Laurie Halse Anderson Discusses Censorship, its Frightening Impact, and the Need for Conversation

The author of Speak and SHOUT sees dangerous differences between past attempts to ban books and the current, coordinated censorship attacks.

Laurie Halse Anderson is not experiencing a "new" wave of censorship. Attempts to pull her books off of the shelves haven't lulled in more than two decades for the author of Speak, SHOUT, and other oft-challenged titles. But she is feeling this new kind of censorship. On the 10 th anniversary re-release of Speak in 2009, Anderson wrote an author’s note in the new editions that discussed the censorship attempts of that time. 

“The worlds are the same,” she says, comparing then to now. “The roots are deep and understandable because every parent I've ever known, certainly I've put myself in this category, is afraid for their children.… Back in the day when I wrote that, I thought that most parents were quite reasonable. A lot of times, back when my book would get challenged, the parent would come in and say nobody should be reading this book, it's not appropriate for school. [Then] the parent would meet with the committee, the parent would have to read the entire book. Policies were followed. ... What's happened is that those normal, I think, kind of healthy parental concerns have been manipulated to a degree that I never thought I’d see.”

In the past, the parent often withdrew their challenge, according to Anderson, but they also always had the right to say they didn’t want their child to read the book. A right, she points out, that parents still have. But they can’t make that decision for other people’s children.

“We don't have one parent go in and dictate the curriculum of algebra,” she says.

The 2023 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award winner, who has spent years thinking about how to respond to attempts to ban, sees the current trend not only as a reflection of the political situation in this country but a response to the growth of children’s literature, in particular YA, over the last decade. That growth in diverse children’s books was sparked by New York Times columns by Walter Dean Myers (Where Are All the People of Color in Children’s Books?) and his son Christopher Myers (“The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” ) on March 15, 2014, according to Anderson.

Published only months before his death, Walter Dean Myers ended his piece, “There is work to be done.” The publishing world heeded his call to action.

“That was a real kick in the pants to a lot of people. He was such an important author in our community,” says Anderson. “Then we saw the development of the great nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, and there's been a real reckoning in children's publishing. Of course, everybody wants it to go faster and do it better, but before this current wave of [censorship] got intense, we were seeing progress. We were seeing more opportunities for all kids to see themselves reflected.”

This increase in diverse and inclusive titles prompted a backlash, she says. And that backlash from adults shouting at school board meetings seems to have provided implicit permission to a troubling behavior in kids, what Anderson calls a “horrible echo of this hate-based censorship.”

“We're seeing the increase of bullying of kids whose identity groups are outside the old majority,” she says. “What we're trying to do in our world of publishing is to write great books for the most important readers in the world. Children's books that reflect everybody's experience, books that will give kids knowledge and hope and help them develop in a wonderful way because that's what literature does, right? Instead, because families are being manipulated by extremist politicians, kids are getting the message that it's OK to hate people who fit into this category or that one. That is the most damaging thing I've ever seen in my life.”

Anger and discomfort with "others" is part of what's fueling these new book banning efforts.

“As we contemplate this anti-Constitutional attack on children's and families’ freedom to read, especially in settings paid for by tax dollars where people have choices, there's a lot of people who are really angry—a lot of white people who are angry—that their kids are seeing books about people who aren't like them,” she says. “It makes them uncomfortable. But [they] really should be uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is a human condition. We use books to help us make sense of it and to learn and to grow.”

Conversation is key, she says. Not only about books, but about censorship attempts themselves, and it’s important to include everyone in the dialogue. Banned Books Week gives everyone an easy entry into those vital discussions.

“We as adults and communities, faith communities, neighborhoods, PTOs, soccer teams, whatever, we need to have conversations with our peers, the adults in the room,” she says. “Banned Books Week is a good way to open those conversations.”

Equally important, adults need to support the kids.

“We need to empower our children” and support their voices “in communities where we've seen teenagers, especially, walking out of school or creating their own book clubs, just demanding, ‘hey, this is taxpayer money, we want to read these books, we want to have conversations about this stuff,’” she says. “They're going to be voting soon. We want them to understand their role that they have to play here.”

Speak was previously challenged because it discusses sexual violence. Anderson’s other titles engage with the “harsh realities of being a teenager,” she says, and now people challenge Speak because it is “biased against male students.” Like so many other titles under fire that are being challenged, adults say the books make students uncomfortable and claim that is reason enough to remove them.

“So absurd,” Anderson says. “What's really uncomfortable is being the victim of a rape, what’s really uncomfortable is being an unequipped child who's younger than 18, who has limited experience, but no one ever talked to them about this.”

Is your son uncomfortable reading about rape? That’s good news, says Anderson. Use it as an opportunity to talk to him.

“They should be in their feelings,” she says. “It's a terrible thing to be the victim of a crime, to have your body touched and hurt and broken sometimes. So, good on you that your son is so empathetic, that your son can grow. Being a parent is hard, but sometimes you got to put on your big-girl pants and do it.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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