Authors Share the Emotions, Impact When Their Books Are Banned

Authors Jerry Craft, Grace Lin, and others discuss the personal and professional impact of having parents call to remove their books from schools and libraries.

 
Shock. Sadness. Anger. Resolve. When an author’s book is challenged, they can go through many emotions.
Book challenges are not new, of course. But a nationwide, coordinated effort by organizations that assemble talking points for targeting books on diversity and inclusion lists in classrooms and libraries has meant a particularly difficult time for children’s publishing. With an “astronomical” increase in challenges this year compared to last—according to Kristin Pekoll of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom—and more media attention on authors, they find themselves and their stories in the middle of a culture war.
In October, a school district in Texas pulled Jerry Craft’s Newbery-winning New Kid, along with its sequel, Class Act, from the shelves and canceled his scheduled author visit.
“I was shocked,” Craft says. “Ever since New Kid and Class Act have been published, I have received nothing but love, both from a critical standpoint and in terms of feedback from fans. My books are available in a dozen languages, and my characters are on T-shirts, jigsaw puzzles, and sketchbooksand I believe all that helps kids feel seen. I have always thought of my books as being fun, with strong family values and a lot of humor. This was all unexpected to me.”
Grace Lin knows the feeling. When she learned that her book A Big Mooncake for Little Star was on a long list of “objectionable materials” being removed by the Central York (PA) School District board of education, her initial response was shock.
“Out of all my books, A Big Mooncake for Little Star was not one I feared this happening to. If you know the book, you know that there is very little controversial about it. A Big Mooncake for Little Star simply tells a sweet story about a mother, a daughter, and the phases of the moon. The only political statement it makes is that an Asian child can be a main character in a book.”

It's personal

Some authors declare attempts to ban their books a “badge of honor” and note the rise in book sales thanks to the attention and attempts to ban their titles. But during a Banned Books Week Twitter chat, Alex Gino talked about the emotional toll of having people object.
“As a trans person writing about another trans person, when Melissa's Story [formerly published as George, soon to be reissued as Melissa] is challenged, someone is saying that my existence is too scary, too deviant, too monstrous, to show to children," they wrote. "It hurts."
There is a personal impact on authors in these efforts that have intensified in recent months, with a focus on titles by and about Black, brown, AAPI, and LGBTQ+ communities. The objections are not to wizardry or swear words, but to authors' own stories and stories of their families and cultures. It is personal.
As she pushed through the shock, Lin came to an upsetting realization.
“I slowly realized that it really was because a child of color was a main character that they were attempting to ban it,” says Lin. “And that made me heartbroken as well as angry. To believe that the existence of a BIPOC hero in a book is grounds for banning is flabbergasting. I know the rhetoric has tried to disguise that truth with dog whistles of [Critical Race Theory] and reverse racism, but the fact remains that A Big Mooncake for Little Star was banned simply because Little Star was not white. It’s a maddening response, considering how hard the Asian American population has tried to combat the Anti-Asian hate this past year. We keep working so hard to show that we are not perpetual foreigners; we are a part of the contemporary, mainstream society, and this was a splash of very cold water reminding us that there are many who do not want to believe that. I know that all of this is even worse for Black, brown and LQBTQ groups.”
Author and actor Chris Colfer was the recipient of the 2021 National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) Free Speech Defender Award. In his speech during the virtual ceremony, he remembered those who told him years ago when he began writing The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell that the world wasn’t ready for an openly gay man to write books, that parents weren’t ready for their kids to read them.
But, he said, publication of his book showed readers were ready. His first book and each of the 17 since were not only accepted, but became fast favorites and bestsellers despite a push from those he was once warned about.
“Yes, there have been successful and unsuccessful attempts to keep my books out of certain areas because of who and what I am,” Colfer said. “Yes, there have been slurs and political propaganda graffitied in my books because of the diversity and inclusion I write about.”
The support of his readers, the NCAC, and others have kept Colfer’s books in libraries, classrooms, and bookstores, “and [put] into the hands of the kids who may need them the most,” says Colfer.
“[It's] because of people and organizations like [NCAC] that people like me get to be writers in the first place, and kids like me don’t have to go through life feeling alone.”

