Debate over Black author's book in Texas highlights concerns over critical race theory claims

·6 min read

When Omerly Sanchez’s son heard his Texas school district was removing an award-winning children's book from its shelves and scrapping the virtual appearance by its author, Jerry Craft, pending a review, he was shocked. The 10-year-old just couldn’t understand.

Reading “New Kid” was “the most exciting thing of my life,” the fourth grader told NBC News. “It was the best book I’ve ever read.”

He said he could relate to Craft’s graphic novel because he was bullied in school last year because of his race.

So its removal last week amid claims from parents that it espouses critical race theory was puzzling.

Although the book has since returned to the shelves of the Katy Independent School District's libraries, the debate over a book Sanchez, her son and others believe should never have been so divisive in the first place highlighted fears that similar scenes are going to play out over and over again this year.

"This is going to be a constant battle," said Sanchez, who asked that her son's name not be used for fear of reprisal given the sensitive nature of the issue. "This is not the first, and it won't be the last. I think any other topic like this, they're going to continue to raise it as critical race theory."

Critical race theory is a legal framework to examine how racism is embedded in laws and institutions, but conservative activists have co-opted the term to describe discussions of race and gender they believe are too progressive.

Books and curricula in school districts nationwide have been falsely branded as teaching critical race theory as part of a broader movement led by parents opposed to lessons on racism, history and LGBTQ issues.

Craft’s books tell stories about Black children struggling to fit in to unfamiliar settings.

"New Kid," a Newbery Medal-winning graphic novel, is about a seventh grader at a prestigious private school where he is one of the few students of color. Sanchez's son, who is biracial — half Latino and half Black — said parents who have a problem with the book should just tell their children not to check it out or read it, instead of forcing the district to say “that nobody should be reading this book, or just letting it not be checked out.”

Some who have read the book say it was innocuous and even helpful.

Angie Waller, a mother of four children who are biracial and whose 16-year-old is enrolled in a school in Katy ISD, said the book is “a great opportunity for kids to learn about what happens when you are different from everybody else.”

“I think that this book is a great teaching moment,” she said. "Yes, it's uncomfortable to read if you've not experienced it, if you've not lived it, if you've not seen it. It is uncomfortable to read, but it happens.”

Katy ISD said in a statement to NBC News on Thursday that its review committee had met earlier this week, and "New Kid" was back on library shelves and the virtual author visit with Craft was rescheduled for later this month.

Waller said she believes such complaints like the one that led to the book's review will happen more and more in school districts.

“They are trying to change what the kids learn in history. They want to sugarcoat it,” she said. “It makes me fear for our country, if we continue to go down this road of hiding the truth from them.”

Waller said she has been having conversations with family and friends about how some people don’t want to be made to feel uncomfortable by books like “New Kid” or other works that challenge their perspective or worldview and give them insight into the life experience of others.

“So many people don't want to make that change. And it isn’t even critical race theory, but they want to get rid of the truth, because we can't let kids know that other children have different experiences than they do,” she said.

Jill Allred, a child advocate and mother who currently has a child in kindergarten in the district, said the whole incident stirred up controversy and was divisive within the community, though only a small group of parents complained about the book.

Bonnie Anderson, a parent who is white, started an online petition to have Craft's appearance canceled. The petition has since been deleted.

"It is inappropriate instructional material," Anderson said. "The books don't come out and say we want white children to feel like oppressors, but that is absolutely what they will do."

Anderson claimed the book promoted critical race theory as well as Marxism. The petition gained a few hundred signatures in a district of more than 80,000 students.

A school district spokeswoman previously said Craft's book was temporarily removed while the district conducted a review within 15 days, and his virtual appearance was postponed.

"Katy ISD library books are routinely reviewed through this process and the District encourages parents to do so," the representative said in a statement. "The event was not canceled; it was postponed. To date, the District has received only one formal challenge and followed the Board policy concerning such requests."

On Thursday, the district said in its statement that its review committee had met earlier this week and "determined the appropriateness" of the book.

“The reading material is already back on District library shelves and the virtual author visit is scheduled to take place on October 25 as part of the instructional day,” the district said in its statement.

Craft did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday on the decision to reinstate his book or reschedule his appearance.

Allred said she believes the district and others like it should amend their policies so more parents have to formally complain and justify their grounds for having a book reviewed before it is subject to review and temporary removal. While she and other parents are happy the book has been reinstated, she believes “New Kid” should never have been removed in the first place.

“There were lots of people who did like the books, lots of people who then went out to buy the books and said, 'Well, I want my kids to have this book,'” she said. “So you're fighting back against that kind of ideology.”

Sanchez’s son said he was so happy to have a copy of “New Kid” that he even brought it up to a friend and let him borrow the book for a day.

“I talked to one of my friends. He's very happy that I let him borrow the book, so he could read it,” the boy said. “He really likes the plot of the story, so I'm happy that you get to check it out from the shelves now.”

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