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Aga Popęda here with a literary controversy, copiously peppered with politics. We happen to have a prolific local writer in the area, Pacific Grove-headquartered Brad Herzog, who along with his wife, illustrator Amy Herzog, is responsible for a few dozen book projects, among them a series with a children's publishing outlet Sleeping Bear Press in Michigan. Sounds innocent enough? 

Not to everyone. One of Herzog’s many children's alphabet books, W is for Welcome: A Celebration of America's Diversity, went too far for Rep. Matt Krause, R-Texas, who is also a candidate for Texas attorney general and apparently sees something sinister behind a cuddly, sleeping bear. In October, Krause made a 16-page-long list of 850 books that he wants to remove from school libraries in Texas because they make students uneasy. In his own words, these are books that "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."

Books that make students uneasy, in Krause’s view, are books about: race, gender and other examples of social diversity, which must have been a keyword when Krause, or rather his staff in Austin, was compiling the list of troubling books. Among the titles are: Amnesty International’s We Are All Born Free: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Pictures, Pink is a Girl Color…and Other Silly Things People Say by Stacy and Erik Drageset or How Prevalent Is Racism in Society? by Peggy J. Parks.

“Well, I'm eminently proud of this,” Herzog says, but not without a tone of disbelief in his voice that his “rhyming alphabet picture book from a few years ago” was deemed so dangerous and unsuitable for children. “It’s clear that the guy [Krause] didn’t read 99.9 percent of the books on the list. I guess he Googled some phrases like ‘immigrants’ and ‘gender identity,’” Herzog says. He has not noticed an increase, nor a drop, in sales of Welcome so far.

While he mostly sticks to travel, baseball and children themes, Herzog’s doesn’t shy away from politics. And this is not the first time he has courted controversy. In 2016, he published D is for Dump Trump: An Anti-Hate Alphabet, a self-proclaimed “picture book for adults about a man-child” with 26 poems and 20 cartoons. 

And Herzog is pretty open about his vision of America—inclusive, welcoming and affirmative of many ways of being American: Christian, heteronormative with blonde hair and blue eyes (like Krause and his family), but also Muslim, gay, with an afro and contact lenses in all the shades of the rainbow. W is for Welcome: A Celebration of America's Diversity is clearly introducing many colors to the picture, making an impression that America could be for everyone.

When it comes to Krause’s list, Herzog’s book cannot complain about bad company. Among the various books for kids, the list includes classics like John Irving’s The Cider House Rules because, well, the main character turns out to be an abortion provider. There's William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner, the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winner, and two books by Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose Between the World and Me: Notes on the First 150 Years in America was perhaps one of the most acclaimed books of the decade.

Krause sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency and superintendents of school districts around the state, asking each official to confirm whether their schools possess any books on his list, along with a detailed accounting of where they are and how much money was spent on them. While school districts in Austin and Dallas refused to comply, the North East Independent School District in San Antonio is complying and already found 414 of those titles in its schools. Most will remain on the shelves, NPR reported on Wednesday, Dec. 8, but some future review might take place.

Speaking of the history of banned books in the U.S., and some examples that we have a special fondness for here in Monterey: Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) was banned until the early 1960s, seized by U.S. Customs for sexually explicit content and vulgarity. And John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) was temporarily banned in California. Now both are part of literary canon. In other words—everybody chill. 

The full "book ban" list is here. Read away. Perhaps you will find a holiday gift for someone special and not averse to diversity. As Soviet-born American writer Isaac Asimov once stated: “Any book worth banning is worth reading.”

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