook project, we hear from three students about what English class has been like this fall.  

"My teacher looked like she was about to cry"

Sophomore Avery Davis was actually enjoying reading the novel The Art of Racing in Rain in her English class. Until the book was suspended.

“I got to class one day, and we had had a really big reading assignment over the weekend, and [my teacher said], ‘We can’t work on it anymore because it’s been suspended.’” Avery recalled. “Everyone got really riled up about it. And my teacher looked like she was about to cry.”

Author Garth Stein wrote the book through the eyes of a dog, Enzo. Avery’s class assignments included writing a short story narrated by something or someone without a voice.

“I love the book. It’s so lighthearted. But then there are deep things going on that are happening everywhere around us,” Avery said.

Unfortunately for Avery, the book also includes sexual themes, and some parents objected.

“I came home and I told my mom, ‘this isn’t OK,’” she said. “Luckily, my mom is a big advocate for me and said, ‘I’m not OK with this either.’”

She and her mom created ribbons for her to wear and to pass out at school, as a campaign to stop the censorship and bring the books back. 

“I was out of ribbons before the first bell rang,” Avery said.

“It was really, really cool to see the students standing up for their books that were taken away.”

KERA reached out to parents who supported the suspension of the books, but none were willing to share their perspectives for this story. 

Credit Dianna Douglas
Sophomore Ava Ryan

“When you tell high schoolers that they can’t read something…”

Avery's classmate and friend, Ava Ryan, helped her pass out ribbons to students and even teachers.

“High school is so much worse than that book. The idea that those topics are unfamiliar to kids is really ridiculous,” Ava said.

The Art of Racing in The Rain is now being reviewed by a committee of teachers, parents, administrators and students. Arguments for and against it and the other suspended books fill the Highland Park parent forums online, and recent school board meetings have been standing room only.

“Conservative values are prevalent in this community, which is fine, I mean it is Texas and it is Highland Park,” Ava said. "But the fact that it can touch our education is not acceptable."

The sophomore English classes have moved on to Cry the Beloved Country, The Time Machine, The Power of One. Ava is enjoying the discussions in English class this year -- they’ve been lively and eye-opening.   

“Generally, when you tell high schoolers that they can’t read something, it makes them want to read it,” she said.

Students will get permission slips for their parents to sign for certain books, while the community deliberates next year’s reading lists. 

"The English teachers know what they're doing"

Senior Austin Braly wrote an email to a parent’s group, calling the campaign to ban books "ignorant."

“I hope we get an educated board of parents to choose books, if we have to have one,” he said. Even a board of parents seems like an overreach to him. “I don’t think it’s necessary -- I think the English teachers know what they’re doing,” he said.

Highland Park High, in a wealthy Dallas suburb, is one of the top-rated schools in Texas by test scores and college readiness.

Austin took the Advanced Placement English exam last year, earning college credit. He now works as a teacher’s assistant for a sophomore English class.

“You read the classics, and there is plenty of stuff going on in there. I mean we just read Oedipus. You know what that’s about,” he said.

He’s spent four years reading challenging material, and hopes the students coming up behind him have the same opportunity.