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Ashley Hope Pérez’s ‘Out of Darkness’: Young Love Amid Racism, Segregation

Against the backdrop of a horrific 1937 explosion in East Texas which killed nearly 300 schoolchildren and teachers, Ashley Hope Pérez's latest novel, "Out of Darkness," stares unflinchingly at racism, classism, segregation and the people who live on the margins of society.

From this dark, bleak horizon emerges a star-crossed love story crossing color lines, between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl. The Latino experience is a recurring theme in the young author's work.

Book jacket cover, "Out of Darkness." by Ashley Hope Perez, available Sept 1., published by Carolrhoda Lab. Carolrhoda Lab (TM)

Out Sept. 1, "Out of Darkness" is generating a buzz. Early reviews have been flattering, suggesting Pérez is positioned to continue her run of success in the Young Adult genre. She is the author the acclaimed The Knife and the Butterfy and What Can't Wait, both dealing with growing up as a Latino teen amid difficult circumstances.

More than one review, however, has noted her new novel's painful subject matter. The New London School explosion, blamed on a faulty gas connection, was the deadliest school disaster in American history.

With a laugh conveying a glint of nervousness, Pérez, who teaches literature at Ohio State University, says she worries reviews about the novel's historical backdrop might scare off some.

But she told NBC News she hopes readers and teachers will "take it on," because, she said, literature can unlock different paths to the past.

"Hope can reside in a lot of places," Pérez said. "I want readers to take responsibility for finding hope even in a really dark world."

Pérez spoke with NBC about her passions for writing, reading and teaching, and why her previous work as a high school teacher in Houston still informs her work.

Image: Author Ashley Hope Perez
Author Ashley Hope Perez’s new book, “Out of Darkness,” is out September 1st. Ashley Hope Perez

NBC News: What led you to write "Out of Darkness" and why did you use the 1937 tragedy as a backdrop?

Pérez: I wanted to do something different. And I thought, what if I write a historical novel that would be compelling to my students. What's the novel they wouldn't be able to put down? I wanted to write a book that would lead them to say, "Here's an experience I can relate to, even though it takes place in the past."

When I started doing research I felt there was a big silence. It was a white school. I wished someone had taken the time to explain what this experience meant in the African American community, because there was a painful irony. African American had been excluded from the school because schools were segregated.

NBC News: What do you hope readers take away from this novel?

Pérez: I hope they are kind of hungry for stories from people on the margins of history. That's really what I was trying to do with "Out of Darkness" in the way I approached the explosion. I knew a lot of the historical details, but I was also trying to tell stories that reflect the marginal experiences by the (African American and Mexican American) characters. If readers walk away thinking about the voices that are at the margins of history and thinking about how race plays a role in people's lives, I'd be very happy with those outcomes.

NBC News: You've had success connecting with young readers. What appeals to you about the Young Adult genre?

Pérez: I really think about young readers as increasingly capable and powerful readers because I was a teacher and I know what kind of books I wanted to have to offer my students. I don't think in terms of what teens can handle. I'm just interested in telling interesting human stories about adolescence.

I'm not teaching in high school anymore. My kids are 25 to 28 now and they have families, but in my mind I still see them as they were in my (high school) classroom and I think about what they're passionate about. That always informs the work.

NBC News: Your books delve heavily into the Latino experience. What draws you to this subject?

Pérez: Even before I met my husband, (Arnulfo Pérez, also a professor at Ohio State University) I came to care deeply about Latino communities through a number of experiences: spending time with family friends growing up, volunteering in an evening ESL program, working as a Spanish literacy tutor for children in the bilingual program at Blackshear Elementary in Austin, Texas, studying and doing translation work in Mexico, and—most of all—teaching my primarily Latino students at César E. Chávez High School in Houston. Becoming a published author has expanded my audience considerably, but they are still the readers I think about the most.

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