When St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Austin, Tex., was faced with an ultimatum—pull Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain" from its reading list or lose a $3-million donation to its building fund—school officials chose to give up the money. That decision is reverberating far beyond Austin. Writers from around the country have been so inspired by the school's actions that they've formed a group of young adult authors called AS IF! (Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom).
The issue began in December 2004, when Cary McNair, the film producer son of businessman and Houston Texans owner Robert McNair, pledged $3 million to the St. Andrew's capital campaign. The school is home to 750 students in grades 1—12, including the children of many of the city's most prominent citizens. The McNair gift took the school a long way toward its goal of raising $14.5 million for building and expansion. But in May 2005, McNair told St. Andrew's head of school Lucy Nazro that he objected to the inclusion of "Brokeback Mountain," a story about the secret love affair between two cowboys, as an optional selection on a 12th-grade reading list and asked that it be removed, Nazro told PW. [A feature film based on the story opens December 9.]
McNair, who sends two of his children to St. Andrew's, could not be reached for comment. But in an e-mail sent to a school trustee and later quoted extensively on VirtueOnline.org, a Web site billed as "the Voice of Global Orthodox Anglicanism," McNair asked, "Why would St. Andrew's School promote classroom discussion on pornographic material concerning deviant behavior?" He continued, "Support from parents and donors are given on the premise that SAS will deliver what it promises. If SAS, in its final decision and continued conduct, chooses to not follow its declared 'Mission and Values' then SAS, by its own action, has removed the McNair funds from the campaign effort, and accepted the potential risk for other support departures."
But the decision did not end up derailing building plans. "Three million dollars is a lot of money," said Nazro. "But we've managed to raise more than $3 million just since we lost the money in August. Some of it has been donations that probably would have come in anyway, but some people did step up as a show of support." Nazro said additions to the Upper School have been completed and that they hope to dedicate the new middle school in January.
Meanwhile, something else has been building. When author Lisa Yee (Millicent Min, Girl Genius) read about the St. Andrew's incident in a Texas newspaper, she posted the article on a young adult listserv. Author Jordan Sonnenblick (Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie) wrote back, offering to send signed books to St. Andrew's as a show of support. "I was thrilled to see this school standing up," he said. Within a couple of weeks, authors Brent Hartinger (Geography Club), Mark Williams (the Danger Boy series) and Sonnenblick announced the formation of AS IF! and launched its Web site at asifnews.blogspot.com. A roster of more than 40 YA authors—Chris Crutcher, David Levithan and Cynthia Kadohata among them—joined and also sent books to the school. To date, Nazro said, St. Andrew's has received more than 80 autographed titles. "They are still coming," she confirmed. "Right now we are collecting them at the Upper School and hopefully by the first of the year we will have a special display for them and will include a note about why they are there."
Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, said schools are often challenged on controversial books, but that the St. Andrew's situation may be unique. "Too often the first instinct is to avoid controversy by withdrawing the title," he said. "The idea that this school rejected a demand to pull a book and was willing to lose money over it is truly astonishing and very gratifying. I don't know of another case where money has been at issue like this."
As for that new writers' group, Sonnenblick said AS IF! will look for more ways to stand up for intellectual freedom. "Censorship has such a chilling effect on so many levels," he said. "For authors, the less edgy they feel they can be, the less kids will want to read them."