For the kids

Graphic novelist Jarrett J. Krosoczka wrote about those kids who can feel alone too. And after his book, Hey Kiddo, was challenged by parents in Iowa in November for “excessive vulgarity” he wrote a letter to the editor of the Des Moines (IA) Register.  In the letter, he wrote about the unpredictability, loneliness, and impact on mental health of growing up with a parent with an addiction. In his letter, he cited recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics of drug overdoses in Iowa.

“I wrote Hey, Kiddo both for the young adults living through family addiction to feel less alone and for their classmates with more traditionally idyllic realities to grow empathy,” Krosoczka wrote.
“There is an oft-used expression, ‘Books save lives.’ It might sound trite, but it is absolutely true. According to the CDC, among the means to prevent teen suicide is to provide access to social-emotional learning and to create a feeling of connectedness. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have put Hey, Kiddo out into the world, and that the book has had a positive impact on readers. They reach out to me directly to thank me for representing this experience and drawing attention to what it’s like to be the child of a parent with addictions.”
Craft, too, thought of the kids like him as he processed the situation surrounding his books in Texas.
“Over the past few years, I’ve received emails from teachers, parents, and kids all over the world telling me that they related to the characters in New Kid,” says Craft. “It’s a classic fish-out-of-water story, which most people can identify with. At some point, everyone is the “New Kid.” Even as an adult on your first day at a new job or moving to a new neighborhood….You always go back to that first-day-of-school feeling.”
He also thought about all of the kids he had been told about who previously hated to read, only to read his books again and again.
In Craft’s case, the outpouring of support drowned out the small group of parents who opposed the book.
“It felt like a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life,” says Craft, who ended up having a rescheduled virtual visit with the schools in the district.
“It was fantastic. I got so much great feedback from parents whose kids either couldn’t stop talking about the visit, rushed home to write their own stories, or spent the rest of the day drawing pictures. I did feel a bit sad that the kids whose parents chose to ‘opt out’ of the visit missed out.”
Meanwhile, Lin admits to being discouraged by the current situation.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I was starting to believe we are finally making progress for a more equitable publishing landscape,” she says. “All of this was kind of a reminder that disinterest and dismissal are not the only things we combat; we have to fight active, obvious discrimination.”

An opportunity

While she is disheartened, Lin finds reason for hope by seeing this moment as an opportunity to change the way teachers, librarians, and the publishing industry categorize and use books. A Big Mooncake for Little Star was targeted as part of a “diversity and inclusion” booklist, and Lin thinks this could be a good time to stop making those list and “truly integrate” diverse books into curriculum.

“If teachers, educators, publishers—and authors—are truly passionate about diverse literature, we’re going to have to find a way to flood our kids with it everyday, not just when we want to expose students to a bit of diversity,” she says. “Maybe this is the time where we look at our diverse books and figure out that A Big Mooncake for Little Star can be used in the folktale unit, the moon/science unit, the math/fractions unit.”
In the meantime, she, Colfer, Craft, Krosoczka, and their peers vow to keep writing their stories for the readers who need mirrors, and those who need windows, as well.
“It won’t change what I do,” says Craft. “I am working on the third New Kid book, and will not alter a thing, because I have seen the positive impact that my books have had on kids as well as adults.”
He recently received an email from a teacher in Brazil who said that reading and discussing New Kid had a huge impact on her students. One kid said the experience will make him a better person because he learned to look at the world from someone else’s perspective.
“I have had the most sincere conversations with teachers and librarians taking a look at how they have treated kids of color in the past, and telling me that the books opened their eyes,” says Craft.
Wrote Krosoczka, “I, along with my colleagues, write for the teenagers we once were. And we defend a students’ right to read because we know these books would have made our lives that much easier growing up.”
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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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